Doncaster Rovers: Light at the end of the tunnel for comeback kid Alex Kiwomya
He was meant to be the club's most exciting acquisition of the summer but Alex Kiwomya's Rovers career was almost over before it even began.
Strike that. Alex Kiwomya’s whole career was almost over.
In June, at the age of 21, the Sheffield-born forward made the permanent jump from Chelsea to Rovers.
Six months later, thanks to a bizarre set of circumstances, he has yet to feature for Rovers. But there is light at the end of the tunnel.
His battle with the incredibly rare Guillain-Barré syndrome, its debilitating symptoms and its aftermath is almost over.
Latest estimates suggest his Rovers debut could come as soon as February.
When he finally steps back onto the pitch, it will be the end marker of a long road. And a scary one at that.
“I’d say it was the first day of pre-season when I knew something was wrong,” he said.
“Before I signed at Doncaster, I was going to five-a-side and I was really fit.
“I went and did the pre-season testing and had full power and everything.
“But then I started to feel a bit ill. I thought it was hay fever because I had a really wheezy cough. I ended up using an inhaler which I’d never done before.
“During training there was the 5-4-3-2-1 run where you run for five minutes, rest, four minutes, rest, etc.
“I’m normally quite good at long distance running but I wasn’t moving.
“I felt my calves tighten up and I lost feeling in my feet. As soon as that happened I knew I had to see someone.
“They thought I’d just got tight calves and I tried to train the next day but I wasn’t even at 20 per cent.
“I went back in and from there they started trying to figure out what was wrong.”
That was the start of a six week period of repeated tests, scans and examinations to attempt to determine just what was wrong with a young man in peak physical condition.
Given that only around one in 200,000 people contract Guillain-Barré, it is no surprise that it took so long to diagnose.
After an illness, the body of those with the syndrome begins to attack the nervous system, resulting in the numbness of limbs which Kiwomya experienced.
“It’s so rare that no one really expected it to be that apart from when I went to see a neurologist,” he said.
“That’s when they said it was Guillain-Barré and I needed to go to the hospital.
“I was in the Hallamshire hospital the next day being treated. It was a horrible experience, being on a drip 24/7 for ten days and having blood clot injections.
“I’ll have to have an injection of B12 every three months because I have a deficiency of it now.
“Mine was just a mild case so I can’t imagine what the people who have had it severely go through.
“It’s such a horrible experience not being able to function properly.”
Severe cases of Guillain-Barré can result in death or paralysis so reading up on the condition is a pretty scary experience.
What Kiwomya experienced may not have been so severe but it devastated his body and ensured returning to football was not just about getting back to fitness, it was effectively starting from scratch.
From the day he left the hospital until only just recently, he was unsure when the return would come.
He said: “I was quite nervous from the start really.
“My family supported me really well but it was coming in and not knowing a time.
“If you pull a muscle you have a rough idea of when you’ll be back. There was no time frame with this.
“At the beginning they were saying I’d probably not play football this season.
“At one point I didn’t think I’d play again.
“Now I could be back in just a few weeks. They’re saying a couple of more weeks and then I should be able to integrate in the team.
“It’s going well. The way I came on, it took a turn and just seemed to go away.”
The difficulty of Kiwomya’s recovery process is best summed up in one phrase – he literally learned how to walk again.
That was mere months ago and now he is on the verge of returning to full first team training.
He said: “I lost all muscle definition in my legs.
“I couldn’t stand on one leg. I lost all balance and motor functions.
“It was literally about doing balance work, learning how to walk again and stuff like that.
“Now I’m out on the pitch again. I did 7km the other day and they’re saying I’m looking a lot strong and fitter so hopefully it won’t be too long.
“It’s gone from not playing this season to maybe getting a few games to now and being back in February.
“It’s happened at an alarming rate. I kind of said I didn’t want to rush it because I don’t want it to come back but the neurologist said it can’t. Now it’s about kicking on.
“It’ll be tough building up the fitness and it’ll be a while before I’ll be quite as fit as some of the lads.
“But it’s about keeping up with them and trying to shine.”
His return to South Yorkshire proved timely as it ensured his family was close by – including dad Andy, a former forward himself with Sheffield Wednesday, Barnsley and Rotherham United.
Staying positive has been a major part of the recovery process for Kiwomya.
And, as well as having a strong support network around him, not dwelling on the fate of his playing career in the early stages of recovery was important.
“I kind of put it to the back of my mind because it was more about getting healthy than getting back fit at that point,” he said.
“I’ve had a lot of great support throughout.
“The gaffer here was really supportive. He said straight away that we’d get to the bottom of it and I’d be okay.
“That put me in a positive mindframe.
“The lads have been great. They’ve never left me out of the group. The gaffer knows how to pick them.
“I’ve got my little boy and my family. It’s been hard but they’ve definitely helped me through.
“They’ve played a big part in the recovery I’ve made.”
The light at the end of the tunnel is drawing ever nearer for the 21-year-old.
His long-awaited Rovers debut may not have to wait that long at all with the New Year set to bring his first participation in full training since the second day of pre-season.
The excitement over his signing largely centred around the stunning pace that made him a champion sprinter in his teens.
While Guillain-Barré had an impact on his muscles, Kiwomya says his sprint speed has not been adversely affected.
And he is champing at the bit to get his Rovers career up and running.
“I wanted to come in and show what I could do and it’s set me back,” he said.
“Hopefully I can just get back fit and do now what I was meant to do back then.”