'I turned up virtually broken’: Dylan Hartley on pioneering head injury treatment in Dubai

Former England captain worried for his future after repeated traumatic brain injuries until undergoing hyperbaric therapy at Dubai clinic

Former England star and Dubai Sharks director of rugby Dylan Hartley, left, with Taif Al Delamie, head of physical performance, Aviv Clinics Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National
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The sleek and minimalist lobby of Aviv Clinics in Jumeirah Lakes Towers could barely be any different to the average rugby dressing room, but Dylan Hartley appears perfectly at home.

The former England captain breezes through the reception area, trading hugs and handshakes with staff and patients alike, as if they are all part of his team.

He bounds over and introduces himself warmly, then seeks out a room to explain in depth what has brought him here.

There is a reason he feels so at ease with the place. Hartley recently completed three months of therapy at the clinic, which included two-hour sessions, five days per week.

He is excited to report the positive effects the treatment has had on him and hopes it can become a mandatory – or at least optional – part of aftercare for ex-sports players living with the effects of head injuries.

So enthused by it has he been, towards the end of the interview he looks down at the voice recorder and jokes: “You wouldn’t need one of those if you had this treatment.”

Hartley’s course included oxygen therapy sessions in a hyperbaric chamber, a treatment which has been proved to rebuild tissue to halt mental decline, improving alertness and physical performance.

He was approached about trying the treatment after arriving in the UAE last year to dovetail coaching Dubai Sharks with working for Access Hire.

“When I retired, I was on a mission to put myself back together, like Humpty Dumpty,” Hartley, 37, said. “I was a bit bashed up and there were things that needed doing.”

He underwent three days of assessments, after which a programme of treatment was prepared.

“It was like the exit medical I needed from professional rugby that I didn’t get, because there is no aftercare in the game,” he said.

“This is like the professional environment I was used to in rugby. I got everything I needed. To fast forward [to the conclusion of the three months of therapy], subjectively I was walking around fine.

“I was telling them I felt great. But it wasn’t until I had my post analysis, did the same tests again and got the metrics and data back which showed a significant improvement.

“That is not subjective. It is black and white.”

Among the results Hartley were presented with were a 91 per cent improvement in cognitive endurance and a 38 per cent improvement in auditory processing.

“I thought, ‘I’m superhuman now,’” he said. “They said, ‘No, that’s how far behind you were.’”

Hartley ended his illustrious career in professional rugby in 2019 because of a knee injury. He also had lasting damage to his hip and head.

The latter was what caused him the greatest concern given an increasing understanding about the effects of repeated traumatic brain injuries.

He said he was living with symptoms which included unreasonable irritability, fatigue, a short concentration span, as well as slurred speech which affected his work as a pundit.

“I used to lay there at night thinking about it,” Hartley said. “I used to lay there thinking about when I was going to decline.

“It was going on all around me. I would go on social media and see my friends, and it felt like it was just a waiting game.

“It was public that I had a lot of concussion. It is not like I played for 15 years of rugby and I just got through. I had a lot of concussion so I knew I had put myself in a position to get ‘the sick’. It is not good.”

The parallels between Hartley and Steve Thompson are uncanny. Both played the same position for Northampton Saints and England, both enjoying a significant level of success.

Thompson was even a resident of Dubai after his own playing days ended, in the same way Hartley has subsequently become.

Thompson is living with early-onset dementia and is part of a group of ex-players seeking redress from the sport due to the effects of head injuries.

Given the similarities in both their career paths and abrasive playing styles, it is no surprise Hartley wondered whether a similar fate would befall him.

“We have had different careers – he was far more successful than me,” Hartley said of Thompson.

“He was a British & Irish Lion. He won the World Cup. He is an absolute legend.

“I respect what they [the group of ex-players bringing the class action lawsuit against the sport] are doing. They are doing what is right for them. Their situations are different.

“Mine is one I have created for myself in terms of alternative treatments. All I want from this is, if I can go through this and show any sort of improvement – and my improvement has been significant – then I can show those people an alternative treatment.

“What I am trying to do is educate people on what we have here. It is not going to be right for 100 per cent of people, but it might help some people.

“If I can fix myself and send the message, then I feel like my job is done.”

Hartley felt so good about the recuperative effects of his treatment that he even underwent hip replacement surgery a third of the way through his treatment programme.

He did not miss a session. Within a week the wound had healed, and he was back exercising – comfortably – within two.

His recovery and progress was particularly quick, according to Taif Al Delamie, the head of physical performance at Aviv Clinics.

He acknowledged that Hartley’s age and background in pro-sport will have aided the recovery but is sure the hyperbaric therapy helped expedite it, too.

“We see a lot of people in the programme post surgery, because it helps with the healing process, reducing inflammation, and providing oxygen-rich plasma to the injured tissue,” Al Delamie said.

“As he was already in the programme, he had a head start in these processes.”

Al Delamie was the person who first contacted Hartley about the treatment offered at the clinic.

Coincidentally, he had his own amateur rugby career – which saw him play for Jebel Ali Dragons and captain the region’s representative side – ended by concussion.

Hartley hopes more people can benefit from the therapy he has undergone.

“I turned up here virtually broken,” Hartley said. “I was the captain of my country, captain of my club where I played for 15 years, and there is no after care.

“I think there should be a basic level of responsibility on the organisations to a player who has given everything.

“Yes, we get paid well, and we get the glory, and it is an honour to play. It is a privilege. But there should be a basic level of responsibility to get a player back to be a civilian.

“What I want to do for my game and my community in rugby is make this available for them.

“I have talked to England Rugby, I have talked to World Rugby. Conversations have been slow. I went along thinking, ‘Hey, look at my results, everyone be excited.’

“But they are dealing with so many things, they are putting it in their to-do list. I was thinking people would be jumping at the chance for any solution.

“That gut feeling I had is gone [for me]. I sleep a lot better because my hip is good and my head is good.

“There are small things, too. Like family time. I don’t have that constant concern that I am going to deteriorate. Or at least not too soon. We all deteriorate one day, then I’ll come back here for a top up!”

Updated: June 15, 2023, 5:51 AM