Rheumatic fever nearly claimed Matt Johnson’s life at 13. Ten years later, he’s not about to let it take away his professional rugby dream. Steve Deane reports.
On the surface, at least, Matt Johnson’s message to kids and their parents is simple: if your child has a sore throat that lingers, at all, get them to the doctor.
It could, without being trite, save a tremendous amout of heartache. Johnson, an aspiring professional rugby player with Southland – and the Blues (almost) – has a lengthy scar down the centre of his chest that bears testament to the wisdom of his warning.
His team-mates tease him about the scar, suggesting he get tattoos to help cover it. But, for Johnson, it is a constant reminder of what he has faced to get where he is. And what he must one day face again.
At 13, the talented Manurewa-raised league player copped a blow to the head that sent him to hospital for a concussion check. He’d had a sore throat for a while, but thought nothing of it. The doctors who examined him, though, detected a murmur in his heart. Further examination by a cardiologist revealed his heart was twice the size it should have been.
He had rheumatic fever, a disease that attacks the heart’s valves. A valve had begun to leak and his heart had ceased draining blood properly, leading to its dangerous enlargement. If untreated the condition is fatal, so Johnson got lucky. If, that is, you can call requiring emergency open heart surgery lucky.
Johnson received an aortic valve replacement from a 22-year-old donor who had died in a car accident that weekend.
For a 13-year-old, it was a lot to deal with. It was, quite frankly, terrifying – and baffling.
“It was a scary time,” he says. “I wasn’t sure what I needed to do – or what I had done wrong.”
For a kid with no shortage of sporting ability and dreams of one day being a professional league player, being told that dream was as good as over was also crushing.
Though he advocates for rheumatic fever awareness (the disease is much more likely to afflict Maori and Pacific kids – particularly those in inadequate housing*) Matt Johnson’s story goes well beyond an important health advisory.
In an age when the level of resilience in young folk is widely thought to be slipping, Johnson’s steadfast determination to pursue his sporting dream in the face of repeated setbacks is all the more inspiring.
Although advised he would be better off avoiding contact sports such as rugby and league, Johnson soon returned to the field.
In part, at least, he was inspired by the deeds of Robbie Fruean, the former Porirua College head boy who was named IRB young player of the year in 2007 after leading New Zealand to the U19 world title. A year later, just as his professional career was taking off, Fruean was diagnosed with heart disease arising from rheumatic fever.
After undergoing valve replacement surgery, Fruean would go on to play eight seasons of Super Rugby, mainly for the Crusaders, before pursuing a career in Europe.
“I knew there was someone else out there who was in the same situation and that really helped,” says Johnson.
Recruited from junior rugby league club at Otahuhu to play union for St Peter’s College, Johnson would suffer an ACL tear and broken leg during his college career.
Despite those major setbacks, he was recruited by the NRL club the Storm, and headed for Melbourne after finishing school. He was finally on his way. Or so he thought.
Nine months into a two-year-deal, the club sat him down and told him they’d reassessed the risk posed by his heart condition – and it wasn’t one the club was comfortable with. He was, he was told, being released on medical grounds.
The news was crushing.
“That was something I didn’t take easily. I was like ‘why me’? That was the question I kept asking myself. But I needed to get past that and carry on.”
He returned to Auckland, enrolled in a teaching degree at the University of Auckland and played club rugby for Suburbs.
After a season, he was offered the chance to head south and play for Invercargill club Marist Southland and complete his studies at the Southern Institute of Technology.
His impressive displays for Marist saw him drafted into Southland’s 2017 Mitre 10 Cup squad. He would play every game for the Stags, and be rewarded with a contract with the Blues.
He crushed pre-season training with his home town Super Rugby franchise at the start of this year and was feeling great. The dream of being a full-time professional player was within touching distance.
And then, once again, it wasn’t.
“Everything was falling into place for me. I’d come so far. I was overwhelmed because I never thought I’d make Super Rugby. I was just over the moon. I went through the whole pre-season and felt great,” he says.
“I then had my annual check-up – and they found there was a leakage again. That was unexpected. I was hoping I would have 15 years from the first [valve]. But it was cut down short to 10.”
The reason was almost certainly the additional workload the demands of professional rugby placed on the valve.
Johnson faced a choice – opt for another tissue-based valve that would allow him to return to the field but would likely need replacing in 10 years – or choose a mechanical valve that would last 25-30 years, but mean he would have to retire.
His career wasn’t over, but playing on meant opting in to three open heart surgeries before the age of 35.
He picked up the phone and called Fruean.
“He said to just trust the process and listen to your body,” Johnson says.
He chose to continue chasing the dream. When he should have been lining up with his Blues team-mates at the Brisbane Tens, he was instead having his chest cracked open by a surgeon for the second time.
“It was scary going through it the first time. It is open heart surgery. They are cracking bones just to get through to the ticker,” he says.
“I knew I could go through that process again. But it was a bit scary – especially that morning of the operation.”
That was just six months ago. Initially told he would be out for a year, Johnson has already returned to the field, turning out for Southland in three pre-season games ahead of Sunday’s season-opener against Hawkes Bay in Invercargill. It would be stretching it to say he is already back to his best, but he is well on the way.
“I don’t really think about what could go wrong [on the field] but I think I am holding back a wee bit,” he said, shortly before taking the field against Northland in Papatoetoe last Thursday.
“I’ve had two hit-outs and haven’t been myself. I have done the work. I’ve got all the clearance in the world from the medical staff. It’s just a confidence thing.”
When that confidence returns, Johnson looks a good bet to push for a return to the Blues.
As it stands, a biography on the Blues’ website contains Johnson’s height, weight, position, province – and two sentences describing his playing history.
Shortly after it was posted, he disappeared with barely a trace.
“That is the big question everyone asks me: so where were you? I say ‘Oh, heart surgery’ – and then I show them the big scar.”
He has no intention of trying to hide it. And he has a simple message for kids who might find themselves in the same position he has been: “If you are in this situation then I‘d say back yourself. Listen to your body – if you reckon you can do it, then do it.”
* New Zealand has one of the highest rates of rheumatic fever in the world. Around 160 New Zealanders are diagnosed with the disease each year, the vast majority of whom are children and teenagers of Maori and Pacific Island descent. In 2013, the Government announced an additional $21 million in funding – on top of an initial $24 million – to fight the disease. It aimed to reduce incidence of the disease from 4.2 cases per 100,000 people to 1.4 cases per 100,000 people by 2017. In 2017, the figure was 3.4 cases per 100,000 people.