It appeared he had been winning his battle with what would later be diagnosed as “Sonic Hedgehog-activated Medulloblastoma” – an aggressive cancer rarely found in adults – after initial bouts of radiation and chemotherapy. There were side effects, the radiation damaging the glands at the front of his throat, making it hard to even swallow the eggs and strawberry shakes that had been his staple diet.
But then something really went wrong. The tumour was back and was moving from his head, down his neck and into his spine, causing Kula excruciating pain. Having just been taken by ambulance to Liverpool Hospital, he was referred straight to Westmead Hospital.
“That weekend, it all went bad,” Solomon recalled.
Two days later, during what they thought would be a routine hospital visit, Fine’s family heard him before they saw him. Fine, a fit footballer just a few months earlier, was screaming in agony.
“All we could hear was this voice as we were going through those doors,” Solomon said. “We went there and, oh my gosh, the pain he was going through. He was talking gibberish, he was calling out names, numbers and figures.
“The doctor asked me if I recognised the names. He was calling the players’ names from the Sharks, he was calling out the plays in code. The nurses on the ward said during the night he ripped all the cords on his arms that were hooked up.
“The pain he was going through was unbearable.
“The doctor came and saw us and said, ‘We need to sit down and have a serious talk’.”
The talk. About suffering. Or whether to put him into an induced coma, so that he can be put through one more course of treatment without the guarantee of success.
An impossible decision. Before making it, Solomon went to his son and whispered into his ear.
“I said to him, ‘Fine, can you hear me?'” Solomon said. “I said all you have to do is listen to my voice. You have to be strong, you have to fight this. You have to fight this.
“I looked at my wife and we had to make a decision. I wasn’t ready to give up on Fine. I said let’s go with the second option.”
The next six days were the longest the family has endured. A tube was put down Kula’s throat to help him breathe while he was blasted with radiation. On the sixth day it had to come out. Kula would either be able to breathe on his own, or he couldn’t.
On the final day, the medicos emerged to share news with the family.
This time, remarkably, it was good news.
“We are so blessed; we almost lost him,” Solomon said.
Kula could breathe, the cancer that had spread down his spine – at one point it appeared as a black mass the size of a bread roll on an MRI scan – was now clear.
Kula couldn’t remember the ordeal he had been through due to short-term memory loss that is common in such ordeals.
The “Fight for Fine”, as the Sharks have dubbed their charitable rallying call, continues. Kula is now at home, recovering in preparation for the next bouts of chemo. His throat is better, he usually eats three meals, but can’t speak much. Gentle exercise, in the form of walks around the block, are encouraged.
“The journey is still a long one,” Solomon said. “At one stage it wasn’t looking good. We’re not overconfident, but we feel Fine has the right people in his corner. He is pushing through barriers.
“We are so blessed that we wake up in the morning and still have our son. We questioned ourselves so many times whether we were doing the right thing or not.
“I just felt afterwards, when we sat back and looked at the whole thing, he is a fighter. We’ve given him a chance to fight.”
The Sharks have established a GoFundMe page to support Fine Kula. To contribute, go to https://au.gofundme.com/f/7cbqg-fight-for-fine
Adrian Proszenko is the Chief Rugby League Reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald.