INSPIRATION: Ade Adebisi in action
PROFESSIONAL RUGBY league is widely acknowledged as one of the toughest team sports in the world. It’s hard on players in peak physical condition but for someone with a potentially life-threatening blood disorder it would appear to be completely out of the question.
Try telling that to London Skolars wing Ade Adebisi. The 26-year-old Londoner suffers from sickle cell disease, a genetic blood disorder that can cause bouts of chronic pain which often lands the sufferer in hospital.
Youngsters with the disease were advised to avoid any kind of physical exertion and often their education suffered because of absences from school which led to poor career prospects. But Ade has turned all that thinking on its head by not only playing rugby league at the highest level but also forging a career for himself outside the game.
His rugby league career has involved Super League clubs Hull FC and London Broncos plus semi-professional outfits Doncaster, Featherstone Rovers and Whitehaven. For the past two years Ade has been back at the London Skolars, the Championship club in north London where it all began for him.
A winger with speed and strength, he’s scored tries wherever he’s been but often at a cost. On one occasion, after a length-of-the-field effort, he just couldn’t get up after scoring and during a spell with Cumbrian club Whitehaven, Ade collapsed after the first training session. He spent the next seven days in hospital but within 24 hours of coming out played against Gateshead and scored a try.
However, going into the local hospital in Cumbria was a little unnerving because they didn’t know much about sickle cell disease. Luckily, the Head of Haematology rang Ade’s doctor, Dr Jo Howard, at St Thomas’s Hospital London. Dr Howard is a Consultant Haematologist whose specialist area is sickle cell disease and has always encouraged Ade to pursue his sport.
As a semi-professional with the Skolars, Ade now holds down a full time job as a support manager with Wilson James, a specialist aviation services, construction logistics and security company
Ade recently contacted the Sickle Cell Society, a charity that helps people living with the disease. The Society was delighted to find someone with the condition playing such a physically demanding sport. Kalpna Patel, Fundraising Manager for the Society, said: “I’m really impressed that Ade is playing such a tough sport at such a high level.
"It’s very difficult to manage sickle cell disease on a daily basis but to manage a job and also a career in professional rugby is outstanding. He should be really proud of himself, and is an excellent role model for others living with sickle cell disease.”
Sickle cell disease is the most common genetic blood disorder in the UK, 240,000 are carrying the gene and roughly 14,500 actually have the condition. In England, one in every 1,900 births is a child born with sickle cell disease. One in every 70 births of all babies will carry the relevant gene. One in seven Black African, one in eight Black Caribbean and one in every 450 White British new-borns carries a sickle cell gene.
A sickle cell attack, known as a “crisis”, can occur at any time and cause excruciating pain in any part of the body. The cure for sickle cell is bone marrow transplant but this is not universal and you need to have a suitable donor. Sickle Cell is therefore managed with medication and this can include strong opiates.
“Normal blood cells are round, “explains Kalpna,” but when you go into a crisis it turns into a crescent shape and that stops your oxygen from flowing through your body. The pain can happen anytime anywhere and be in your arms, legs, back or chest. It can last hours, or days or even weeks.”
Ade has always had the condition but it didn’t really manifest itself until it started affecting him playing sport at school. “I had my first incident playing five a side football. I kicked the ball really hard and it began to hurt. I didn’t know what it was but it was constant pain. I went to hospital and was there for two days.”
Born and brought up in east London he attended Forest Gate Community School where the sports were football and athletics. A talented footballer he knew little of rugby until a PE teacher from Bradford, Andy Hurst, suggested he try rugby league at his old club, the London Skolars.
He got his first taste of the sport at 15 and was hooked. “It was a shock but it’s a great sport and I just took to it, I love it.” In fact, he was so besotted by it that when he was offered a trial with Tottenham he opted to represent the South at rugby league instead.
He was soon spotted by the London Broncos and played for them at under-16s and under-17s level. Because the Broncos didn’t have an under-21s side he, along with other rising young stars Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Mike Worrincy and Ian Lane, spent a season at Hull FC.
Being at Super League clubs meant training went up several notches in intensity as he got older. It’s tough for any young athlete let alone one with sickle cell disease but Ade was determined not to let it affect his career. In fact he believes that rugby league has helped him to cope with the condition.
“I had never done anything as intense as when I started playing rugby league,” he said. “Rugby league is all about being mentally strong as well as physically strong and that has undoubtedly helped me to deal with the condition.
“I’ve found there are trigger points. Sometimes when I’ve played rugby and it’s been a very, very intense game I’ve got to a point I’ve never reached before and that triggers it.
“No one in rugby league has ever treated me differently. You get some coaches who don’t know anything about it and just think you’re being lazy but others who do and work around it.”
Early in his career Phil Jones, head of youth performance at the Broncos, became something of a father figure and John Kear, the coach when he was at Hull, did understand the condition. But as Ade began training with first team players and internationals, he found it tough.
“We’d be running for three hours and physically I just couldn’t do it, I simply can’t carry the amount of oxygen a normal person can,” he said.
Kalpna explains: “A normal person would take one deep breath but a person with sickle cell disease would have to take two deep breaths to take in the same amount of oxygen. You have to drink lots and lots of water to stay hydrated. For a normal person the recommended amount is two litres but for someone with sickle cell disease it would be twice the amount. Obviously doing physical activity makes it worse and rugby is a tough sport.
“Years ago people with sickle cell disease would be told they couldn’t play sport and youngsters told they couldn’t go out and play. Now we say ‘go out, live your life but learn about your condition, learn to manage it and know your limits.’
Ade can relate to that because his Mum used to stop him from doing what he wanted to do when he was young. So what did she think when he took up Rugby League? “She didn’t know I was playing professional rugby for two years. Me, my uncle and everyone kept it from her because she was scared!” In fact when he was at the Broncos he used to tell her that they were a football team!
Kalpna says; “It’s natural for parents to want to protect a child with sickle cell disease. On a daily basis, children with sickle cell disease face many challenges living with their condition. They spend a lot of time in and out of hospital, which means they miss a lot of school, they can have a limited number of friends and as a result can become quite isolated.”
Ade was determined to succeed and as an 18-year-old he made his Super League debut for the Broncos in the last game of the 2004 season against Leeds Rhinos at Headingley. Finding first team rugby hard to come by in the ensuing seasons at the club he opted to drop down a division and sign for Doncaster, who were assembling a full time squad with a view to securing a place in Super League.
Doncaster got into financial difficulties and went into administration so after seven appearances, in which he scored five tries, Ade found himself without a club. Stress can produce a ‘sickle cell crises’ but luckily he was picked up by Featherstone Rovers and played the rest of the season with them.
The following year, 2008, he moved up to Whitehaven and had one of his best seasons, scoring 22 tries in 30 appearances and becoming the league’s top try scorer. The next season he picked up a few injuries but still managed 10 touchdowns in 19 appearances before deciding to come back to London to join his old club, the Skolars. He has proved a prolific try scorer for them over the last three seasons despite his condition.
The Rugby Football League’s very tough drug-testing policy doesn’t make life easy for someone like Ade. On a daily basis Ade has to complete a special form to indicate all the medications taken.
“I take morphine on regular basis, in fact all the painkillers I’m taking are banned by the RFL, I have to have a special form and I’m expected to write every single thing down on a daily basis but sometimes I forget.”
Ade says it’s hard to describe the pain, “It is10 times worse than toothache” he suggests, while Kalpna adds; “It’s like an axe constantly cutting into you”. Because the pain is so severe the only way you can control it is by taking regular pain killers like morphine. There’s no way you can go without some form of pain relief for a few days or hours because the pain is so excruciating”.
Ade acknowledges that he’s been fortunate to have had great support throughout his career which has made enormous difference to his life. While at Whitehaven he met Steve Morgan, a director for BNL at Sellafield.
Ade says that Steve was like a father to him, helping him and giving invaluable advice including telling him to think of a career outside of rugby.
When Morgan became a director of BAA he kept in touch and when Ade moved back down to London, he introduced him to Mark Dobson, owner of Wilson James where he now works.
“Having sickle cell disease, its tough trying to find a career,” admitted Ade. “Sometimes, when you have to be in meetings etc. you may be in hospital but Wilson James gave me a chance. They have supported me in every aspect of my life. They even sponsor the Skolars, which they do to support me. Anything I try and do in life Mark supports me.”
Ade is very, very lucky to have so much help and support in his career, according to Kalpna, “There are so many children and adults who don’t get the support they need. Without the right education, treatment and support they will have less chance of survival”.
“There’s a lot of stigma around families, particularly among men, because of lack of knowledge about the condition. They can be isolated and avoid going to hospitals because sometimes people think they’re on drugs and come in because they have a habit. It’s just that they are in so much pain and need strong pain killers. Because they often don’t get treated properly in hospitals they stay at home and try and manage it, which can be dangerous if they’re self-medicating.”
Ade’s brother and two sisters both have sickle cell disease and by joining the Society he hopes he can help people with the disease, by raising awareness and fundraising. “I want to do everything in my power to help the Society,” he says. “I want to speak to as many people as possible, to get children and parents to understand the condition” he said.
“I’m not saying, ‘do what I’ve done’, because what’s happened to me is exceptional, I had this mental toughness at an early age because of rugby league. But sickle cell disease shouldn’t stop people going out, going for walks, and running, going to the gym or trying to get into a team. In the past people have treated it as a bad thing, but you just have to be sensible and manage it. I’m proud to say I’ve played rugby professionally and I’m still doing it”.
For further information or to make a donation please contact the Sickle Cell Society on 0208 961 7795, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit their website www.sicklecellsociety.org