Neurological Foundation - Chair of Neurosurgery

Striding out on road to recovery

May 2012

On his 21st birthday, recovering spinal injury patient Austen Haig will run the Moro Half Marathon in Dunedin.

In April last year, the second-year University of Otago student faced the possibility of life in a wheelchair, after a serious rugby accident, and was given a 20% to 30% chance of walking again.

Now, he is to run the September 9 half-marathon with his physiotherapist Mark Shirley, raising money for the Chair in Neurosurgery campaign.

Mr Haig said he would reschedule his 21st birthday celebrations to the following weekend after realising during an interview with the Otago Daily Times yesterday that the events clashed. He batted away a good-natured suggestion from Mr Shirley that an alcohol-free party could be held the night before the race.

The toughest part of his rehabilitation was keeping a positive attitude. Helping his good spirits was the knowledge it helped his family cope, too, he said.

The accounting and pharmacology student said watching his old rugby team, the Taieri Colts, play from the sidelines could be frustrating.

His new role as team manager helped him contribute.

Preparing for the start of the rugby season had been difficult, as he had not regained the fine motor skills or ability to twist and turn on his feet necessary for the sport.

As a substitute for high-level rugby, Mr Shirley suggested the half-marathon.

Mr Haig's aim was to run it in one hour and 50 minutes.

He is making good progress, having recently run 10km in 51 minutes, surprising Mr Shirley, whose time he bettered by six minutes.

Mr Haig injured his spine while playing hooker for the Taieri Colts at Peter Johnstone Park on April 16 last year.

"I threw the ball in at a lineout and our No 2 jumper dropped it.

"I picked it up and ran down the sideline. I got tackled and when the forwards drove over me, I somehow got flipped over and landed on my head," he told the ODT last August.

He was taken to Dunedin Hospital where it was found he had dislocated his C6 vertebrae and his spinal cord had been crushed. Using weights on a halo brace, the vertebrae was put back in place.

He was flown to Christchurch Hospital, where clinicians fused his C5 and C6 vertebrae.

Mr Shirley said it was vital local expertise was kept in Dunedin to allow prompt treatment for time-sensitive injuries, such as Mr Haig's.

The Dunedin orthopaedic surgeon who carried out the vital first procedure was Simon McMahon, the son of Dr Brian McMahon, who is spearheading the neurosurgery campaign, as chairman of the committee.

The campaign, which aims to raise $3 million to pay for a full complement of three neurosurgeons in Dunedin, had reached $2.22 million yesterday.

Mr Haig is repeating his second year of study, switching from chemistry to pharmacology.

To contribute to Mr Haig's fundraising visit: and click on "full profile" to donate to Austen's challange.