Elite sportsman regains strength and purpose

Former Wallaby Richard Tombs barely had an injury during all his years of competitive rugby. Ironically, it was a freak accident playing soccer for Sydney’s Curl Curl Football Club that caused his spinal injury. Richard’s head collided with another player’s leg, and the whiplash that occurred left Richard a quadriplegic.

After one week in Royal North Shore Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit and four more weeks in the Spinal Injury Unit, Richard came to Royal Rehab where he stayed for 14 weeks.

“While I was still in ICU, I discovered I could move my toes slightly,” recalls Richard. “A neurosurgeon said to me, ‘You’re going to walk again’. Those words inspired me to work hard and make it true.

“The program at Royal Rehab was oriented towards my goals, the main one being to walk out of rehab. I also wanted to be independent in my self-care, return to driving, socialize, work, and get my spasms and pain under control.”

Richard had daily physiotherapy and occupational therapy, which involved limb strengthening, improving his range of motion and practicing every day movements such as using stairs, getting up from the floor, getting out of bed, getting dressed, walking and gait retraining (both in and out of the pool).

“I made progress quickly,” says Richard. “I’d be walking between parallel bars one day, and the next I’d being using crutches. A few weeks later, I walked without crutches.”

During his rehab, Richard was able to trial various equipment, including wheelchairs, mattresses, commodes and pressure cushions. Nurses helped him daily with self-care tasks, and he had regular visits from a social worker and the In-Voc team, a vocational rehabilitation support service operated by Royal Rehab. Later, an occupational therapist visited Richard to advise on appropriate modifications to his home.

“Rehab was intense but the clinicians were very professional and the care was excellent. The recreational therapy, especially recumbent cycling, was great for my progress. I’m very grateful for the In-Voc service too; going back to work isn’t top of mind when you’re in rehab, but the team was very persistent and helped me think about my future. It is thanks to them and my employer that I now work two days a week.”


“To anyone starting their rehab journey, I say ‘make the most of it’. You are only there for a short time so take advantage of what’s on offer – you’re going to need the skills and education they provide.”

Richard left Royal Rehab able to walk with assistance. His current goal is to tackle his constant muscle spasticity.

“I can reduce the effects of the spasticity by doing the exercises and skills I learnt at Royal Rehab every day.”