The journey Nathan and Kate Stapleton have been on this year has been devastating, heartwarming and everything in between.
The former footy star became a quadriplegic, but nothing was going to stop him from being at the birth of his second son.
Nathan and Kate’s positivity, love for one another and unbreakable bond have seen them stare down tragedy and overcome it.
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“You don’t ever expect to find yourself in this situation but I’m just so proud of his determination and strength and just how strong he’s been for us,” Kate said.
Ex-Cronulla Sharks player Nathan ‘died’ for 16 minutes after breaking his neck playing rugby league.
“To be gone for 16 minutes and still to be here with my family and everything, I’m just so grateful because I still get to watch my boys grow up,” Nathan said.
“That was the scariest thing for me because I love, I love my boys and I love my wife and I didn’t want to miss out on that.”
Nathan and Kate Stapleton are each other’s rock.
They’ve been together for 15 years. They’ve shared half of their lives together. The husband and wife are inseparable.
“For her to still be strong and by my side, I consider myself probably one of the luckiest men alive,” Nathan said.
It’s an extraordinary comment that shows Nathan is a lot more than a former NRL star.
I have played 61 games and scored 17 tries for the Cronulla Sharks.
He’s no stranger to injury, but never made a fuss.
After retiring from professional rugby league, Nathan and Kate got married, welcomed son Harry, and were living life happily on a farm in country New South Wales.
But on April 9 this year, their lives changed forever.
Nathan was playing his first and only game for Boorowa Goldies in West Wyalong.
“It was just like a normal, typical game I was actually enjoying, having fun. I was playing with Kate’s brother which is what we’ve always wanted to do,” he said.
But in the second half, Nathan was almost killed.
“The last thing I remember from the game was Kate’s brother’s hands on my head.” Nathan said.
“That’s when I knew something… it wasn’t good.”
His neck was broken and his spinal cord was significantly injured.
“I was pronounced dead on site,” Nathan said.
“I was gone for 16 minutes. It’s hard to think about that because everyone was thinking the worst, obviously.”
Luckily off duty nurse Louise McCabe was there.
She kept Nathan alive until an ambulance arrived.
“If she wasn’t there, I wouldn’t be here to tell the story,” Nathan said.
Kate was seven months pregnant.
At the hospital, she was told to prepare for the worst.
“They advised me that it was highly likely that Nathan was going to have severe brain damage, which for me was worse than any of his neck fractures,” Kate said.
But Nathan wasn’t going anywhere without a fight.
“When I finally came out of sedation and realized what was going on, it was tough,” Nathan said.
“Early on I just thought I was in a bad dream. I woke up and I thought, ‘this isn’t happening.”
Nathan’s mind was intact – but he was paralyzed from the shoulders down.
“The doctors came around and basically said, ‘you’re not going to have any movement. You’re not going to be able to walk again,'” he said.
“It’s something that no one wants to hear, so it was like my worst nightmare had come…reality.
“And then obviously seeing Kate and seeing my family come down and everyone being so upset as well, because everything was so fresh.”
However, Kate said she was relieved, her personality remained the same.
“Even though he was so highly sedated, the fact that he could say a couple of things and he was still getting really pissed off in situations. I was like, ‘it’s still Nath’ and it was such a relief,” she said.
But Nathan was grieving his body and his former life.
He said he was faced with a decision.
“I had to make a choice. I could either sit here and feel sorry for myself and bring everyone down with me, or suck it up, accept it for what it is and focus on the things that I can do,” Nathan said.
And that included being at the birth of their second son just weeks later.
“My biggest fear, obviously, was not having Nath there,” Kate said.
So Nathan’s ICU team at Sydney’s Prince of Wales Hospital and the adjoining Royal Hospital for Women moved mountains to make that happen.
“It’s about his dignity and their whole experience as a family,” Clinical Nurse Consultant Steph Rhodes, said.
Rhodes planned the massive team effort, making sure staff and equipment would be available to get Nathan into the birth suite when Kate went into labour.
“I’ve worked in ICU for about 10 years and I’ve never even heard of this kind of thing happening and to be honest, it’s not really a situation that arises too often, it’s a pretty remarkable and pretty rare situation,” Steph said.
Photographer Alisia Mason, from Sydney Birth Stories captured the incredible birth on camera.
The footage shows Nathan whispering words of encouragement to his wife while she was in labour.
“Through your nose out through your mouth darling, nice and slow, that’s it,” Nathan says.
“Just breathe through it. You’ve got this darl.”
Kate delivered little Angus and he was placed on Nathan’s chest.
The couple say he’s their good luck baby.
“We’re very thankful and blessed that we could be there together at birth and it’s something that we’ll never forget,” Nathan said.
But with the miracle moment came mixed emotions.
“It’s hard because the one thing you want to do when you’re having your second child is to comfort your wife physically, hold her hand, but I just couldn’t do it,” Nathan said.
“I got to witness the whole thing and I still got to hold my own boy, and I still got to kiss my wife and tell her how amazing she was. It was bittersweet.”
He said his wife is “incredible.”
Nathan and Kate wanted to thank all those who made it possible for him to be at the birth.
The incredible experience wasn’t lost on the dedicated angels around them either.
“I can’t be prouder. As a nurse manager of my team, they’re outstanding,” ICU nurse manager Megan Pinfold said.
“The birth of Angus was such an amazing uplifting moment for the whole unit. Everyone stepped up and went above and beyond.”
Pinfold says the full extent of Nathan’s injury won’t be known for another year, but that his pre-injury health and mental strength, is making a world of difference.
“We definitely do think that his pre-injury fitness was superb and on top of that he was working as a farmer as well,” she said.
However he is likely to be on a ventilator forever.
Nathan’s now getting used to his new wheelchair, which he controls with his chin, and his laptop which he commands with facial expressions and voice to text.
The family’s looking forward to eventually getting him out of hospital, and back to the country.
Toddler Harry has also adapted better than they ever expected to dad being in hospital.
“I think the question was, ‘why is Dad in bed?’ and ‘why is he here? What are all these tubes on Dad?’ Nathan said.
“But now over time, it’s just normal and it’s so beautiful because for a toddler to understand that dad’s okay, and that means the world to me.”
Nathan’s outlook remains positive.
“The injury, we can’t change it. It is what it is,” he said.
“No one wants to be where I’m sitting but at the end of the day there’s so much to look forward to.
“I’ve got a beautiful wife, I’ve got two beautiful boys and I’m blessed I can still be there for them.”
“It is going to be different and don’t get me wrong, there’s still good and bad days to come – it is a rollercoaster ride but we’re still blessed we can still bring our boys up together.”
Kate said the wheelchair isn’t an issue for her, all she wants is Nathan by her side.
“I’m so proud of him. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster to be honest,” she said.
“If I’ve Nathan and his personality, that’s all, all I care about so we’re good.” she said.
An online fundraiser has been set up to support Nathan’s recovery.
The Cronulla Sharks are auctioning players’ worn jerseys, and details can be found on the team’s website.
The Sharks are also teaming up with Flow Athletic for a yoga and silent disco fundraiser, Flow After Dark on September 7 at Pointsbet Stadium
Nathan and Kate say they couldn’t have got to this point without the support of the community and their loved ones.
They have a long list of people they’d like to thank, including their families and friends, the Cronulla Sharks, Rugby Australia, and the Boorowa and Tenterfield communities.
They recorded a special video message below.