‘His heart stopped pumping blood and kidneys failed’ – England coach’s brush with death revealed

Andrew Strawbridge has a fine line in self-deprecation, describing himself as “maybe the only skills coach in the world who actually isn’t that great at catching any more” having lost the use of his right eye. This followed a harrowing episode where he contracted sepsis on a trip to Samoa in 2015 – one which left the England assistant coach as close to death as it is possible to be without dying.

“My wife was called over to Samoa to take the body home, essentially,” Strawbridge said. “I think I was resuscitated three times through that process.”

Sepsis is when your body responds to an infection by effectively attacking itself which can quickly lead to multiple organs failing, despite relatively benign early symptoms. “It is a sneaky little thing and can be misdiagnosed by even the cleverest people,” said Strawbridge, who has a roving role in Steve Borthwick’s England coaching set-up.

Typical of the disease, Strawbridge’s sepsis infection began so innocuously with a tiny scratch on his eye as he boarded a flight to Samoa ahead of assisting their national side in their preparations to play New Zealand. “By the time I got to Samoa, I was feeling pretty crook,” Strawbridge said. “I got taken to hospital and sent home with some oral antibiotics. I don’t remember anything else other than that.”

This is where David Galler fills in the blanks. An intensive care doctor from New Zealand, he had come to Samoa to join his wife who was on a secondment as a judge.

Now there is nowhere in the world you would ever want to get a sepsis infection – but Samoa, which had no equivalent of an intensive care unit, is among the worst places on earth to become stricken. Tragically, sepsis kills hundreds of young people on the island every year.

‘He was not at death’s door yet but fast approaching it’

The week that Strawbridge landed was one of the biggest in the country’s history, hosting the All Blacks at Apia Park for the first time in their history. Coconuts were painted black and blue and pontoons with (good natured) effigies of Richie McCaw lined the beaches. The match was scheduled for a Wednesday afternoon. Between 3 and 4am, Galler received a call saying a rugby coach was very unwell. When he arrived at the hospital, he immediately diagnosed Strawbridge with septic shock.

“Sometimes you just walk into a room and you just think ‘f——- hell, this guy is sick’,” Galler told Telegraph Sport. “We were lucky that we recognised it early. He managed to walk into the hospital the second time so he was not at death’s door but he was fast approaching death’s door. We got in before that door fully opened. There was a whole load of circumstances that led to that good outcome.”

Strawbridge was put on a ventilator and in Galler’s words “pumped full of fluids and drugs.” Eventually, he started to stabilise and Galler, who had arrived at the hospital in his Samoa rugby shirt, felt it was safe to go to the game with instructions to call him if anything went wrong. Alas, it quickly did.

At the time, there were two mobile phone providers in Samoa. The one that Galler was on was blocked at Apia Park, which was sponsored by the rival provider. “At some point in the first half, he started deteriorating again,” Galler said. “They called me but could not get through. So towards the end of the first half, someone came running across the field to find me and take me back to hospital. When I got back, he had just gone into cardiac arrest. His heart was no longer pumping blood and oxygen to his tissues and brain.

“We were trying to stabilise him but then he went into renal failure when his kidneys failed. At this point it was looking really bad so I spoke to Laura, his wife, on the phone and she was coming over. It could have really gone either way with Andrew. When I walked in and he was having his cardiac arrest, it was like ‘f— me, boy’. I have never forgotten that moment and what could have happened. It was really close.

“We basically marinated him in antibiotics, giving him tons and tons of drugs. We waited and waited to see if he was going to turn the corner. That night Laura arrived and that was a really poignant moment.”

‘Andrew’s fitness, resilience and determination came into play’

After the match had finished, the All Blacks squad also gathered around the bedside of Strawbridge, who was a coach to many of the players at the Waikato Chiefs. “These rugby players are great big lummoxes of human beings but when you look at them they are just kids,” Galler said. “They didn’t know what to do, what to say. Guys like Sonny Bill [Williams] and Brodie Retallick, and one by one they sat close to him and they gave him words of encouragement. It was extraordinary.”

Both the Prime Ministers of New Zealand and Samoa had phoned for updates. “Everyone was conscious of the fact that this was a great occasion for Samoa and a really big occasion for New Zealand,” Galler said. “There was a bit of pressure. I was quite anxious.

“The whole idea of intensive care is to buy time. You do your job with failing organs with the hope that the treatment you are giving will do its work and the person will have the reserves to pull through. This is [when] Andrew’s fitness and resilience and determination came into the play.”

‘An episode like that changes people forever’

By Thursday night, Strawbridge again began to stabilise and on Friday he was flown by air ambulance to Waikato. He may have been out of immediate danger at this stage, but his life had changed forever. “After an episode like that with the severity of illness that Andrew suffered, people do not recover easily,” Galler said. “Or they never recover. It changes them forever, mentally and physically. It is extremely hard to come back from something like that. It requires an extraordinary level of determination.”

Which is exactly what Strawbridge displayed by the bucket full as he sat in the basement of an Auckland hotel recounting the experience. “I was told that I would suffer from chronic fatigue for the rest of my life and I wouldn’t work again, that I would be impotent and they didn’t know how long I would last,” said Strawbridge. “Those were all good things to tell a competitive b——! So I went home with that ringing in my ears and stumbled along.”

A close brush with death tends to change your perspective on life. For Strawbridge, he says he no longer tolerates fools as gladly. It also had a couple of unintended consequences. “I rediscovered a love of music because the piped music in ICU [intensive care unit] drove me f—— crazy,” said Strawbridge, who frequently walks around the England camp playing the latest tunes his daughter has sent him.

The other result was that the Strawbridge family started a fundraising campaign for equipment for Samoan hospitals, one that raised $140,000 [around £66,000] while Galler helped to set up a social network for Samoan doctors to call upon the advice of specialists in New Zealand and Australia. “A lot of good things came out of a terrible thing that happened to Andrew,” Galler said. “I was completely over the moon when I heard he got that job with England.”

New Zealander Strawbridge has close ties with England's tour opponentsNew Zealander Strawbridge has close ties with England's tour opponents

New Zealander Strawbridge has close ties with England’s tour opponents – Getty Images/Fiona Goodall

With every one of England’s other coaches in their 30s or 40s, Strawbridge at 59 is the literal greybeard in the group. He effectively acts as the group’s sounding board particularly for attack coach Richard Wigglesworth, who describes his influence as “awesome”.

“I sit here in front of you as an old man who has made loads of mistakes and people should learn from that, and I am happy to share it,” Strawbridge said. “I am happy to be vulnerable.”

He also wants to spread the message about the dangers of sepsis, helping to launch an advertising campaign around New Zealand hospitals with the questions ‘ask yourself could it be sepsis? Is it sepsis?’

What he leaves with though, is his daughter’s latest musical recommendation: Prep-school Gangsters by Vampire Weekend. “That’s the last song I listened to before I came in here,” Strawbridge said. “I like that song. I like that song a lot.”

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