A referee’s journey from tetraplegia to his physical peak
By Lachlan Waugh
20-year-old Brendon Woledge was doing what he loved most when his life changed for the worst.
Playing rugby league, Mr Woledge was experiencing headaches three quarters of the way through his team’s season.
He went to a doctor, who noticed blurry visions and sent him to an optometrist, who then sent him to the hospital, where a CT scan revealed a cyst on his brain which he was born with.
He was booked in for an operation that morning, and from then on he was in hospital for six months, three weeks of which he was induced in a coma.
His spinal cord shot up into the space where the cyst was taken out, which gave Mr Woledge incomplete tetraplegia from the neck down.
He was given an 80 per cent chance of dying, and a 20 per cent chance of being permanently blind. While in a coma, the doctors said he will never walk again.
Now 46, Mr Woledge is a New Zealand Rugby League [NZRL] referee and in the best shape of his life.
But the road to recovery was not so simple.
He says that the news felt surreal when he found out, and it took him a while to comprehend what was going on.
“People call me blasé. When the guy said 80 per cent chance [of dying], I said yeah but how long will be in hospital for and he’s like 3 weeks, and I was like aw yeah sweet do the operation,” he added.
As a result of the operation, Brendon lives with a 50 cent coin-sized hole in the back of his skull, in case anything goes wrong in the future and doctors need to operate.
Although he began running the water for his teammates Brendon slowly felt more left out, and went through stages of self-pity which led to struggles with depression.
He says he started doing his own rehab in the ward.
“So for some reason I rolled out of bed, hit the floor, and I got my legs and started pulling myself around the floor. The nurses saw me doing that, so they put me back up in the wheel chair and wheeled me down to physio and said spend all your free time down there, do what you want to do.
“[From then] Even if it was only little things, like twiddling my fingers as much as I could,” he added.
The death of Mr Woledge’s best friend three years ago, whose life was dedicated to rugby league, inspired him to begin giving back to the game himself.
He took up refereeing, which became a second instinct as he had played in the past. He says the transition was smooth.
Refereeing with NZRL or at home in Wellington, Mr Woledge says the teamwork of referees and supporters on the sidelines is pleasing to watch.
He added it is great to be able to show youngsters that despite injuries, they can still involve themselves in what they love.
“Good to show youngsters even though you have injuries, you can still get back out and enjoy the game you love.”
Because of the operations, Mr Woledge’s fertility was greatly affected, forcing him and his wife to use IVF for his two children. Amongst his difficulties, his positive outlook on life has not changed.
“Make the most of your life,”