Boxing: Rocky road to recovery after fighter's head trauma

By George Herd
BBC News

Media caption,
"My first question was: 'Did I win the fight?'"

A winner in the ring - but out for the count - super-fit boxer Cara Owen was left clinging on to life.

The 23-year-old collapsed with a bleed on the brain after victory in a fight-night bout.

Airlifted to hospital, trauma surgeons did not know if she was going to make it there alive.

"The last thing I remember was feeling ill in the changing room - and then nothing after that - nothing about the fight," said Cara.

That was two years ago - two long hard years of rehabilitation.

"When I woke up from the coma, I had no idea what was going on," recalled Cara, from Caernarfon in Gwynedd.

"I touched the side of my head, and there was nothing there - no hard sensation.

Image source, PMA
Image caption,
Landing the punches - Cara Owen's last fight in the ring

Her first question to those gathered around her bed as she regained consciousness was: "Did I win the fight?"

She had - but it would be the last time she ever stepped inside a ring as a fighter.

She had suffered a major brain haemorrhage.

It was the reason for her collapse after the fight in September 2019, though Cara and her family suspect it was the result of an injury sustained in the days or weeks before her last bout.

She was flown by air ambulance to Royal Stoke University Hospital, where part of her skull had to be removed to relieve pressure on her brain.

At her bedside was her uncle, and the man who is viewed as her adopted father, Chris Pritchard.

He is the martial arts instructor who trained Cara, and also organised the fight that night.

"It was very hard. To see my niece, my adopted daughter as such, fighting for her life, it was very tough - and it's still tough to think about today," he said.

Image source, Family image
Image caption,
In a coma and fighting for life - Cara underwent major surgery for her head injury

But having trained her since she was a small child, he knew her fitness would help pull her through.

"It was only 14 days after the accident that I was picking her up from hospital," said Chris, as he described the trauma surgeon's disbelief at the speed of Cara's recovery.

"How can a person who has suffered this injury be up talking, walking and leaving the hospital so soon?

"Her strength, her conditioning, her mental attitude which she has gained from martial arts, did help her push through this."

Image source, Cara Owen
Image caption,
On the long road to recovery - Cara before and after a metal plate was fitted to her skull

But leaving hospital was just the start of an arduous journey for Cara.

Three months after initial surgery, she was under the knife again, this time to put a metal plate in her skull, to replace the bone that had to be removed.

"The recovery was very difficult," she reflected.

"My concentration skills, my memory, understanding what had happened - everything was hard.

"Even at Stoke, it was hard to walk again.

"But I got there in the end."

However, probably the hardest challenge for Cara has been coming to terms with the fact she will never fight competitively, either in boxing or martial arts.

"That was heart-breaking to be honest - it still is to this day," she said.

She has been competing in contact sports, tournaments and ringside bouts since almost as long as she could walk.

"It is all I've known since I was three years old. But I'm happy to still be alive, and that I can still train - and now I can train others," she said.

Image caption,
Now fighting fit - but there will be no more fights for Cara

She is now back in the gym every day, pulling on the boxing gloves and taking part in non-contact kick-boxing sessions.

Despite her own experience, both she and her uncle are convinced the sport - be it boxing or martial arts - remains safe.

Instructor Chris has not organised any fights since the night Cara was rushed to hospital - but he said he hoped to in the coming months, as long as Covid restrictions allowed.

"I know it's a contact sport, but I truly believe it is still very safe," he said.

"You know there's the medical checks that happen, the screening that gets done, the after-care - the whole thing is pretty safe."

Cara said she wanted to see those events again - and even if she could not be on the scorecard - she could pass on the skills that have made her such a fighter.

"I can imagine it will be a great feeling to pass it on to someone else.

"I'll still be there, hopefully walking them into the ring, so that I feel like I'm walking into the ring once again."

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