Former NZ player Chris Harris.
Chris Harris, the former New Zealand allrounder, is in an operating theatre watching a surgeon drive in a pedicle screw to a patient. A spinal surgery is underway. The original screws from a previous failed operation are first taken out, the surgeon stitches him up, and the new pedicle screws are inserted again. “Chris, have I locked the screw? What’s the sign?” “If you hear an audible click, it’s locked,” says Harris, who is quite tensed; he has been focusing hard for a long while. Eight screws, rods and titanium cages are screwed in, and after ten hours, the ordeal is over. Operation is successful. Harris, a medical representative with an orthopaedic company that sells high-end products, scrubs himself off and goes home to play with his daughter Phoebe.
Five years ago, when Harris’s daughter Phoebe was born, she wasn’t breathing. Her twin brother Louie, who was pushed out second, breathed first. As the doctors tried to resuscitate her, Harris was in great anguish for three to four minutes before he heard her scream. In a few weeks, though, the doctors discovered that there was a slight discrepancy in Phoebe’s left side and right side — she had hemiplegia which causes problems in movement and coordination. Although the muscles are fully formed, messages from the brain have trouble getting through — her right side would move but her left wouldn’t, and it has led to some trouble. Like a black eye on her second birthday when she fell down and hit a table. He and his wife Linda, who had to spend 7 weeks on the hospital bed after Phoebe’s birth, are still learning to deal with it.
Little did Harris know then that he will soon be a medical rep and spend hours in the operation theatres helping surgeons who try to reconstruct hips or do spinal fusions. Harris was still playing cricket when Phoebe was born. In fact, he was on a cricket field in England, and given his phone to an umpire to let him know if his wife calls with any news, when Linda had gone to labour prematurely.
In a year or two, he had retired from playing cricket and realised he needed to get a job to take care of his three kids — a 11 year old daughter and the twins. “We got paid reasonably well but I missed out on IPL and stuff. May be the really sensible guys, put away some money and got themselves into a situation where they can buy some small business. I never got that kind of money and I have to work like everyone else does in life. Look, I enjoy it and even if I had made enough money, I wouldn’t just retire and sit at home.”
He tried selling building products like tiling, waterproofing products and flooring for Dunlop High Performance Building Products for a year or so when New Zealand cricket came up with a better job. One of their physios was a medical representative with Australian company Orthotec, a distributor of orthopaedic devices and owned by Sam Scott-Young, who played 12 Tests for the Wallabies in the mid-90s. They suggested Harris to try out that role.
“Chris goes around telling people that he is a surgeon. Don’t believe it!” Lee Germon, the former New Zealand captain, winks as he says about the man with whom he had put up a hundred run partnership and scared the hell out of Australia in the quarter-final of the 1996 world cup.
Harris laughs when he hears his former captain’s remarks. “Oh I wish I was a surgeon. I am a frustrated surgeon!” He would still love to be a fielding coach — “New Zealand doesn’t have one I see! Or even in IPL” — but it’s going to be operation theatres for now.
“I go into theatre and watch the operation and just to make sure if the surgeons need help. It sounds very important, but in reality I do very little. I’m… just there to remind them of certain techniques. All devices have their little idiosyncrasies, if you like, or slight differences, there are little lug nuts and things have to be tightened off.” Harris comes from a family of dentists — his grandfather, father, brother and nephew are all dentists — but this is a different beast altogether. He remembers the first surgery he went to was “nerve wracking”.
Past helps, but only so much
His main job is to get the surgeons to buy the equipment in the first place. Ideally he would like to get in to a position where he has enough surgeons on board and can constantly just do theatres. “I am sort of pretty fresh at it and I am going to hospitals, surgeon’s offices and after operation I am sitting in the tea room and hopefully meet more surgeons and take it from there.” His past as a cricketer does help him in getting appointments but at the end of the day, they are only interested in the equipment. “Is it better, is it less expensive and does it make their job easier? That essentially is your job. To prove to them that it’s a better device or its lot more simple… You’re dealing with peoples’ lives and their quality of life. If the surgery goes well, that person can be pain-free.”
It’s something he hopes Phoebe can be one day. Chris and Linda are still trying to deal with it in some ways. “My wife thinks sometimes I am in a denial that Phoebe has got some sort of disability. It might look like that sometimes. I guess I like to push her because I know she is capable.”
‘Pushing’ can even mean just playing with her more and tiring out in the process. “She can then go into a bit of meltdown and get very stressed out and it then takes longer time for her to recover. I guess I need to learn to pick up signs better like my wife.”
Every day, Harris is trying to get better as a sales rep and as a parent. His advice for parents? “Just be patient. It can be tough but also be very rewarding. In some ways, when you have a child with disability, it can be so much more rewarding. Because when they achieve, what normal children take for granted, it feels great. They feel normal, for the lack of better word, and as a parent there is no greater joy than to see them happy.”