Demetri Catrakilis only played for 13 minutes in Harlequins defeat by Newcastle last Saturday, but it was an incredible achievement for a player whose last appearance at the Twickenham Stoop saw him fighting for his life. Catrakilis was taken from the pitch on a stretcher, with an oxygen mask on his face as he fought against the swelling that was constricting his throat and making breathing increasingly difficult.
The outside half, who had joined the club from Montpellier in the summer, was accidentally struck in the throat by the shoulder of Gloucester ‘s Andy Symons on September 9 and the ramifications of that collision could never have been envisaged. Catrakilis could not breath and needed oxygen and feared for his life during the 30 minutes ambulance ride to hospital where he received injections that relaxed his throat.
However, the internal damage caused by the blow not only threatened to end his playing career, it left him unable to speak for a week. Catrakilis still sees a speech therapist every week as he continues to battle to regain his normal vocal strength.
In the midst of his incredible fight to save his rugby career, the 28-year-old returned to his native South Africa before Christmas to marry Nicolette in Cape Town and had made enough of a recovery to be able to deliver his groom’s speech, although he admits it sounded more like a homage to Marlon Brando in the Godfather! “ I think it added something to the speech;” said Catrakilis whose is preparing for Quins difficult match at home to Bath in the Premiership on Friday night.
To date, he has yet to complete a full game for his new club, having started as a replacement against London Irish in the opening fixture of the season and then was injured in the 13th minute against Gloucester and after the Newcastle game he has now clocked up 46 minutes as a Quins player. However, given what he has been through, Catrakilis is just delighted to be back on the pitch although he admits there were psychological hurdles to clear after he was finally given the all clear to play after nearly six months out of the sport he loves.
Catrakilis said: “ I have received incredible support from my wife, family and everyone at the club. When I was injured I tried to find anyone who had suffered similar injury and couldn’t find anything. Even World renowned doctors who deal with thousands of throats had never seen anything like it. I needed specialist help and had three doctors; one doing the operation, one dealing with the airway and another my speech and worked with them every week.
“It wasn’t certain that I would be able to come back and play again and once they worked out why the throat had swollen up so much and made it so difficult to breathe and speak then it was a question of would I, in the future, be able to breath well enough and speak to play sport. A piece of cartilage was cleared away and then the throat naturally healed and I can breath well enough to run around and my voice is getting better. I still work with a speech therapist having not been able to say much for a week after the injury.
“My voice remained very low for three months and just like singers, it is about getting the voice to be stronger. To get back to playing you have to overcome quite a few negative thoughts and injuries can happen to any part of your body. This has changed my perception of life because there was a stage when I didn’t know if I was going to survive and it was very difficult to breathe for two hours after the injury. I had to hold on until I got to hospital.”
Having made it back Catrakilis wants to help Quins out of their current problems which have seen them drop to ninth in the Premiership. “ Playing is so special and now it is about getting the club up the table because we are not fulfilling our potential;” he added.