Fernando Ricksen, the former Rangers and Netherlands player, has motor neurone disease. We spend time with him and his wife and find anger, sadness and humour
At St Andrew’s Hospice in Airdrie, about eight miles outside Glasgow, Fernando Ricksen is beginning to show the first signs of tiredness after answering questions with his eyes for more than an hour. As an emotional and deeply moving interview draws to a close, Ricksen is asked whether there is anything else he would like to mention in this article. After a short pause while his eyes scroll across the screen to select the words that his voice-computer reads aloud once the sentence is complete, Ricksen adds: “My wife, so that I get some points!”
There is the hint of a smile on Ricksen’s face and a sparkle in his eyes as the room is filled with laughter. The 42-year-old has clearly not lost his sense of humour, which seems remarkable in the circumstances, bearing in mind that he is in the final stages of a cruel, degenerative and terminal illness.
Ricksen, who represented the Netherlands, captained Rangers and also played for Fortuna Sittard, AZ Alkmaar and Zenit St Petersburg, has motor neurone disease (MND). He was diagnosed in October 2013 and given 18 months to live. That he is still here now, continuing to raise awareness about the illness and even cracking jokes, despite being unable to talk and barely able to move, says everything about his extraordinary courage. “I just keep going, it’s nothing special,” Ricksen says. “The people that take care of me do all the work. I just sit and tell them what to do.”
Ricksen’s biggest inspiration is Isabella, his six-year-old daughter. A framed picture of her rests on the tray-table next to the computer directly in front of him and she did a nice job of decorating the outside of her father’s wardrobe with family photographs on her last visit to the hospice a few weeks ago. Elsewhere there are cards from well-wishers dotted around the room, as well as a Rangers blanket draped across his bed and a Fortuna Sittard scarf hanging over the back of the chair next to the two-seater sofa where Veronika, Ricksen’s wife, sleeps when she is visiting.
Their family home is near Valencia. Ricksen desperately wanted to return there when he was recovering in hospital from exhaustion after flying to Glasgow for a fundraising event in October, but his deteriorating health has made that impossible.
Although Veronika had been caring for Ricksen 24-7 in Valencia, washing, dressing and feeding him, she is not in a position to provide the round-the-clock medical attention that he now needs. St Andrew’s Hospice, a registered charity part-funded by the state, is the best place for Ricksen in that respect and is where he will spend the remainder of his life.
Isabella is far too young to understand all of that and it is difficult listening to Veronika describing the scene at the end of their first visit here. “We had an early flight back, at 7am,” says Veronika, who is Russian and met Ricksen when he was playing for Zenit. “Isabella thought that Fernando was coming home with us, so when someone came to pick us up, she said: ‘Why are we going and not Papa?’ All three of us were crying. Now, every day at home, she’s still asking when he’s coming back and that is the hardest part for me.”
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