Leilua’s narrow miss: ‘It could have paralysed me’
Joey Leilua could talk to you about his favourite tries.
The Canberra Raiders centre can tell you all about his love for the Green Machine.
He can just as easily take you back to 2010 - the same year he made his NRL debut and played in a grand final as a 17-year-old with the Roosters.
And Leilua would be more than happy to talk to you about the pride in representing his family by playing for Samoa.
But he doesn't.
Rugby League, NSW State of Origin dreams, 'Leipana', that's not what you think about when you're lying on a trolley-bed with drainage tubes and needles attached to your arm inside the recovery ward of Westmead Private hospital.
Foggy and souped-up on heavy pain-relievers, Leilua flickered his eye-lids open and shut, open and shut, just after 5pm last Friday.
Over the previous 90 minutes, paediatric spine surgeon Doctor Brian Hsu had been charged with the delicate and critical task of repairing a spinal injury which had the catastrophic potential to render Leilua paralysed.
So when Leilua returned to full consciousness, he didn't give any thought to his 199-game career or YouTube highlights of flick-passes to his right-wing teammate, Jordan Rapana.
All he could think of was feeling the starch-white bed sheets with his fingers.
"I woke up and I could actually move my neck and I could feel a burning sensation in my fingers,'' Leilua, 27, said.
"I tapped the bed.
"I've never been so happy in my life.
"It was a relief. I thought, 'I can finally play with my kids'.
"That's what I thought of straight away.
"I don't know how to explain it. I wasn't thinking of footy. All I was thinking about was my kids.
"They're the joy of my life.
"I love playing with them. I love taking them to the park. Pushing them on the swings, seeing them interact with other kids and do what father's love, which is seeing them grow.
"And to see other parents not being able to do that, I don't know how I would feel if I couldn't do that with my kids.
"Because I could've been paralysed - that's what the doctor said.
"It's scary, but at the same time, I'm just so grateful that I didn't do serious damage.''
Leilua is the luckiest of fathers.
As he said, forget that the two-time Dally M centre of the year is a seriously good NRL player.
Instead, think of a Dad being able to piggy-back his kids. Think of a father teaching them to ride a bike, or better still, slow-dance with the mother of his brown-eyed babies.
Leilua has survived a devastating injury that not only would've changed his life - but so too that of his beautiful family, in particular partner Tiana and sons Leonidas (2) and LaDanian (1).
He was forced to undergo urgent spinal surgery after MRI scans revealed he had suffered a herniated and bulging disc which was placing dangerous pressure on his spinal cord.
What's extraordinary in both fate and fortune, is that Leilua suffered the injury while taking a hit-up during the first-half of Canberra's round-seven clash with Manly at Brookvale Oval on April 28.
"I got up and thought, 'I should be fine','' said Leilua, who played the entire 80 minutes.
"I drove home from the game okay, I went to sleep that night and woke-up with a stiff neck.
"But it wasn't a usual stiff neck.''
With just five days to recover for a round eight contest in Wagga Wagga against Penrith, Leilua spent the majority of the week inside the physiotherapy room.
"But the night before the Penrith game it got really sore to the point where I couldn't move my neck,'' Leilua said.
"I was in so much pain, I felt sorry for my roommate Bails (Bailey Simonsson).
"He was asleep and I didn't want to wake him up, but I was up for nine hours in agony.
"I went to sleep at 12 and woke-up at 3am.
"Then I went downstairs for some physio around 9am, but unfortunately that didn't help.
"We had to leave around midday and so I told the coach (Ricky Stuart) that I can't play.
'There's no way I'm playing,' I said.
"I was so happy the boys got the win against Penrith, but at the same time I was in so much pain just sitting down or turning.
"The right side of my neck felt like a burning sensation.''
The combination of travelling back to Canberra from Wagga and no immediate access to an MRI scan, left Leilua waiting two days before the seriousness of the injury was able to be revealed.
"The scans showed there was a disc out of place and it had reached my spinal cord,'' Leilua said.
"There was pressure on my spinal cord which was creating pain, weakness and also putting pressure on my nerves.
"I couldn't describe the pain to you. The pain was 10 out of 10.
"I'd rather break my leg.
"I've broken my foot before and I'd rather go through that than feel the pain I was going through for four days.
"I was trying to take any painkiller the doctor would give me, but it would last two hours and go away.
"And I didn't want to take too much, so I decided to deal with the pain until I got surgery.''
Thanks to some timely re-scheduling of his diary, Dr Hsu was able to rush Leilua through to be operated on nine-days ago.
Due to the enormity of the procedure, Leilua broke down in tears prior to the surgery - and later again, at the sight of the hundreds of messages of support he has received over the past week.
"If I had played that week (against Penrith) I could've been paralysed with any pressure applied to my neck,'' Leilua said.
"So too against Manly. I've been thinking, just imagine if that happened. I would've been done.
"In our sport, you don't know what kind of force you're going to be put under.
"The day before I was due to get surgery I broke down because, it was then I thought about being in the tough position of not being able to walk again.
"I didn't know my partner had put the photo of me up (after surgery) on Instagram and because I couldn't lift my arms after surgery, she showed me all the messages on my phone that had come in.
"I'm thankful for so much support from my family, friends and fans. I never knew I had so much support out there.
"Its just amazing.
"The messages the fans have been sending me, it's really lifted me to the point I just want to get back out there for these people who have given their time to send me a message which has helped me get through these tough moments.''
Leilua has been told by his doctors that he will make a full recovery however there is an uncertain timeline surrounding nerve damage in his hands - but again, the doctors are confident it will shortly return.
Last year's Dally M centre of the year will watch his teammates tackle South Sydney on Saturday night from his parents' home in Riverwood - his home for the next two weeks.
Under the strictest of orders from his doctors, Leilua is allowed to walk just 15 minutes a day.
At which point, the 106kg centre allayed all fears of his weight ballooning, by joking that he's unable to swallow because the muscles in his throat have been damaged by the intrusive surgery.
"I thought I'd be okay to eat after I got out of surgery so I asked Tiana to buy me some KFC ... I tried to take a bite of a big chunk of chicken and I couldn't swallow it,'' Leilua smiled.
"Sticky (Stuart) is happy about that.
"The process now is: I've got to wait four more weeks before I can actually start walking for an hour at a decent pace.
"Then two more weeks after that I can potentially progress to jogging and eight weeks after that I can start some heavy loads and then between 10 to 12 weeks, depending on how my nerves have recovered, I should be back into full training.''
Leilua said that in time he would seek advice from other players who have played-on following disc-related neck injuries including Rabbitohs utility Kyle Turner.
Asked if he had commenced the process of preparing his mind and body for playing NRL again, Leilua said: "The first day I got out of hospital, all I could think of was the kids.
"Then after five days of doing nothing, all I could think about is getting back out onto the field.
"I'm sick of looking at the same walls, same TV, but I've got to do what is right.
"I'm one of the lucky ones.''