Matt Johnson is grateful to be alive and content to call time on his inspiring rugby career.
Early last month the former Blues, Northland, Southland and Counties Manukau midfielder underwent his third open-heart surgery – his fourth procedure all told in what must be one of rugby’s greatest tales of resilience and perseverance.
Johnson’s latest operation was by far his most traumatic, lasting 19 hours and leaving him with an open chest in an induced coma for six days.
During surgery he needed eight donated blood bags – the entire body volume two times over – and while in the coma he lost 10 kilograms.
“I thought it was three to four hours when I woke up. My heart wouldn’t start up again and that’s when I had to go on life support,” Johnson says with a soft voice as his vocal cords continue to recover from surgery.
“Seeing the photos, that’s what really made me think about life and be grateful because it could have gone either way so I’m happy to be on this side. It’s pretty scary hearing about being on life support so I’m very grateful to the medical team. I was really emotional when I woke up. I think about it most days, how grateful I am to be alive.”
Johnson’s complications began when he contracted rheumatic fever – a disease that attacks the heart’s valves – at 13-years-old.
Following his first heart surgery to insert an aortic valve replacement he was told he would never play rugby again, but after speaking with Robbie Fruean, the former Junior All Black who suffered similar heart issues, Johnson returned to the field to forge a successful professional career that also took him to the Melbourne Storm and to play rugby in Leeds.
In 2018, the same year he broke into Tana Umaga’s Blues squad, Johnson refused to give up the dream and thus opted to again go under the knife to replace the valve.
Four-and-a-half months after that second heart surgery Johnson was back on the field, only for major issues to arise last March when he had a stent inserted after discovering he had been functioning with an 85 per cent blocked coronary artery for two years.
In that time Johnson played for Southland, Northland and in two trial matches for Counties Manukau earlier this year.
“I was functioning on 15 per cent blood flow. I had no idea. I was at St Peter’s School sitting down in a meeting and my chest started feeling tight.”
The worst was yet to come.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 15, 2020
During lockdown, Johnson began experiencing fevers, chills and aching muscles. Some days he couldn’t walk because his calves were that sore. Everything looked fine with his blood tests but stomach aches and sharp pains signalled all was not well.
After two weeks in hospital testing eventually identified a 5cm growth mass in Johnson’s stomach. Bacteria had spread, and doctors then found a growth on his heart that needed immediate surgery to prevent the onset of a stroke.
“If they weren’t able to put the stent in I would’ve needed a bypass so I was hoping that wouldn’t be the case because I’d just had one two years ago. When they put the stent in we were really happy, and then they found out when they opened me for this surgery that the stent got lodged into the heart which isn’t good. I felt normal – it was just the fever and aching muscles that made me go back.”
Emerging from the coma, one month after arriving at Auckland hospital, following his third heart surgery Johnson couldn’t lift his arms and had to learn to walk again.
The experience was even more distressing for Johnson’s fiancé, Sky Sport commentator, presenter and rugby player Taylah Hodson-Tomokino, who watched events unfold from the sidelines.
Despite his deep love for the game, Johnson is at peace with his immediate retirement.
“It was a struggle for the first two weeks physically and mentally. I had to medically retire because of the mechanical value and blood thinning medication. If I get a hit or knock it could lead to internal bleeding and blood clots so that means no contact. I can do everything else just not rugby.
“Everyone talks about how am I feeling not playing anymore and having to retire at 26, but I’m not that fussed to be honest. I’m just happy to be alive.
“I’m changing my view on life and trying to connect more with family, friends and live as much as I can. Dad never liked me playing rugby. Mum was always scared because of my heart so she’s happy I’ve stopped too. They can get that stress off their shoulders now.
“Everyone keeps asking when I can play again and I can’t go through the whole story so hopefully they can read this.”
Reflecting on a career that involved confronting more tremors than most will ever face, Johnson knows he could do no more having repeatedly put his life on the line to pursue his dream.
“I’m proud with what I accomplished in my 11 years playing rugby with my heart. I think to myself sometimes how far I could have gone without the condition and I’m grateful for what I’ve done in my 26 years so far. I’m thankful to be here.
“I never thought I’d play again – I never thought I’d play at professional level either – so I was grateful to be back on the field. Robbie was a massive influence on me. I talked with him after my second surgery and before this one as well. He said to make the most of rugby and the connections it provides as well.”
That’s exactly what Johnson plans to do next.
Two days after surgery he called Counties coach Tai Lavea to say he wouldn’t be available this season. Lavea insisted he wanted Johnson involved in a coaching capacity and the union will now put him through his papers. With this pathway in mind, Johnson is already viewing the game in a more analytical light.
St Peter’s College has, likewise, reached out by committing to push Johnson through his post-graduate teaching course with the prospect of a physical education role at the end of it.
A life that so easily could have ended last month is instead taking a different turn.
“Everything is falling into place for the start of my next chapter.”
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