In March 2007 my life changed immediately as my dreams and aspirations were taken away and I struggled to come to terms with what I labeled the “new and ordinary me”. My entire life revolved around sports participation from a young age and occurred from the moment my parents sent me to boarding school in search of a better education but instead was found to have the opposite affect as I wanted to pursue a professional career in rugby union.
My dream was nearly shattered when I suffered a severe knee injury in which I had a full rupture of the Patella Tendon with a break of the Tibia and Fibia. Advised by the surgeon not to participate in rugby again was something that did not sit comfortably with me and I set about proving the medical team wrong through doing more than I should have during the rehabilitation period. When eventually making a return to the field of play and scoring freely in what was a hugely successful season I was signed by a Professional Club playing in what was termed the Zurich Premiership for their Academy programme.
Due to other injuries over a two year period, I was consequently released and ended up playing at a Semi-Professional level on and off for a few years as juggling my degree programme alongside playing had become demanding. With a professional rugby career seemingly unlikely, a military career that maintained my love of rugby at a high level combined with employment that was physically active aligned well with my personal values and characteristics.
After a weekend of intense training I was woken up with a severe clamping pain across my chest. The pain lasted for approximately 10 minutes but it seemed like a lifetime and I knew something was significantly wrong. Luckily, I was at my parents house and had it not been for my father I would potentially not be alive to be telling this story today. Once the pain had subsided I was ready to go to the gym and workout but my father saved my life because he was insistent that I go to the doctors to get checked. I agreed reluctantly for my parents sake and it was then that the ambulance was called and talk about blocked arteries and heart attacks were discussed to which I laughed sarcastically and remember getting angry. How could that be the case when I have always been physically fit and active all my life was the reoccurring thought that kept playing in my inner tape whilst others talked around me.
The emotions experienced during this period were like a roller coaster because the 18 hour blood test came back negative meaning I did not have a heart attack. Immediately it made me think I was right and the medics were wrong until a week later when the echo was completed and revealed I had a large heart. Having studied sports science at degree level I believed that this was a positive sign and took the information well until the details were provided. I was told I had Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy. I remember the room spinning and coming over all hot and clammy just wanting to lie down before asking the question “Can you die from it?” to which the consultant stated “yes you can.” This really hit home but at the same time it did not seem like the conversation was happening with myself but was more of an outer body experience.
What may seem strange to most is that I honestly believe what was the hardest to stomach was when the consultant emphasised the fact that I would never ever be able to play rugby again in my life time and this changed the tables for me. Hand on heart, I felt that I did not want to live and go on any more. My life without rugby and the years of training in various gym facilities both at home and abroad not to mention the camaraderie of the guys, coaches, and spectators really made me feel like it was not a life worth living.
I just grasped onto any opportunity for that little glimmer of hope and when suggested that I should not participate in any physical activity for the next 6 months. This was to see if my heart returned to its normal size as the heart especially for marathon runners hypertrophies was something I believed would happen to mine but it never did.
One of my largest frustrations was the fact that the medical personnel had limited knowledge of dealing with athletic populations as my own consultant dismissed the fact that I could not play rugby again as a somewhat trivial issue when stating that I lived in a pleasant area so I could go for nice walks. To me there was absolutely no comparison and just served to make the transition even harder as I began to feel even more isolated through not being understood.
Emotions have ranged from avoidance where I have done anything not to discuss the fact that I actually had the condition and refused point blankly to attend any support groups or even talk to my close family about the condition. Then I have experienced feelings of anger and jealousy when my then girlfriend and now wife would go to the gym to workout. For me that was really difficult to understand because it was something that I really wanted to do and seeing someone do the one thing that you loved was like being kicked really hard in the stomach. I eventually came to realise that others can simply not stop their lives just because yours has changed. This did take time and I broke down on numerous occasions as a result although nobody knew because I believed they would never be able to understand.
In my own experience sporting institutions are extremely fickle and almost immediately after my life had taken a swerve in another direction I had been forgotten about, as a new player stepped in to take my position. I received no real support although rugby players often find it difficult to reveal emotion and be supportive in a way that is emphatic due to that being seen as a weakness. Revealing feelings and emotions would never occur in and around the rugby environment back then or at Clubs in which I have represented. Therefore, I felt very isolated and alone but it gave me plenty of time to then overly think about my life, the condition and whether I would get through to the other side. The other side being somewhat of an unknown entity as up until that point I had a plan, goals and aspirations.
When thinking that I had started to come to terms with the condition and after what was now my 3rd annual check up since being diagnosed, I was called back in after a few weeks by my doctor which immediately raised an eyebrow. Suddenly, there was talk of me requiring an ICD to be implanted due to episodes of non-sustained Ventricular Tachycardia (VT) appearing on the new 24 hour tape. Either through insanity or that mental resilience and characteristics nurtured through years of rugby forced me to decline getting the ICD. Whilst I worry about every little feeling or flutter in my chest I know that I would never have come to terms with having an ICD implanted and the worry of surgery occurring in similar cycles to an Olympic Games was not my idea of living life the way in which I wanted to live it. Up until now I have not taken any medication for the condition and although I lost a dear friend and professional footballer in Mitchell Cole I still feel that I have made the right decision for me personally.
One of my biggest worries is my son, Jerome who is aged 7 and is extremely active as I know that if he was to have the condition it would break me. He is scheduled to have check ups every 5 years and so far everything is clear. One of the hardest things is trying to relinquish the apron strings and let him pursue activities that he wants such as football (soccer) and rugby as I am conscious of not wanting him to either be at risk later in life or if diagnosed having to go through the same traumatic transitional experience to that of myself. At present he is really loving golf and it may have been a conscious effort on my part but at the same time I want to protect but not smother him by creating the “what if” scenario. In reality he will hopefully never ever have the condition and live a fully active life but I guess that question mark will always hang over me.
I have not managed to change my identity as I still see myself as a rugby player and athlete that has contributed to making my transition that much more difficult but I have also managed to consult and talk much more freely and easily about having the condition and not seeing myself as being weak and feeble as a result. Years ago this story would never have been possible and I would have avoided the opportunity at all costs but hopefully others will realise that they are not experiencing the journey alone thanks to people like Wendy at The Share Registry.
In fact so many positives have happened as a result and the first is that I have focussed my doctorate research on the area of Cardiomyopathy with athletic populations so if you participated in physical activity or sport more than 3 times a week for 20 minutes or more a session then please get in touch as together we can raise awareness and help others diagnosed in the future. Secondly my father was actually found to have the condition and has lived a full and active life without actually knowing he ever had it until I was diagnosed at the age of 26 back in March 2007. He is now 74 years of age. Finally, I have met some amazing people who have shown what true mental resilience really means as they step outside their comfort zone on a daily basis to overcome adversity. Through my doctorate research I have learnt so much from others that in turn has already helped myself in living a more productive life to which I thank them all.
Support each other and then we live in hope rather than in fear.