In Good Conscience

Invictus gold medal tells the real story of a hospital's worth

Moments after Prince Harry presented a swimming gold medal at the Invictus Games in Orlando this week, the recipient handed it back and asked him to forward it to the hospital that saved her life.

"Are you sure?" the Prince asked her.

You bet she was sure. US Army Sergeant Elizabeth Marks was competing at the Games because of a hip injury that resulted in a permanent loss of sensation in her left leg.

But her life-threatening incident came two years ago in England where, arriving for the first Invictus Games, she collapsed and was not breathing when first aiders got to her. She was put into an induced coma and saved by the heart and lung specialist Papworth Hospital in Cambridge.

"They absolutely saved my life," the soldier told the Prince. "I can't thank the National Health Service (NHS) and Papworth enough."

So in effect it was the NHS, which has never been under greater stress than it is now, that saved Sgt Marks.

But it is the first-hand experience of warfare - and of the courage and purpose that permanently invalided soldiers, sailors and airmen and women coming back broken from conflict zones - that inspired Prince Harry to invent the Invictus Games.

The Invictus Games are not driven by greed, and if indeed there are drugs in these Games, they are simply required to keep the participants alive and kicking, not to corrupt the able-bodied.

Prince Harry had flown Apache helicopters as a co-pilot and gunner in two engagements during the Afghanistan conflict.

The multi-sport Invictus Games - Harry's Games, first held in 2014 - are closer to the real purpose of sports than many of the other professional events, from the Olympics to the World Cup, are today.

They are not driven by greed, and if there are drugs in these Games they are required to keep the participants alive and kicking, not to corrupt the able-bodied.

"Four days, 10 sports, 13 support dogs, 14 nations, 149 events, 410 medals, 485 competitors, 836 volunteers, 1,008 friends and family, hundreds of hours of gruelling competition," said Prince Harry at Thursday's closing ceremony at the champions Stadium in Orlando.

He added: "And more smiles, tears, hugs and cheers than you could ever count."

The Prince also had a question: "What is the force that drives Elizabeth Marks to return to these Games after nearly dying two years ago, to compete now at the highest level? Invictus!"

The word Invictus (from the Latin for unconquered) was the title of a poem written 141 years ago by William Ernest Henley. It was the only published poem by Henley, penned during his convalescence from having a leg amputated as the result of tuberculosis.

The most often-quoted lines from that poem are the last two: "I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul."

And while Prince Harry rose to the rank of captain in the British Army Air Corps (as Captain Harry Wales), no royal has ever shown a more common touch than he has in this initiative.

He said he was hugely honoured to hand out gold, silver and bronze medals in Orlando. "But what meant the most to me was handing out your Invictus Foundation medallions. These medallions are the real prizes, for the years of intense rehabilitation you've put yourselves through to be here . . . to take the field or dive into the pool, motivated by the goal of giving your all - medal or no medal."

Sgt Marks, who enrolled as a 17-year-old, also spoke at the closing ceremony. "I saw a Twitter picture from (Papworth) Hospital thanking me," she told the crowd. "And cried like a baby."

Tears across an ocean. Tears not for the horrors of war, or for giving away her medal because she won gold every time she entered the pool in four different events.

This was more the story of what happens in real life, in circumstances that could affect you, me or anybody. Sgt Marks, now 25, had gone into respiratory distress syndrome and was put onto life support in London in 2014.

Papworth Hospital sent down a team to transfer her to Cambridge, and there to put her onto the life support system known as extracorporeal membrane oxygenation for 10 days.

When she woke up, she was moved to a military hospital in Germany to continue her rehabilitation. Now she is a four-time gold medallist, and the hospital staff back in Cambridge responded with a message with printed cards held up by doctors, nurses and administration staff.

It simply spelled out: "Thank you Sgt Marks."

A hospital responding to emergency, doing what they do in the UK without extra payment, reward or even gratification.

A relatively lightly wounded American soldier, herself in the medical corps, thinking selflessly in her own hour of glory.

A Prince finding a cause over and above his royal duties, and one which we can see fulfils him more than 1,000 moments of pomp and ceremony.

And to the rest of us? Something pure and simple, untainted by the common drivers of global sports that have become too commercialised, politicised and contaminated.

At the coming Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, we will see wondrous human achievement. We might have to suspend any disbelief, suppress any instinct to question whether it is real, or dope-induced.

That's where sport, contaminated by money, and somewhere down the line aided and abetted by doctors and scientists who forget their medical oath, have collaborated.

So, like the Prince, and like Papworth, we might also say thank you, Sgt Marks. Her four medal sprints in the pool were nothing extraordinary in the context of men and women handicapped through loss of limbs or brain damage, or loss of self-worth by the fallout of war.

But in its simplicity and its pureness it reminds us what sport is meant to be.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 14, 2016, with the headline 'Invictus gold medal tells the real story of a hospital's worth'. Print Edition | Subscribe