Hey Jude! How baby son’s bravery inspires NRL star
Mitchell Allgood nuzzles his cheek into the swollen face of his nine-month-old son Jude.
As he stands there holding his son, Allgood whispers The Beatles' song into the tightly wound bandages encasing his baby's soft head.
It might be 1am. Perhaps three. Maybe even 4am. Time is insignificant when your world is breathing in your arms.
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The plastic chair beside the burly St George Illawarra Dragons forward sits empty.
Inside one of the most special hospital wards in Australia, Jude's swollen body would coil in agony if his father dares take a seat, the simple motion of moving from standing to sitting applying intense pressure on his aching brain.
The 30-year-old's embrace of his son isn't only an act of love and protection - but necessity.
Under the strictest of medical advice, it will be almost eight weeks before he and the bravest of mums, Allgood's wife Madeleine, are allowed to lie Jude down.
Beneath the crepe wraps, Jude was missing part of his skull after a marathon five-hour operation involving 12 doctors at the Women's and Children's Hospital in Adelaide eight weeks ago.
Jude was born with a rare condition called Craniosynostosis, a skull deformity that affects one in 2500 babies.
So on that first night after Jude's life-changing surgery, Allgood stood in darkness for hours, rocking with tears trickling down his face, all the while singing Hey Jude.
"I must have sung it a thousand times. We just didn't leave his side,'' Allgood said.
"We'd stay until we were physically exhausted.''
In the wake of a 2019 season that Dragons fans lament the effort of their million-dollar earners and too many losses emerges the journey of a footy-loving family that's far tougher than any wasted season.
For every back page story of the latest multimillion-dollar player and richest-ever contract, there are 10 stories of the journeymen and battlers training just as hard on no more than $100,000.
A FATHER'S SACRIFICE
Allgood is one of them.
Without a contract in the NRL next season, Allgood has sacrificed his own career, largely in silence, to help save the life of his son.
To help cover Jude's ongoing medical bills, Allgood has had to fast-track his superannuation from the Rugby League Players Association and reluctantly ask his and Madeleine's parents for money. With interstate travel expenses to meet with specialists, the costs to the young family go beyond $30,000.
Polite, well-spoken and a genuine good bloke, Allgood is unanimously popular among his peers and rivals, both here in the NRL and overseas in the English Super League.
The contacts in his phone stretch the course of nine years as a professional rugby league player: from Penrith and his days as a local junior to four years with Parramatta, three years in England with Hull KR and Wakefield and the past two years with the Dragons.
'UNABLE TO SHARE'
Leaning forward inside a small meeting room at WIN Stadium early last week to speak to The Sunday Telegraph, tears welling in his eyes, Allgood says: "Jude's journey is a story we have been unable to share with even our closest friends and family.
"There's so many people who don't know - even now.
"It was a case of while we were trying to figure out and understand what was going on with him, we couldn't physically have that conversation.''
When reading this, Dragons players and officials will now understand why after one particular game this season, the hard-running forward sprinted to his car, ignoring a broken rib and slight concussion from the match, just so he didn't miss a flight to Adelaide.
On July 23, Allgood and Madeleine paced the waiting room floor of the Adelaide hospital's intensive care unit - home to the pioneering Australian Craniofacial Unit.
They can barely get the words out: "The longest five hours of our lives."
The hospital is a world leader in craniofacial surgery, so much so, doctors from across the world travel to Adelaide to watch the procedure unfold every Tuesday.
The operation included a delicate zigzag incision over the top of Jude's skull so it can be remoulded by surgeons in an incredibly detailed and arduous operation that will release his brain from the squashed area inside his misshapen skull.
The family, including Jude's bubbly three-year-old older brother Peter, spent a painstaking eight months meeting with GPs, chiropractors and neurosurgeons before their own research and intuition led them to Adelaide for a CT scan in June.
It revealed Jude's craniosynostosis condition, in which one or more of the bone junctions in the skull close too early, causing problems with normal brain and skull growth.
Without urgent surgery, Jude risked a number of outcomes including developmental delays, migraines, blindness, deafness, seizures and, in rare instances, death.
"When he was born and the weeks after, we didn't exactly know what he had wrong," Allgood said.
"We played it off as a newborn with a different head shape.
"I look back now and there were such obvious signs along the way. Because of the shape of his skull, his palate was mirroring the shape of his skull, so it was constantly making him tongue tied, which we had to have corrected twice.''
And because of his different palate - long and narrow - breastfeeding for Madeleine was excruciating.
"For the whole eight months before that, it was just a constant battle to find what was wrong," Madeleine said.
"The CT results came back and we held it up to the light and Mitch looked and me and said:
"'Oh Judey' … his whole skull had completely fused. It was the first real moment of what we were dealing with.''
Up until the day that they saw their baby boy's disproportionate skull under the light of the scan, Allgood and Madeleine had told few family or friends of their plight.
For one, they didn't want people to think differently of their beautiful boy. But more importantly, they struggled to verbalise their pain.
'INSIDE I WAS BURNING'
"General questions like, 'Oh, how's the little one going?', I'd always answer, 'Everything's good,'" Allgood said.
"But inside, I was burning.''
From the CT scan, the couple were told by leading Adelaide neurosurgeon Stephen Santoreneos that Jude needed urgent surgery.
"In that meeting, (Santoreneos) told us there's gradings: mild, moderate and severe,'' Allgood said.
"He said: 'And Jude has been graded as severe and he needs to have this operation as soon as possible.'
"He was telling us horrible news, but the way he told us was just caring and professional.''
Urgent surgery meant Allgood needed time away from football. Time, in a year where he was coming off-contract, no footballer can afford.
But Allgood pushed everything to the side.
The determined couple moved to Adelaide for four weeks, renting an apartment a kilometre from the hospital.
The kilometre would became Allgood's only form of physical training that he could manage - jogging to and from the hospital in his cargo pants and Converse sneakers, mentally drained and exhausted, after meetings with doctors and then with little or no sleep following Jude's operation.
Allgood broke the news of Jude's need for surgery to his teammates five days after his much-publicised return to the NRL in round 16 against Melbourne in Wollongong - a 1819-day absence from first grade.
Up until then, only head coach Paul McGregor and the club's welfare officers Scott Stewart and Holly Scheeringa were aware of what Allgood was going through.
Throughout our interview, Allgood and Madeleine repeatedly praise the unwavering support they received from the trio.
It took two attempts for Allgood to tell McGregor of Jude's battle.
The first time, the tough footballer who once went to toe-to-toe with former Manly hardman Steve Matai was so upset, he stood inside the Dragons coach's office just staring at him.
"I'll have to tell you later,'' is all Allgood could muster before walking back out the door.
"I first told the team in the change-rooms before training, five days before Jude's surgery,'' Allgood said.
"It was a very tough conversation to have. Just verbalising it made me emotional.
"I said, 'My young fella is facing this and I'm going to be away for a few weeks - if you could all keep Jude in your thoughts'.''
Jude was operated on at 8am on that July 23 day.
Words don't come for Madeleine as she tries to explain the moment she kissed her son goodbye in the operating theatre.
"I was thinking the worst thoughts that maybe this is the last time I ever see him alive.
"There were volunteers there and they had to pull me away because I just didn't want to leave him. He hadn't been apart from me since I was born.
"I had to hold him while they put him to sleep and I just knew that when I was looking at him that he was going to be different when I saw him again."
The amazing nurses told the couple to take a break outside, or grab a coffee down the road, during the five-hour operation.
But they just sat outside the ICU.
"We sat there looking at the door,'' Allgood said.
When it was all over, reconstructive surgeon Walter Flapper appeared through the doors.
"I've been excited to see people before," Madeleine said.
"But seeing him come to the door, I just jumped up and I was so excited … because he was smiling.''
Proving just how tough he is, Jude survived the surgery despite needing two blood transfusions.
It was only when Jude was in the theatre room that the true impact and frightening pressure on his brain was revealed.
In an indication of how compressed his brain had been for the first nine months of his life, the initial incision made by surgeons expanded by a further 2cm from the natural pressure of his brain needing to "swell."
Crying, Allgood said: "When I saw him that first time after the operation, I just wanted to pick him up, but we couldn't.
"He was just there, he had all the lines and wires attached to him.
"You love your kids more than anything in the world and I just felt so helpless.''
It would be two weeks before Jude was discharged from hospital and taken home with his big brother Peter.
The agonising ordeal also pushed the couple to their financial limit.
"It pushed us to our limits emotionally," Allgood said.
"We completely used every single avenue of exhaustion.
"But financially, it has as well. We couldn't get any more money from the bank or anything like that. We borrowed money from both our parents.
"Those things you never thinking of having to do.''
As a club, the Dragons have been with the Allgoods the whole way.
A fundraiser for the family was held recently and onfield leader James Graham is about to announce the auction of his 400th game playing jersey on the Dragons website.
"I can't thank them (McGregor, Stewart and Scheeringa) enough for what they've done," Allgood said.
"I said to the boys recently, I'm so proud to be involved with this club."
Smiling for The Sunday Telegraph photographer Sam Ruttyn, it's clear how Jude is such a happy boy.
"This is the first time in his life he hasn't got a headache,'' Allgood said.
Yet the tough reality is Jude will need to meet with specialists for regular check-ups until he's 18. He is not out of the woods just yet.
The Allgood's spoke to The Sunday Telegraph to help raise awareness about Craniosynostosis - and to let other parents know they're not alone and there is help.
Allgood's entire career has been on built on turning up, hard work and refusing to whinge despite craving much more than the 71 NRL appearances he's achieved so far.
But he admits now, his drive to succeed is something else - thanks to Jude.
"He (Jude) just keeps proving everyone wrong and keeps defying any obstacle that comes his way,'' Allgood said.
"I couldn't give up (on my rugby league career) because he never gave up. I won't give up. He was my inspiration. He's definitely got me back out there.''
Which is where Allgood finds himself on Sunday.
After the most turbulent year of his life, Allgood is back inside the Dragons dressing-room on Sunday afternoon at Kogarah Oval in a grand final qualifier against the Newtown Jets.
In the moments before the NSW Canterbury Cup preliminary final, Allgood's teammates will psyche themselves up with heavy beats and pump-up music.
In the corner, Allgood will turn the volume up on his own headphones and close his eyes and listen.
It's the same song he, Madeleine and little Peter sang each day to their hero in hospital.