I got knocked out playing rugby ... and it saved my life

Reporter Duncan Elder talks to Instonians rugby player Curtis Barrett about how getting knocked out during a match led to doctors finding that he had a brain tumour.

Friday, 6th July 2018, 8:00 am
Updated Monday, 16th July 2018, 5:41 pm
Curtis Barrett, who underwent surgery to remove a brain tumour eight months ago, is hoping to make a return to rugby with his beloved Instonians RFC. Picture by Arthur Allison

Curtis Barrett is an inspirational young man with an incredible story to tell.

Last year the 24-year-old had the most remarkable piece of good fortune – he got knocked out during a rugby match.

While obviously that wouldn’t normally constitute good luck, the head injury Curtis sustained alerted doctors to the fact that he had a potentially life-threatening brain tumour.

The six-hour operation to remove the tumour left Curtis with a huge scar on the right side of his head.

If his cancer had gone undetected and untreated, Curtis could have suffered a massive seizure, possibly even died.

As it is, he has undergone surgery to remove the tumour and is now well on the road to recovery, even contemplating a return to the rugby pitch in the not too distant future.

Curtis, who grew up in Newtownabbey and now lives in south Belfast, told me his remarkable story following a chance meeting at City of Belfast Golf Club’s Captain’s Day last weekend.

The former Royal Belfast Academical Institution pupil explained how he was playing for his beloved Instonians RFC at Shaw’s Bridge on October 8 when a challenge from an opposition player set in motion a sequence of events that would save his life.

The tattoo on Curtis' left arm carries the date of his operation and the signature of the surgeon who performed it.

“I was playing scrum half for the Thirds against PSNI and we had a scrum on the five metre line right under their posts. The ball popped out of the scrum and I caught it and made a dive for the line,” he said.

“One of their players came in, obviously in an attempt to hold the ball up, but their knee hit me straight on the right hand side of the head.

“I was knocked out. I was dazed, but I managed to get back up and run back down the pitch, but I was taken off immediately as I was concussed.

“That week was just horrendous, going through all the club’s IRFU (Irish Rugby Football Union) concussion protocols and the assessments as I’d suffered a head injury.

Curtis Barrett at Instonians' home ground at Shaw's Bridge in Belfast, where he is hoping to return to action in the not too distant future. Picture by Arthur Allison

“Week after week I wasn’t getting better. I kept getting headaches, but I thought it was just due to the concussion.

“After about four weeks, it was November 6, I went to A&E at the Mater Hospital after work and the doctor gave me a CT scan. He was worried in case there was extra bruising and swelling around the brain where the injury was and he admitted me to the Royal (Victoria Hospital) that night.

“I got an MRI scan the next day and then I was in the dark for a while as no one could really tell me what was going on.

“On the Wednesday afternoon the neurosurgeon came down and asked me the whole story about what had happened. He said ‘This is unbelievable, we have actually found a brain tumour on your right frontal lobe’.

“He said he couldn’t believe that I hadn’t had any symptoms up until then because the tumour was actually half the size of an egg and had been there for some time, but I knew nothing about it.

“He couldn’t believe that I hadn’t had any seizures or anything.

“I’d had headaches, but I didn’t really think anything about it as everyone gets headaches.

“He (the surgeon) said to me ‘It’s a case where we need to get in and get out ASAP’. His name is Mr Tom Flannery and he was just incredible.

“He said that if I’d never got the rugby injury I could have been walking around with this tumour growing inside my head for another six or 10 years and then just had a massive seizure.”

On Monday, November 13 – just weeks after his injury on the rugby pitch – Curtis, then aged 23, underwent a six-hour operation to remove the tumour.

The pathology results showed that it was a grade two astrocytoma – a common type of primary brain tumour – but Curtis was relieved to learn that he wouldn’t require any post-op chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

“It was a cancer, but I’m very fortunate in that a lot of it wasn’t malignant,” he said.

Curtis says getting knocked out during that rugby match undoubtedly saved his life, but he knows his cancer could return at some point in the future.

“It was a blessing in disguise. If that hadn’t happened I would never have known I had a tumour,” he continued.

“With this type of tumour it’s very likely that it’s going to come back. It could be tomorrow, three months, five years, but they’ve (the medical experts) just said I should carry on with my life and do what I’m doing.”

A keen sportsman, Curtis plays rugby, golf and is planning to make a return to cricket this summer, playing for Instonians’ midweek team.

Having had a love of rugby since school, his ultimate goal is to get back playing competitively again.

Incredibly, just eight months after undergoing brain surgery, Curtis is back playing tag rugby and taking part in training sessions as he set his sights on a return for one of the Instonians senior sides some time next year.

But wisely he says he will be seeking doctors’ advice before taking part in any full contact action.

“I have actually started all the pre-season training with the new coaches, Paul Marshall (ex-Ulster) and John Andress,” he said.

“I was actually back training three weeks after my operation at my friend’s gym, Brian Cahill up at Burnfield in Newtownabbey, doing his calisthenics class. I would never miss it.

“Realistically I might not get back playing again this year, but I did find a guy on Instagram who had two brain operations in the back of his head and now he plays for this charity sevens team.

“The dream is to play for his team, the Flair Bears, which has an association with the Brainstrust (a UK-based brain tumour charity).

“I have contacted him and we are due to meet up sometime this year hopefully.”

Curtis is incredibly matter-of-fact as he recalls the dramatic events that have changed his life in recent months.

While he didn’t set out to go public with his story, by recounting what happened to him he hopes that it might be helpful for someone else trying to cope with the brain tumour diagnosis.

“If I can help anyone else to know that it’s not the end of the world and you can get through it then that would be good,” he added.

• ‘Diagnosis took its toll on my mental health’

While he was back on his feet again quickly after the operation, the realisation that he had a brain tumour – one that he’s been told by an oncologist could well return – had a damaging impact on Curtis’ mental health.

“I was back to work within two-and-a-half weeks, but to be honest my mental health deteriorated massively, just because I didn’t realise the seriousness of what I’d just went through because I was just trying to get back and hit the ground running,” he explained.

Curtis has been working for the family business, Barrett, which specialises in signage, vehicle graphics and shop fitting, since he was 17.

He said one of the worst things after the operation was being told that he wouldn’t be allowed to drive for 12 months – something he relied on for work and socialising.

Left feeling “really low”, Curtis turned to Behind The Masc – a mental health support group for young men based at Queen’s University.

He found the group “a great help”, especially being able to speak to a trained counsellor.

“The sessions are great and I would recommend them 100%,” he said.

Curtis is now feeling positive about life, but said he does have “a little dull worry” in the back of his head that the tumour could return.

“The doctors did tell me that this type of tumour is likely to come back, but I can’t really dwell on that.

“I’m doing everything I can to stay healthy. I have given up drinking, changed my diet completely, am trying to keep fit and am living a healthy lifestyle,” he added.

• Tattoo is permanent reminder of life-changing events

Curtis has a tattoo, a permanent reminder of the life-changing events of the past 10 months, on his left arm.

The black tattoo, designed by his brother and inked by an artist at Belfast City Skinworks in March this year, tells the story of his rugby injury and subsequent brain surgery. It also includes the signature of the surgeon who Curtis thanks for saving his life.

“It was such a massive thing that had happened in my life, and you can’t really just put something like that to the back of your head and think it’s nothing,” Curtis explained.

“I’d always fancied having some sort of tattoo, but a very meaningful one. I was talking to my brother one day and he’s quite the artist so he said he’d have a go at designing one for me.

“It’s the brain with the grey matter ribbon, which represents brain cancer, with the date of my operation and Mr Flannery’s signature and it’s under a set of rugby posts.

“It’s a reminder of the day of my operation, Mr Flannery who saved my life and how rugby was a massive element in finding the whole thing.”