From wheelchair horror to brink of the NRL
HIS fingers, knees and feet were swollen solid.
Confined to a wheelchair, he couldn't bend his fingers far enough to clutch onto the wheel and move himself around. He had to rely on a push from his parents.
It was a desperately humbling time in the life of Newcastle winger Tom Hughes, struck down for a third time by a debilitating case of arthritis.
He was 19, on the verge of realising a childhood dream of playing in the NRL for South Sydney when it hit him hard, sending his career, and life, spiralling into limbo.
One day he was a fit and muscular athlete rubbing shoulders with Sam Burgess, he could squat with a bar loaded full of iron plates on his back, then suddenly, when he wants a drink, he needs a straw. He can't hold a glass without dropping it.
THE WORST OF TIMES
He was in so much pain he would wake himself up when he rolled over in his sleep.
From leading the beach sprints at Maroubra, to being unable to stand for more than 20 minutes at a time.
If he was to attempt walking around his living room, he'd finish so exhausted he'd be asleep for the next three hours.
"It was a low six months of my life just lying in bed, not being able to open a door or hold a glass. It was shocking," Hughes told foxsports.com.au.
That was just 18 months ago.
The first time Hughes was struck by the disease was at the age of seven. It returned when he was 14 and again at 18. But late 2015 was by far the worst case.
"It hung around, it just wouldn't go away," he recalled.
"I tried everything, herbal medicines, but nothing really worked and I had to wait for six months to get on the pharmaceutical benefits scheme to get the actual medicine which would fix it.
"I get a needle once a month. If it wasn't on the benefits scheme, it would be $2000 a pop. I had to cop it for six months.
"I was fulltime with Souths and they were really good with it supporting me."
Things were so bad he could no longer take care of himself and had to leave his home in Sydney and move back with his parents in Merimbula on the South Coast.
THE LONG ROAD BACK
After finally receiving the treatment he needed, which sees him go for monthly injections, Hughes had fought off the crippling disease and a few weeks later he fronted for pre-season with the Rabbitohs.
It was a disaster.
It was his first year training fulltime and his chance to impress but he was battling.
"I was in a wheelchair and come pre-season 2016 I was underdone, going in like an Average Joe to do an NRL pre-season," he said.
"That's part of why things didn't work at Souths. I just wasn't physically up to it."
While he featured in the Charity Shield in jersey No.18, months of being confined to a bed had stalled any momentum he had heading into the 2016 season.
He couldn't even make the North Sydney team.
In less than six months he went from training fulltime with the NRL side to playing park football in front of 20-odd people for a team that doesn't even get a pie and can of soft drink if they win.
"They (Souths) wouldn't let me play reserve grade and sent me back to play for South Eastern in the South Sydney comp for one game. That was a bit rough," Hughes recalled.
"That was their decision to send me back to park footy and then a week or so after that I moved to Newcastle."
The same year Hughes was dealing with the fallout of his arthritis, many of his peers were excelling.
His former Merimbula-Pambula Bulldogs junior teammate Euan Aitken, who he won the under-16s premiership with, was running riot for the Dragons, securing a contract extension, and another local product, Jack Bird, was making his State of Origin debut.
It was during this series Bird opened up on the suffering he went through as a teen and the medication he takes fortnightly to keep him playing at the elite level.
"It was good to know I wasn't the only one around with it," Hughes said of Bird.
"He set the benchmark for people playing with arthritis. He's doing well for himself."
ON THE UP AND UP
Just like Bird's story, Hughes' career has taken a turn for the better, although his tale is far from over.
Not only is he rid of the arthritis but he's fitter and stronger than ever and his health is showing in his football.
Hughes is the leading try scorer for the ISP NSW, a competition he couldn't even make selection for in the Bears team this time last year, which prompted his move to Newcastle.
On a part-time deal, he's offsetting his income working at an RSL pouring beers, while also studying sports science at UTS via correspondence.
But he's making it work. Hughes sits atop of them all with 17 tries from 17 games this season.
He's scored 27 tries in 35 games over two seasons in the reserve grade competition.
"I never gave up hope," he said.
"It was a mental game at the start. I always knew I had the ability. Staying healthy was my biggest issue. I couldn't get on a roll.
"Now I've had two full seasons back-to-back, hopefully things are on the up from here."
While he's off-contract, the Knights have indicated they're keen on keeping him around and why wouldn't they?
This season he's made 16 line breaks, 52 tackle breaks and averages 123 metres per game.
With pace and proven finishing ability, Hughes' form has him knocking on the door for a call up to the NRL and other teams have noticed. With a full pre-season under his belt, Hughes believes he has plenty to offer the Knights' top squad in 2018 if a new deal can be struck.
"I'm looking at re-signing with Newcastle now," he said.
"I have a few offers being thrown around so I'm looking at going fulltime again and next year playing NRL if I can."