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Tearful dad of rugby star Rob Burrow, who has Motor Neurone Disease, says he asked himself ‘is this our fault for letting him play?’ – as his wife admits she ‘couldn’t watch’ the sport after his diagnosis
- Ex Leeds Rhinos and Great Britain scrum-half Rob Burrow, 38, was diagnosed with MND last Christmas – and his deterioration has been rapid
- Rugby star’s father, Geoff, said he questioned whether they should have let their son play rugby after his diagnosis – while his mother said she ‘blamed’ his sport
- In the new BBC documenatary Burrow and his wife Lindsey, who share three young children, reveal how she’s become his full-time carer in recent months
Viewers watching the father of rugby star Rob Burrow, who has Motor Neurone Disease (MND), in a moving BBC 2 documentary say seeing his dad talk about the impact the illness has had ‘is one of the hardest things I’ve ever watched.’
The programme, My Year With MND, presented by Sally Nugent, aired on Tuesday evening and saw interviews with Burrow, his wife Lindsey, parents and former teammates.
The rugby legend, a scrum-half who also represented Great Britain, has seen a rapid deterioration in his health – including weight loss and poor speech – in recent months.
A heartbreaking interview with his parents, Geoff and Irene, sees both of them question how much rugby contributed to his shock diagnosis in December last year.
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Great Britain and Leeds Rhino star Rob Burrow, who appeared in the BBC2 documentary on Tuesday, discussing his rapid physical decline since he was diagnoised with MND in December 2019
Burrow pictured being helped by his wife Lindsey during the documentary; he’s now using an app on his phone to communicate better with his family
Viewers said they cried at the interviews with Burrow’s parents; his father Geoff said: ‘They reckon five to ten per cent can be inherited so you’re looking back over your family and on both sides no…is it our fault that he played?’
Burrow’s father Geoff broke down in tears as he talked of the pride he has in his son for the way he’s fighting the disease. Right: His mother Irene admitted she ‘blamed’ rugby for Burrow’s illness
The 30-minute documentary saw Burrow’s parents pushing him in his wheelchair on a family day out
Burrow’s father said nothing could have prepared their son for how to deal with MND
Breaking down with pride at how Burrow is dealing with the disease, his father says he’s questioned: ‘Is it our fault he played rugby?’ while his mother admits she ‘blamed’ the sport and said that she couldn’t watch something that she’d previously loved for a while after learning of her son’s illness.
Burrow’s father said: ‘They reckon five to ten per cent [of people diagnosed] can be inherited so you’re looking back over your family… and on both sides, no…is it our fault that he played?’
His mother added: ‘I couldn’t watch rugby, I always loved rugby but I blamed it – is it all the knocks he’s had?’
On social media, thousands of people praised Burrow for the documentary and said the interviews with his mum and dad had left them in tears.
@RubbishNo3 wrote: ‘Watching the clip of Rob Burrow’s wife and dad is one of the hardest things I’ve ever watched. Count your blessings folks.’
@PeterDu23019510 wrote: ‘What an inspiration this fella and his family are. Their positivity shine through. Cannot stop crying.’
@rick_wills85 added: ‘One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to watch! @Rob7Burrow what an inspiration! Being a Dad I can’t imagine what’s going through his mind – takes a special kind of person to be able to be so positive and supportive!’
Burrow playing during a testimonial for Leeds Rhinos in January 2020, pictured with his children Macy, far left, Jackson, centre, and Maya, far right, at Emerald Headingley Stadium, Yorkshire
The documentary charts Burrow’s deterioration since his diagnosis including weight loss and poor speech; the former Leeds Rhino hooker says MND ‘can’t sap his spirit’
The 30-minute programme follows Burrow’s progress during the pandemic, showing how MND has dramatically affected life with his wife of 20 years, Lyndsey, and their three young children, Macy, nine, Maya, five, and Jackson, two.
In the emotional programme, which airs tonight, Burrow, 38, describes how MND has taken over his body, saying: ‘First it comes for your voice, then it takes your legs’.
He adds that while his body is being diminished by the illness, a degenerative condition which affects how nerves in the brain and spinal cord work, it won’t ‘sap his spirit’ and says: ‘My mind is so strong and positive’.
Burrow’s wife of 20 years and mother to his three young children, Lindsey says she’s now her husband’s carer in the 30-minute documentary
Fans have raised nearly £350,000 to ensure that Rob, Lindsey and their family have security going forward
Burrow, who was often the smallest man on the pitch but could outrun much bigger oppoonents during his 17 seasons with Leeds Rhino, was first diagnosed following problems with his speech last year and doctors initially put down his slurring to a viral infection.
At the time, he said: ‘I was expecting to go and get medication and get on with life.’
Burrow believes the first warning sign was there last September, when his former captain Kevin Sinfield approached him at the Rhinos’ end-of-season awards night. ‘I was giving the Academy Player of the Year award and I got up on stage and the word I struggled with was ‘consistency’.
Now needing full-time care, Burrow is seen enjoying a day out in Yorkshire this summer with his two youngest children, Jackson, left, and Maya
‘Kev came up and said, “Are you all right? Have you been drinking?” I said, “No, what are you on about?” I hadn’t even realised at the time that I’d slurred the word.’
It was a similar story two months later when Burrow was moving house. ‘The word I couldn’t say then was ‘solicitor’. That’s when I thought something was up, but I thought it might just be stress or anxiety from moving, or the long-term use of painkillers for my shoulder injury.’
Motor Neurone Disease (ALS): No known cure and half of sufferers live just three years after diagnosis
There is no cure for MND and the disease is fatal, however the disease progresses at different speeds in patients.
People with MND are expected to live two to five years after the symptoms first manifest, although 10 per cent of sufferers live at least 10 years.
The NHS describes motor neurone disease (MND) as: ‘An uncommon condition that affects the brain and nerves. It causes weakness that gets worse over time.’
The weakness is caused by the deterioration of motor neurons, upper motor neurons that travel from the brain down the spinal cord, and lower motor neurons that spread out to the face, throat and limbs.
It was first discovered in 1865 by a French neurologist, Jean-Martin Charcot, hence why MND is sometimes known as Charcot’s disease.
In the UK, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) is referred to as Motor Neurone Disease, while in the US, ALS is referred to as a specific subset of MND, which is defined as a group of neurological disorders.
However, according to Oxford University Hospitals: ‘Nearly 90 per cent of patients with MND have the mixed ALS form of the disease, so that the terms MND and ALS are commonly used to mean the same thing.’
Weakness in the ankle or leg, which may manifest itself with trips or difficulty ascending stairs, and a weakness in the ability to grip things.
Slurred speech is an early symptom and may later worsen to include difficulty swallowing food.
Muscle cramps or twitches are also a symptom, as is weight loss due to leg and arm muscles growing thinner over time.
MND is difficult to diagnose in its early stages because several conditions may cause similar symptoms. There is also no one test used to ascertain its presence.
However, the disease is usually diagnosed through a process of exclusion, whereby diseases that manifest similar symptoms to ALS are excluded.
The NHS says that MND is an ‘uncommon condition’ that predominantly affects older people. However, it caveats that it can affect adults of any age.
The NHS says that, as of yet, ‘it is not yet known why’ the disease happens. The ALS Association says that MND occurs throughout the world ‘with no racial, ethnic or socioeconomic boundaries and can affect anyone’.
It says that war veterans are twice as likely to develop ALS and that men are 20 per cent more likely to get it.
Lou Gehrig was one of baseball’s preeminent stars while playing for the Yankees between 1923 and 1939. Known as ‘The Iron Horse,’ he played in 2,130 consecutive games before ALS forced him to retire. The record was broken by Cal Ripken Jr. in 1995
Lou Gehrig’s Disease
As well as being known as ALS and Charcot’s disease, MND is frequently referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Lou Gehrig was a hugely popular baseball player, who played for the New York Yankees between 1923 and 1939.
He was famous for his strength and was nicknamed ‘The Iron Horse’.
His strength, popularity and fame transcended the sport of baseball and the condition adopted the name of the sportsman.
He died two years after his diagnosis.
He began to do his own research and read about MND. But after the club took him to hospital for testing, the eight-time Super League winner was told by his doctor to ignore his self-diagnosis.
‘The doctor said, “Why are you saying that? We are not testing for that”. They thought I might have something called myasthenia gravis, which can be treated. Then I got my MRI scan back, which was fine, so I thought I was home and dry. I thought it might be something like an infection.’
Burrow retired from playing in 2017 and was just two years into a coaching role when he was diagnosed with the illness
Just before Christmas last year, he and Lindsey gathered their three children – Macy, then eight, Maya, then four, and then one-year-old Jackson – at home to tell them the news. ‘The kids were running around and we had to say, “Sit down, we want to tell you something”.
‘We told them loosely, “Daddy is poorly”. We didn’t name what it was, apart from saying there’s no cure.
‘And Maya just said, “What are you telling us that for? That’s boring”. That was just perfect. I thought telling them would be the hardest thing to do, but when Maya said that, it lightened the mood.’
Fans have raised nearly £350,000 to ensure that Rob, Lindsey and their family have security going forward since the scrum-half revealed he had the illness.
Donations can be made here: www.virginmoneygiving.com/fund/robburrow
Rob Burrow: My Year With MND, is available on IPlayer
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