‘A miracle’: Omar Elabdellaoui’s road back from blindness to football

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I can’t see, I can’t see,” Omar Elabdellaoui shouted at a friend after a firework exploded in his face on New Year’s Eve 2020. Gunpowder and metal had penetrated his skin and eyeballs and his jacket was burning. His wife, Anne, ran to help put out the flames but the devastation was obvious. It was to be the start of a long road to recovery for the Galatasaray defender, who is in the frame to make a miraculous first-team return on Saturday after 11 surgeries to restore his vision, having been clinically blind.

“I just thought I had something in my eye and had to clear it out but then I felt my face totally burning and everything was black,” Elabdellaoui recalls. He was in the garden preparing to light a third firework with friends and family, including his three children, when it went off prematurely as he tried to light the fuse. An ambulance came within minutes but Istanbul’s size meant it took a long time to reach the hospital. By the time Elabdellaoui arrived, journalists and teammates were waiting – the story had travelled fast across social media once a photo of his badly burned face, taken in the ambulance, was posted.

“I didn’t really have control over the first days,” the Norwegian says in impressive English developed during a spell in Manchester City’s academy. “Everything was dark – I didn’t know if it was night or day. Time was irrelevant.” There was anger among Elabdellaoui’s nearest and dearest that a person supposedly sent to help had shared a picture of him at such a traumatic time. Some demanded the accused be sacked or sued but Elabdellaoui asked only for an apology, knowing further punishment would help nobody. He is yet to receive one.

As doctors assessed the injuries, Elabdellaoui’s career looked over. “There were a lot of people and noise,” he says. “Voices become so much louder as you hear everything when you can’t see. The longer it took, the more afraid I was.” The 30-year-old had been in Istanbul for a matter of months after moving from Olympiakos but was already a popular member of the squad. Teammates offered support, spending hours at the hospital. The then head coach, Fatih Terim, left his New Year’s celebration to join them, and Elabdellaoui’s brother Rashid and his agent, Mikail Adampour, travelled to be there. The damage to Elabdellaoui’s face meant his brother could not recognise him and collapsed to the hospital floor in tears.

Omar Elabdellaoui in action for Galatasaray at Rangers in October 2020, just under three months before the accident.
Omar Elabdellaoui in action for Galatasaray at Rangers in October 2020, just under three months before the accident. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

“I tried desperately to understand but it was difficult,” Elabdellaoui says. “Because of all the gunpowder my face was burned. I think it was difficult for them to say how bad it was straight away. In one moment I grabbed the doctor to say: ‘Just tell me the truth, tell me how bad it is.’ She said: ‘Your left eye doesn’t look too bad but your right eye, we do not know.’ But the way she said it, I knew it was not good.”

There was a chink of light, literally and metaphorically, as vision started to return to Elabdellaoui’s left eye, allowing him to see shapes and colours. “I didn’t dare to sleep. As soon as I got a bit of light after a few days in my left eye, I was afraid to sleep as I was afraid of the darkness, so was afraid to close my eyes. Even though it was a tiny bit of light from my left, I was always checking if the light was there because I was afraid of losing it.”

It was obvious there was no simple solution to get Elabdellaoui his sight back, let alone playing football again. Adampour, of Tempo Sports Group, and the club doctor Yener Ince set about finding the treatment to give him the best chance. Extensive research was done and inquiries made at hospitals from the UK to China and Canada. Last February Elabdellaoui travelled with his agent to see Dr Edward Holland at the Cincinnati Eye Institute, where Holland has pioneered corneal transplant surgery. He would end up spending six months, on and off, in the US.

Like the body, the eyeball has layers of skin for protection but Elabdellaoui had burned away all the tissue that creates new skin, leaving his right eye in the state you would expect of a third-degree burns victim. He had also burned away his tear ducts. Corneal transplants are very effective when the ocular surface skin is healthy but Elabdellaoui’s was anything but. His iris was opaque and to complicate matters he had lost one-third of his upper eyelid.

A diagram showing an eye’s limbus and cornea.
A diagram showing an eye’s limbus and cornea. Photograph: handout

A strategy was created to get the eye to a state where a corneal transplant could be considered, and the processes had to be fast-tracked to give Elabdellaoui a chance of resuming his career. Holland gave Elabdellaoui a 5-10% chance of getting his sight back because it was one of the worst injuries he had examined in a 35-year career. He described it as four times worse than those suffered by an American soldier he treated who was blinded by a bomb in Afghanistan.

The first stage was to calm and stabilise the eye with oral and topical anti-inflammatory medications, using procedures to reinforce the surface. Doctors used an amnionic membrane from human placenta, a technique borrowed from dermatology, to create a pseudo skin. A new eyelid was also needed because an eye cannot function without one; it is required for protection and to keep it moist. For that, membrane was taken from inside Elabdellaoui’s mouth and skin from one of his ears by plastic surgeons.

By spring the medics and Elabdellaoui could move to the stages for restoring vision. An ocular surface stem cell transplant from a family member would enhance the chances of success, and one of his sisters, Ikram, was found to be a perfect match. “It was unreal,” Elabdellaoui says. “It was a big sign that this might actually go well. Even though we knew it was a long way, to have my sister 100% made a big difference. To make my sister go through an operation is not something I wanted. It’s funny as my other siblings were almost upset it wasn’t them, as they wanted to be the one. It was important to have that love from my family. It did a lot to have my sister give me her cells.”

Omar Elabdellaoui’s right eye after the lid reconstruction.
Omar Elabdellaoui’s right eye after the lid reconstruction. Photograph: handout

Ocular stem cells from his sister and an anonymous donor were needed to allow the eye to create its own skin again and give the planned corneal transplant the best chance of working. Elabdellaoui watched across the corridor as cells were taken from his sister’s eye and walked across to him.

It was the latest in a long line of surgeries, each testing his attempts to stay optimistic. “When reality hits you and you’re alone in the room and everything is still dark, then it is difficult to keep that positive mindset. Even when I was totally down and felt my life was ruined, I still kept the discipline for the task. I could have felt sorry for myself, I could have cried and got very down, but I did everything I had to do.”

Among the constant treatment and checkups in Cincinnati, Elabdellaoui trained when he could to maintain fitness, despite being able to see only out of his left eye. A fitness coach at the NFL team Cincinnati Bengals, who play in the Super Bowl on Sunday, was enlisted to give sessions suitable for a wide receiver – supposedly the sport’s fittest players – but they were not intense enough.

“That saved me, that kept me alive, I am not going to lie,” Elabdellaoui says. “Without that I would have not been able to survive all the way – that was my real escape. I started training early on and I put in my mind that I would be going back to play no matter what. Every time I had a really good hard session I would sweat everything out. I could feel I was still capable, strong and still alive.

“Training for me was everything. I remember the few weeks when I could not train, if I had a delicate procedure or operation. They were the most difficult times and Holland understood that and would make sure I trained when I could. The training and visualising training with the team was something that kept me alive.”

Omar Elabdellaoui training with Galatasaray with an eye patch in July.
Omar Elabdellaoui training with Galatasaray with an eye patch in July. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Galatasaray and Elabdellaoui’s Norway teammates have been very supportive, and the club have paid for his treatment. “He has a strong mentality and has been able to stay positive and see the possibilities,” Norway’s head coach, Ståle Solbakken, says. “I think the people around him have been very good at supporting him because there have been some bumps along the way where you have doubts.”

From the second night in hospital to the months away from his family in America, Elabdellaoui has had one man by his side: his agent. “I don’t think there is any agent in the whole world that would do what he has done and he deserves all the praise,” Elabdellaoui says. “The accident happened and he came and slept in the hospital room with me for a month. Bear in mind this is the January transfer window, so I am really lucky and I am so thankful to have him.”

Adampour was there when the corneal transplant took place in September. To get to this stage Elabdellaoui had been on a regime of drops, an anti-inflammatory diet and drinking only water for months. Holland describes Elabdellaoui as “the most motivated patient” he has seen. “His perseverance to get his vision back has inspired me and my staff,” he says. “He will jump through hoops of fire if we tell him to.”

Elabdellaoui left the hospital and within an hour was removing his patch to see again. “It was really special – I do not know how to put it into words,” he says. “You can try to imagine but I do not think it is possible for anyone else who hasn’t been in the position. I was taking off the patch and had a bit of vision; I was closing my left eye and could actually see my hand on my right side; I could see all the movements on my right side that I hadn’t. It was a miracle, like a dream come true. You never think that to see is a dream – you just take that for granted.”

A permanent return to the family home after more than half a year was another milestone for the right-back. “This period has given us more emotional moments than we have had all our lives, so for me to be able to come back home and see them and them to see me … there were a lot of tears, of hugs. When your only goal for nine, 10, 11 months is to see, when it’s the only thing you think about 24/7, when we were able to achieve it, that was pure happiness.”

Elabdellaoui playing for Norway against Northern Ireland in 2020.
Omar Elabdellaoui playing for Norway against Northern Ireland in 2020. Photograph: Graham Service/Action Plus/Rex/Shutterstock

Elabdellaoui, who has to use eye drops every half an hour unless on the pitch, was reintegrated into the squad at the start of January, fitted with specialist glasses and a contact lens. His fitness regime meant he slipped back in easily. “When he returned to play it was very emotional, all the players were crying and hugging,” says Galatasaray’s Dr Yener, who has since cleared Elabdellaoui to play. Two Fridays ago Elabdellaoui featured in a friendly, which felt like his professional debut as a teenager, but his league return was delayed by Covid. He is expected to be on the bench on Saturday at home to Kayserispor and is hoping for an emotional comeback for a club with whom he now has an unbreakable bond.

After a year of pain, Elabdellaoui has a career to look forward to again. “It is something that will stay with me forever,” he says. “I cannot forget. It is a scar that will be with me forever.”

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