Bella Shirley wasn’t worried when she got a message on October 21, 2018 saying that her good friend Alex Noble, then 16, had been injured during a rugby union training session.
“I thought, ‘I’m sure it’s not a big deal because he always hurts himself,’” says Bella, 17, from Sydney’s North Shore. After all, Alex had previously damaged his ankle badly and broken a finger playing the sport he adored.
However, over the course of the next few hours on that October day, the gravity of the situation became apparent. Alex had suffered a catastrophic injury, breaking his neck and badly damaging his spinal cord. “It was heartbreaking but it didn't feel real and it was hard to imagine without seeing him,” Bella says.
Not long after the accident, during a conversation with his brother Zac, Alex uttered the phrase, “I fight, you fight,” which has gone on to become his rallying cry. It is also the name given to the campaign launched by his family to raise much-needed funds to help with the huge costs of his treatment. While Alex may never walk again, he is currently undergoing extensive rehabilitation to help him regain some movement in his fingers, hands and arms.
In recognition of his inspirational fight, Alex was asked to turn on the lights for the Vivid Festival in Chatswood in May – and Bella and other friends were there to support him.
Throughout this deeply challenging time, friendship has been a constant for Alex. Bella has shown her unwavering support from the beginning, visiting him three times a week, first in hospital and then later at Ryde Rehab Hospital, where he has been for nearly six months.
“Once visitors were allowed, I tried to come as much as I could,” she says. “The first time I visited him was pretty good but once I got home and started thinking about it, that was really hard. Other times I saw him in bed and there were all these tubes coming out of him – that was quite confronting.”
In the weeks and months after that fateful rugby session (Alex was training with the under-16 NSW Rugby Sevens youth selection squad, Bella’s trips to see Alex followed a similar script to what the pair would have been doing under better circumstances: indulging in Japanese chicken udon noodle soup, ordering takeaway and catching up on what was going on in their social circle.
“We just carry on as if nothing really has changed in our friendship,” says Bella. “You don’t really need to lift his spirits because he is so naturally positive.”
Suggest to Bella that her devotion to supporting Alex is laudable and she immediately disagrees. “You just love your friends and you would do anything for them,” she says. “I’m just going to see him because he’s my mate. I’m not going there to help him, I’m just there to hang out.”
The year 11 student is adamant that if circumstances were reversed, Alex would be as supportive as she has been, saying: “If I was in his situation, I know that he would do the same.”