Vale Neil Sachse

26 Aug 2020
Vale Neil Sachse

The SAHMRI community is deeply saddened by the passing of friend and colleague, Neil Sachse, who died peacefully yesterday, aged 69.

The Institute’s Executive Director, Professor Steve Wesselingh, says Neil’s zest for life and infectious positivity will be dearly missed.

“Neil was a larger than life personality who many of us knew and loved long before he joined the SAHMRI community,” Professor Wesselingh said.

“Since the Neil Sachse Centre for Spinal Cord Research joined SAHMRI at the start of 2017, we’ve all seen and marvelled at his work ethic and determination to have a positive impact for society generally but in particular those who are living with spinal cord injury.”

Determination and positivity are descriptions of Neil that will come as no surprise to anyone who’s had the pleasure of meeting him. Those qualities saw him excel as a premiership-winning footballer for North Adelaide in the early 1970s. They came to the fore when, aged 24, his football career and more was taken from him by an on-field collision while playing for Footscray in the VFL.

“The accident left Neil a quadriplegic,” Professor Wesselingh said.

“You could forgive anyone for feeling at least a bit sorry for themselves after that, but that’s just not in Neil’s nature.” 

Neil himself best summed up his outlook on life when interviewed by LifeAgain in 2016.

“Mine is not a hard-luck story, but a story of someone dealing with his lot in life, for better and for worse,” he said.

“Having a positive attitude was part of my solution. By being happy within myself I knew that other people would follow. By drowning in my sorrows, others around me would drown. I had seen plenty of that in my early days in the spinal unit.”

Neil soon became a passionate advocate for people with spinal cord injury and for research into better diagnosis and treatments. In 1994, he founded the Spinal Research Fund of Australia, which would later become the Neil Sachse Centre for Spinal Cord Research

“The Neil Sachse Centre has raised more than $8 million over its 25 years and all of that money is being used to improve the understanding of spinal cord injury,” said Sarah Boucaut, who succeeded Neil as Centre’s Director after his retirement last year.

“We will miss Neil dearly, we are poorer for his loss, but spinal cord injury research is so much richer for what Neil has been able to achieve and his legacy continues.”

One of the people responsible for continuing that legacy is Dr Ryan O’Hare Doig, the Centre’s lead researcher. Dr O’Hare Doig leads several research initiatives, most prominently Project Discoveryan idea Neil was extremely passionate about which uses high-tech imaging techniques for more rapid and accurate diagnosis of spinal cord injury.

“I can’t overstate the impact Neil has had on my work but also on me as a person,” Dr O’Hare Doig said.

“Our community has lost a great role model and an even better friend. I can’t overstate the impact Neil has had on my work but also on me as a person. I will greatly miss his mentorship.”

While better outcomes for people with spinal cord injury will be Neil’s greatest achievement, he achieved so much in life to be proud of.

In 2009, he received the Premier’s Award for Outstanding Community Achievement in South Australia. In 2014 he was a state finalist for Australian of the Year and in 2018 he was honoured with the Spirit of Australia Award from Sport SA.

Neil is survived by his wife Janyne, their two sons and five grandchildren, who request privacy while they deal with his passing.

Image: Neil Sachse with the 2019 Project Discovery Classic team. The Classic Ride is the Neil Sachse Centre’s biggest annual fundraiser.