“After I fractured my skull, I knew that if I fell asleep in the ambulance, I wouldn’t wake up”

Interview with Alex Fletcher:

Interview with Alex Fletcher: “I knew if I fell asleep in the ambulance, I wouldn’t wake up” – Adrian Sherratt

Bath City forward Alex Fletcher is graphically describing the moment he nearly died on a football pitch.

He recalls the routine sprint down the touchline for a “lost cause,” a scuffle with a fullback near the baseline, and then the awkward spin that caused the back of his head to violently impact a billboard pinned to a brick wall two meters from the field.

He recalls the “worst headache in his brain” imaginable, an incessant ringing in his ear and panic as players and senior club officials surrounded him. He recalls the heartbreaking realization that the match was stopped after ten minutes as paramedics and emergency services scrambled to make a life-and-death decision about which hospital was most appropriate for emergency brain surgery.

And most chillingly, Fletcher recalls commanding himself to remain conscious.

“I felt like I fell asleep that it could have been like this,” she says. “This is what strikes me most vividly. It’s a scary thought.

Fletcher had started the evening of 8 November 2022 looking to maintain the prolific goalscoring form that had made him Bath’s Player of the Year months earlier, Dulwich Hamlet in National League South sights. He put him in a coma, his family warned that if he woke up, he might not be the same person.

While he recalls a 50-minute ambulance journey from Bath’s Twerton Park to Bristol’s Southmead Hospital, the details are resolute.

“I was immobilized with a neck brace protecting my head. I was sleepy and sick. I actually threw up on the paramedic,” she says.

“I remember telling myself, ‘you need to stay up as long as possible.’ Then I remember the lights as I was being taken to the hospital, really bright lights above my head. I knew I had arrived at a place where I would be cared for. This was the last thing I remember of that initial chain of events. I blacked out after that. I was fit and unresponsive when I got to the hospital.

Surgery extracted brain fluid and a small piece from Fletcher’s skull, which had suffered multiple fractures. Part of his vertebrae also had to be removed to relieve further brain swelling. The 23-year-old was left in an induced coma for a week, with every “little step seen as huge”.

Interview with Alex Fletcher:

Interview with Alex Fletcher: “I knew if I fell asleep in the ambulance, I wouldn’t wake up” – Adrian Sherratt

Five months later, Fletcher’s mood is one of bold optimism and appreciation, his eloquent account testifying to an extraordinary recovery.

“The NHS is extraordinary beyond words,” she says. “Whoever made that decision to go to Bristol may have thought it was easy because of the neurosurgery department. I feel like it’s been a huge part of why I’m alive.

“The surgeon, Dr. Neil Barua, would receive the call as he was getting ready for bed that night and would be briefed on the way to the hospital. He then he is there ready to operate and save my life. I still struggle to understand the pressure he was under. He said he’s never seen anything so bad since the impact of a sports injury.

“My family was told my injuries were synonymous with a motorcycle accident. They got the worst news; that my chances were pretty slim and that even if I made it, it might not be possible to live my life as it was before.

“They were prepared for me to wake up and not recognize them, or be a completely different person. At first, signs of progress have been slow.

“I was told that when I first moved my foot they were yelling in my ear to answer. They often did, it seems. It was seen as a remarkable sign of recovery because it would mean I had the ability to mend myself and move again. It wasn’t obvious until then.

“Another area that may have been affected is memory and personality. I remember waking up with tubes in my mouth so I couldn’t talk and pointing at things for my family to talk to me to show signs I was still the same person. I’m so thankful especially for that – that I recognized them and I still had memories – because I still have so much of my life left to live. It has had no impact on my long or short term memory. Not at the moment, however. It could be in the future. I do not know. I may be at high risk for other conditions. Dementia maybe. But for now I have my personality and my memories intact.

The accident left Fletcher deaf in his left ear, with extreme double vision and suffering from tinnitus, doctors predicting it will take at least two years for his brain to fully recover. Part of rehabilitating him has involved learning to walk again.

Interview with Alex Fletcher:

Interview with Alex Fletcher: “I knew if I fell asleep in the ambulance, I wouldn’t wake up” – Adrian Sherratt

His enduring positivity comes with sober warning and a passion for exposing the archaic health and safety regulations that will make common accidents so horrific as the game gets faster, even at lower levels.

Stockport County’s Macauley Southam-Hales were lucky to avoid similar injuries after colliding with a billboard during this season’s FA Cup match against Charlton Athletic.

“What I want to do is raise awareness,” Fletcher says. “Clubs need to sit up and take note of what has happened. Maybe there can be more protective equipment around the sides of the fields, or maybe we could shorten the fields a bit to allow for more escape. I know changes cost money, but lives are at stake in the end.

“It’s not much to ask for more consideration of field safety. There are a lot of spectator health and safety procedures in place, but there doesn’t seem to be much attention given to player safety guidelines.

“The PFA helped me contact the Minister for Sport [Stuart Andrew] and I believe they are putting pressure on the Football Association to try and tighten the regulations.

“To be honest, I’d never set foot in that stadium until it happened and I thought, ‘It’s dangerous because there’s a brick wall behind the goal.’ Many clubs at the lower levels will have that kind of brick wall. In other terrains you will have the metal bars surrounding the fences. That’s still metal around the perimeter. Regardless of where you are on the pitch, when you go full throttle, even at a place like Old Trafford, you have the pitch and the ballot and straight through the crowd. You see it at the top level where the regulations are much stricter and the players can still end up with fans after just a little push. You’re out of control when you’re running full throttle. You can’t stop with a limited run.

A spokesman for Bath City FC said: “Our ground must comply with land classification regulations which state that there must be a ‘permanent fixed barrier of solid construction (e.g. concrete and steel)’ 1.1m high and with a minimum of 1.83m from the goal line. The perimeter barrier on our ground is more than 4 meters from the goal line. We fully support Alex in his campaign to change the regulations to increase player safety.”

“Would you put a brick wall at the end of a 100m running track?”

The encouragement during recovery was overwhelming, England manager Gareth Southgate being among those who conveyed a personal message.

“It really opened my eyes,” says Fletcher. “For him, taking the time and sending me that message during the World Cup really gave me the strength to think, ‘Yes, I can do this and continue to make good progress.’

“The support was off the charts. I didn’t know that kind of love existed in football.

“There was a GoFund page set up by one of Bath’s supporters to raise money for my family to enable them to be closer to me. He raised around £18,000. The donations that have come in have been so diverse, from elementary school kids selling cookies and fellow professionals, teammates, former teammates, clubs. A notable one was from Taunton Town. They are local rivals in our league. I played against them at the beginning of the season and equalized in the 97th minute. I overdid the celebrations at their home a bit, but when I got out of the ICU and was able to start catching up the messages, I saw they donated around £500. It really blew me away. I’m not usually an emotional person, but it brought tears to my eyes.

Now Fletcher loves normalcy. He’s marrying his girlfriend, Ellie in May, he’s back to his day job as a project manager for an IT company and is adamant his football career isn’t over.

“Two weeks after surgery and I was saying to my surgeon, ‘I’m playing football again, you can’t tell me otherwise,'” he said.

“That was a big part of my recovery – that one goal, that one goal: ‘I’ll be back on the pitch no matter what.’ I’m trying to get back to where I was, effectively. But I guess I need to have a more adult conversation with my surgeon and be realistic about what that might be.

“I’m destroying it, really. I’m back on the pitch running, changing direction, being able to run backwards, that sort of thing, physically and mechanically I’m starting to get there, where I want to be to get back to football.

Interview with Alex Fletcher:

Interview with Alex Fletcher: “I knew if I fell asleep in the ambulance, I wouldn’t wake up” – Adrian Sherratt

The former Plymouth Argyle striker’s determination to return to the field is equal to ensuring that such grounds are fit for purpose.

“Would you put a brick wall at the end of a 100m running track when people are competing to get to the finish line first?” he asks. “You would never do that, so why would you do it so close to a football pitch? It makes no sense.”

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