Knights help diehard fan battle paralysis

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:30 AM ET

The London Knights didn't save George Newcombe's life. But they're doing a good job of making the quality of his life a great deal better.

Anyone who gripes about the smallest things should take a look at what this 65-year-old has gone through and re-evaluate exactly what it is they have to complain about.

It was June 1997 and Newcombe was enjoying the fourth year of an early retirement. He was playing an early morning game of golf at Forest City, something he did regularly. He was healthy and happy.

"Then I had this sensation I couldn't hit the ball," Newcombe says. "I felt weak. I came to the 17th hole, 120-yard shot across the gully. I hit it right into the gully. Something was wrong."

He clearly remembers the day that would become his nightmare. He went home and did a few chores but felt tired. He picked up Donna, his wife of 40 years, from her teaching job. By 9 p.m., he was exhausted and went to bed. He got out of bed at 11 and found he could hardly walk.

"I told her we had to go to hospital. I walked to the car. I couldn't get out of the car at the hospital.

"They put me in a little place behind a curtain. I spoke to a nurse once and I don't remember anything else. When I did come to realize I was still alive, all I could move was my eyes. . . . I was in intensive care for the next four months. Then I went to extended intensive care. All I could do was blink my eyes. Everything else was paralyzed."

Newcombe was stricken with Guillain-Barre syndrome, an autoimmune condition in which a person's nerves are attacked by the body's immune defence system. The nerve insulation (myelin) and sometimes even the inner covered part of the nerve (axon) are damaged and signals are delayed or otherwise changed. This causes a spreading paralysis.

There is no cure. The syndrome appears to be triggered by acute viral or bacterial illnesses, such as respiratory or gastrointestinal infections. These illnesses may have occurred one to three weeks previously.

Newcombe is in constant pain. His legs hurt and his nervous system is acutely sensitive. Yet he never complains.

"It feels like a fellow with a hairy chest, someone pours gasoline on it and sets it on fire," he says. "You can't get down about it. If you do, you might as well die."

Newcombe has made strides in his long-term recovery. But the myelin sheath restores at a very slow rate. He can sit up in a wheelchair. He can speak and move his arms but he can't use his hands yet.

He has spent the past five years at the Mount Hope Centre where his wife visits him every day.

When you walk into Newcombe's room, it becomes obvious what's important to him. On the walls are laminated posters of Knights players and pictures of his family and his life.

"It's just wonderful to have our local communications system here broadcasting the games. I've waited 40 years to have a team like this. It's exciting to watch," he said. "I used to follow the games in the newspaper, but I can't turn the pages now."

Given Newcombe's situation, it's not surprising he spends a great deal of time watching television. He blows into a mouthpiece to change channels. He watches anything that involves physical activity. The Knights are No. 1, but he watches, golf, bowling, hockey, basketball. He also enjoys the speed channel.

As for the Knights, he's been to the John Labatt Centre once, watching a game from a private box. He said he could buy season's tickets but getting to the rink and back takes a huge physical toll on him. He's been a fan for many years though.

"I was there when the Nationals were (at the London Gardens)," Newcombe said. "We had a holding contract. They would hold your seat until 6 p.m. the night of the game. Then we bought season's tickets and had them for every year except when this happened."

His favourite team was the 1976-77 Knights, who won an eight-game playoff series against the St. Catharines Fincups on Dan Eastman's overtime goal. Garry Unger and Dan Maloney stand out in his mind as favourite players.

As for this year's team . . .

"They provide me with a lot of enjoyment," Newcombe said. "This is a great team. We may well have great hockey here as long as (owners Dale and Mark Hunter) are here. That was the problem before. One owner was a diamond merchant. What does he know about hockey? Another owner was a real estate family. What do they know about hockey?"

Newcombe loved golf. He worked out at the Bob Hayward Y. Now, sitting in his wheelchair battling to get healthy, he's very clear about what he wants to do.

Years ago, Newcombe and his wife used a promotion coupon worth $5.95 to take dance lessons. Some $4,000 later, they were spending most of their Saturdays in Lakeside, dancing on what Newcombe calls the "best dance floor in Ontario." The couple was so good, other couples would sit and watch them.

"One day, I want to dance again."


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