Former Glasgow Rugby star John Shaw says he is ‘absolutely terrified’ about his battle with dementia

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  • Former Rugby star John Shaw says he is ‘terrified’ about his dementia battle
  • The ex-Glasgow Warriors flanker is using oxygen therapies to delay the illness
  • Shaw one of the many players taking action against their unions over concussion

John Shaw is unequivocal about his future: ‘I’m absolutely terrified,’ he says. The 54-year-old former Glasgow Warriors player, diagnosed with early onset dementia, is speaking to me from his garden at his home in Airdrie. Birds are singing quietly in the background and the sun is still high as he answers my call.

‘How are you?’ I ask. ‘How are you feeling?’ There’s a brief silence at the other end.

‘Och, the slow decline is still happening,’ Shaw admits, softly. ‘I was quite hesitant and reluctant to accept it, but now I think that reality has set in, there are things that happen every day more frequently than they used to happen.

‘I don’t know about it obviously, because I’m not in a conscious state where I know what I’m doing — but clearly, I’m being told I’m doing them.

‘That’s difficult to comprehend but when you’ve got dementia and you do things, you tend not to know about them.’

Former rugby player John Shaw has admitted he is ‘absolutely terrified’ about his battle with demensia
Shaw played as a flanker for Glasgow Warriors is one of many former rugby players who is suing his union over concussion in the game

What kinds of things?

‘Oh, things like putting pizza boxes in the oven, toiletries in the freezer, silly wee stupid things like going to play golf with your slippers on. Things like that.

‘Or going out and getting lost. There are lots of wee small things that clearly have potential long-term issues — there’s a safety factor in there, too. But I’m trying to do my best to make myself better with my health and wellbeing. I went down a really bad path and have spiralled mentally, but I’m trying to get myself out of that place right now.

‘It’s difficult when you have family and kids and sometimes it just gets a bit overbearing. Your mind wanders off and you think things you don’t want to be thinking. Things like the future and family and what will things be like if I’m not there — I might need looked after and what about everyone else. Things like that.

‘I try and keep that out of my mind, but it creeps in all the time — it’s something I’m quite focused on and I realise that risk is there.’

It has been a tough few years for Shaw and his family. Since learning about his diagnosis at a clinic in London, he has tried to stay upbeat and positive. But it has undoubtedly been a struggle. The last 18 months, in particular. There have been incidents, too, which have been particularly traumatic to process. Today is a good example.

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‘It’s the one-year anniversary of my mother-in-law’s death today,’ he admitted, ‘and for the whole year I’ve been speaking about her as if she’s still here. My wife doesn’t talk down to me, she just carries on without causing me distress. She told me today it was her mum’s anniversary and I said: “What, her wedding anniversary?”. And she said: “No, it’s a year since she died”. And I found out today and it hits me like someone has just passed, you know? You go through it all again.

‘I carried the coffin,’ he whispers, ‘but I don’t remember that at all.’

It’s an admission that takes your breath away. For Shaw, however, there’s no time to wallow in pity. The former rugby player — once a member of the Scotland A squad — knows his time on this earth may be limited. He reveals to me that he has been given just ten years to live. He has now passed power of attorney over to his wife, Theresa, and is on a mission to maintain his health and wellbeing for as long as he can.

‘I’m still trying to be active in my business,’ he said, ‘but it’s about admitting the things you have to change and adapt to. It’s like having a disability. I got help for the first year from the dementia department at North Lanarkshire Council — they were fantastic and helped us cope, getting notepads, writing things down everywhere, things to remind you and so on.

‘My wife and I right now are looking at getting support to build something with all the welfare aids that will help us — cameras, reminders, sensors and so on. We’re really looking into it while I’m quite compos mentis, to try and get all my bases covered. The goal is to get that, not only to help me, but to help the family.’

Ultimately, he would like to create a place where he could help others, too. Like so many athletes in the same situation, he has read up voraciously about his impending decline. In an attempt to counter it, he has been using oxygen therapy. This involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurised environment. Research has found it can improve cerebral blood flow and cognitive function — which may slow the progression of diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

‘I have a hyperbaric oxygen chamber,’ Shaw admits, ‘but I’d like one that is medical grade. These make a massive difference to health and wellbeing. The only other options are opioids or medications for depression but they’re just sticking plasters to keep the issue at bay. I believe in oxygenating our brains to keep the neurons firing on all cylinders. I’d like to build a place on my property where I can offer this.’

For Shaw, keeping his brain in as healthy a state as possible is crucial as he takes on the challenge ahead. Part of this is to try and delay the progression of his dementia, but crucial, too, is the desire to stave off the crippling gloom that has started to burrow its way into his mind. It is, Shaw states, inescapable.

‘Without doubt,’ he reflects, ‘there’s a link between concussion and suicide. You only have to look at what has gone on over in America with the cases in the NFL. There is absolutely a link. I’ve been in a really bad place with it and so have many others that I have spoken to. They’re all saying the same thing.

‘A week ago, I admitted to my wife for the first time that I have depression. Guys are not very good at doing these kinds of things, but I finally told her how I’m feeling. That’s what a severe brain injury does to you. It does very strange things, indeed.

‘I believe that once the patterns in our brains are disturbed through trauma, we lose the ability to think and act normally. For example, I’ll speak to the other guys who are also suffering, and we will all say we are blessed with what we have. We have great family; we live great lives. So why the hell do we find our brains keep thinking these terrible thoughts? It doesn’t make sense.

‘I believe it’s because of repeat concussions. It’s the constant small ones that are more dangerous. The big ones we can see and take action on.’

We talk about the tragic case of Siobhan Cattigan, the former Scotland international who died in 2021 aged just 26. Her family have intimated legal action against Scottish Rugby, for what they see as negligence and a failure of duty of care to their daughter in the circumstances surrounding her death. She, too, had suffered several concussions.

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‘I know what Siobhan went through,’ Shaw attested, ‘because I’ve experienced it myself. When I heard about it, I could completely understand it. It’s surreal but that’s where I was in my head, too, and that’s what concussion did to me. That’s what happens with a severe brain injury — it does very bad things.’

Shaw believes Scottish Rugby’s handling of the Cattigan situation has been ‘unforgivable’ — and feels the governing body have missed a substantial and important opportunity to tackle concussion.

‘That should have been a major turning point to throw the marker down and say: “Let’s be responsible and look into this issue a bit more and be proactive and be sure we’re not putting ourselves in the position of further issues like that happening again”. But it wasn’t. It was a complete missed opportunity, how they dealt with it, how they failed to rectify the situation, how they failed to show they’d react in such a way that would benefit the welfare of their players past, present and future.

‘They say they have the best protocols in place, but they’re still getting it wrong on a regular basis.’

One area still to be tackled is the issue surrounding female-specific protocols. Despite World Rugby acknowledging higher ‘susceptibility’ for women when it comes to concussion, there is still no warning of this on their concussion guidelines.

‘Again, World Rugby and the other nations have known about these things — the evidence is there — it’s all been there for years,’ said Shaw. ‘In my opinion, there is too much commercialisation, there is too much risk being put on revenue. Players are playing at a high level and creating an income, they are commodities and the last thing coaches and club teams want is to lose that.

‘I believe they’re making decisions to the detriment of players’ welfare and putting them back out, allowing them to stay on the pitch when they shouldn’t be there. World Rugby still have their blinkers on. Yes, they’ve made a lot of changes — which is good — but there’s a potential legal issue here. If we don’t get this right in terms of concussions, there will be a real problem for the sport in the future.

‘We’ve improved the game in scrums and lineouts, etc and they’re changing tackle heights as well, but we’ve still got huge problems in areas such as the ruck, which can have a big impact on things like concussion.’

A recent incident involving Scotland’s Finn Russell and Argentine Marcos Kramer only serves to highlight the situation. Stade Francais flanker Kramer was shown a red card just five minutes into his side’s Top 14 quarter-final match against Racing 92 for a reckless clear-out involving Russell. The Scot was left clutching his head in pain following the incident but went on to pass his head injury assessment.

‘That’s a great example of the dangers in the tackle area,’ said Shaw. ‘When you watch it back, notice how everyone is on the ground. The law states that a ruck is two or more players on their feet over the ball. Players must ruck on their feet, bound on to other players and head and shoulders above hip height. This is more dangerous than the tackle, in my opinion.

‘Clearly the ruck is static here, so why even carry through with the clear-out? Well, look at who Kremer cleared out. Probably the opposition’s most important playmaker. He’s slight and not as big and powerful. It’s stupidity, but it’s also more cynical than that.

‘These things are normal in France — they’re coached like that. This is the area of the game where I know I received all my traumatic brain injuries. First at the breakdown, I was a nuisance. That was my job. So, I was a prime target for getting smashed. That’s also why I’m going for my fourth neck surgery as well as having dementia.’

Shaw who represented Scotland A also believes Scottish Rugby’s handling of the Siobhan Cattigan case has been unforgivable after she passed away in 2021 aged just 21
He also admitted that he felt like rugby had given him a life sentence but is trying several therapies to slow his dementia down

Shaw’s fight may be over on the field of play, but it continues through a class action which has been raised against the rugby authorities. Like the litigation that has been launched against World Rugby, the RFU and the WRU, this concerns what Scottish players see as negligence and a failure of duty of care when it comes to brain injuries received while playing. Shaw says the list of people taking action is growing.

‘There are a lot more people coming forward all the time,’ he says. ‘I’m all about supporting folk to make the game safer. We used to think smoking in pubs was fine, asbestos was fine, but now we know that is bad for us. They’re saying CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) is the next sports industrial injury. We have to make sure people’s eyes are open to this and that decisions are being made for the well-being of the sport. If it keeps going like this, I can see some real issues for it in the future.

‘I was diagnosed before any of the other guys in Scotland. When I went to London to get seen, I was an hour late for my appointment as I got lost. I’ve been down several times since — but it’s pretty embarrassing when you go through it all.

‘It’s scary when you find out. You really don’t believe it at first and it’s tough to come to terms with.’

He laughs ironically for a second: ‘I swear this game is trying to kill me. I had a heart attack after a game in 2007 and got some stents inserted, had three surgeries on my neck, 12 surgeries post-playing in total. It just catches up with you. Sadly, the CTE version of this dementia is fatal, which is really not good news. I’ve been told I’ve got ten years by a doctor — but I really don’t know.’

It’s difficult to know what to say to Shaw in these circumstances.

‘I’m sorry,’ I tell him, before asking: ‘How do you see this? Has rugby given you a life-sentence?’

Shaw pauses for a minute. ‘Well, it seems that way. Doesn’t it?’

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