There’s a maple leaf and a white rose. A Spitfire. Three lions. His mother’s name, in braille. And a spot reserved for a beaver and a wolverine—he’s still mulling it over.
The tattoos are symbolic for James Gwatkin. His two homes in Canada and the UK. His family. The sport that is his passion, rugby league (Wolverines is the name of the Canada Rugby League men’s team that he plays for). Everything, and everyone, that got him to where he is today.
It’s been a grueling journey for the rugby league star, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 2015 while living in the UK. The symptoms had started two years before, with unexplained blurring of vision, numbness in the arms, feet, hands and face, difficulty walking. Then, while playing in a rugby league game in Hull, England, his legs gave out from under him, and he had to be carried off the pitch.
Today, not only is James living mostly symptom free—thanks to infusions of Tysabril—he’s feeling downright triumphant. This summer, he got a call he wasn’t expecting from the Canada Rugby League: come to Serbia in September to play for the Wolverines.
In between, the challenges were daunting: the physical and cognitive dysfunction associated with MS, for sure, but he also went through an emotional wringer. Gwatkin readily admits that he didn’t handle his diagnosis well. He didn’t fully comprehend what the disease was at first. And when he did, he broke down completely. “I felt like my life was done. It was finished,” he says. And then his life took another tack.
Gwatkin met a British Paralympic champion who was open about her MS diagnosis. He says, “She was the sole reason I got off my ass and did something. She told me, ‘MS will not stop me.’ She gave me the motivation, and I set myself a goal to play rugby league before the end of the year.” Nine months after the diagnosis, he played for 15 minutes in a rugby league cup final. His team, the Lambwath Lions, won. “I hoisted the cup over my head, and then quit, to focus on recovery,” he says. “I quit. But it was on my own terms.”
James started treatment. He trained at CrossFit Hull and got stronger. In 2018, he moved to Canada, where his dad was born, and joined the Ontario Rugby League. He was referred to the BARLO MS Centre at St. Michael’s Hospital.
One of his physicians is Dr. Xavier Montalban, the BARLO MS Centre’s medical director and a legend in the MS world. Montalban is building a revolutionary model of treatment and care that is changing how the disease is treated.
Dr. Montalban’s work is urgent. MS is known as Canada’s disease—we have the highest incidence of MS in the world. One in 340 Canadians has it, and three more are diagnosed every day. It’s an unpredictable disease, with no known cause and no cure. And no one is immune.
St. Michael’s Hospital is the largest MS research centre in Canada, the busiest in North America, and among the top five in the world. It sees 7,000 patients each year. And it has set itself an ambitious goal: early diagnosis and early treatment to stop MS in its tracks.
“The staff at the clinic are fantastic. I really feel cared for in Toronto,” says James. “I had a top neurologist in the UK, and now I’m fortunate to be a patient of Dr. Montalban.”
James will be the first person with MS to play rugby league at the international level. “It is my proudest moment, my family’s proudest moment. I’d been sidelined with an injury all season and was in the reserve squad,” he says. “Being in the national squad is surreal.” When he had to raise the funds to cover his expenses for Serbia, he was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from family, friends and even groups of people he didn’t know, like Disability Sports Humber, a charity in his hometown of Hull. “It was a really humbling experience to be supported like that,” he says.
With his life back on track, James is on a mission to shatter the stigma associated with MS. “If you give up on your body, then your body will give up on you, and at that point you’re just existing,” James says. “I don’t want anyone to just exist.” He wants to inspire other people with MS to get active and not give up on themselves. “I know now that regardless of whatever happens with my body, I will continue to play rugby in whatever form, for whatever league that I’m able.”
That’s why James feels so strongly about St. Michael’s, where he continues to get the treatment that staves off the symptoms of MS. “With Dr. Montalban and the BARLO MS Centre, I feel like I’m in the right place at the right time. That this is the place to be treated.”