Former Blues centre Matt Johnson has retired from rugby at 26 following open heart surgery which left him in an induced coma for six days.
Johnson represented Southland during the 2017 Mitre 10 Cup and caught the eye of Super Rugby side the Blues before signing a contract with them the following year.
At the beginning of June, his fiancee Taylah Tomokino wrote on Instagram that Johnson underwent surgery at Auckland Hospital after vegetation was seen growing on his Left Ventricular Outflow Tract, parts of which were breaking off and affecting his kidneys.
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Hi friends & family, I thought I would write this so you understand what Matty is going through and how we got here. Nine weeks ago, Matty started getting fevers and stomach pains. After going to his GP, they couldn’t find anything wrong. Weeks went by and his symptoms were coming & going. Two weeks ago, we went to the Hospital after Matty was shivering uncontrollably and had stomach pains. They told him he was probably just “blocked up” and gave him laxatives. They had no reason to believe it was his heart as he passed all the usual tests: ECG’s, Echo tests etc. His heart was in perfect working condition and his Aortic Valve that was replaced in 2018 was more or less perfect. The fevers didn’t stop and last week an infection was found in his blood. A Transoesophageal Echocardiography was done, just to double check his heart. Unfortunately, a vegetation was seen growing on his valve as a result of the infection. The medical term is Endocarditis. Furthermore, a CT scan was done. The first came up clear and we were hopeful it could be treated with antibiotics. A second CT scan was done and it was revealed that the vegetation had caused a huge abscess over his Left Ventricular Outflow Tract (LVOT). The abscess had also formed a hole on the LVOT so surgery was his only option. Bits and pieces of the vegetation on his valve were breaking off every time his heart was beating. Fragments of it had reached his kidneys which is why he had the stomach pains and the doctors feared it would reach his brain and cause a stroke. If the abscess burst, it would have sent him in to septic shock. If we didn’t operate, it would prove fatal, so we were left with no choice. At 7am on Tuesday 2nd June, Matty went in to surgery. The surgeons were able to drain the abscess on the LVOT, fix the hole, replace the diseased valve and perform grafts to widen his coronary arteries. At 2pm they tried to take him off the bypass machine, however, his heart wouldn’t start. They then operated again and did as much as they could. The left chambers in his heart were working great, but the right was weak. They tried multiple times to get him off the bypass but they were unable to. (Continued)
While surgeons were able to fix the damage during the 19-hour surgery, Johnson’s heart would not start once he was taken off the bypass machine and he was placed on a life support machine.
After spending almost a week in the Intensive Care Unit, the 26-year-old woke up and began his recovery which led to his discharge from hospital on June 22.
“I’ve had some pretty memorable moments in life but I can truly say this has been the best. Matt walked out of hospital today, 20 days post-op, and 14 days after he successfully came off life support.
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Six days after waking up from his induced coma and nine days after coming off life support, Matty went from being unable to move his legs to now being able to walk short distances on his own. He couldn’t even lift his arms off the bed and now he’s able to dress himself. Credit to him & his physiotherapist for putting in the hard yards. He’s allowed to be pushed on a wheelchair outside the hospital, so this weekend we’ve been going for walks with my family around the domain and reflecting on how blessed he is to still be here. Today we were joined by our baby boy Hershey 🐶 and he certainly missed his Dad! Thank you to everyone who’s come to visit and for the continued support. If Matty continues to improve at this rate, he could be home by next week! I’m super proud of what he’s achieved in his life and career while constantly being ailed by his heart. I’m excited for our new chapter! 💛 #CoachMatty
“God has other plans for him and he’s with us today because of the incredible staff at Auckland Hospital, his perseverance and all of you, near and far, who prayed over him and kept him in your thoughts.”
On Thursday, Johnson confirmed his retirement from rugby following the ordeal.
“Been tough having to medically retire”, he wrote on Instagram.
“But we [are] still here.
“Goodbye rugby, hello to living”.
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Been tough having to medically retire.. But we still here 🙏 Thank you all for the love and support, and a massive thank you to my fiancé @taylahtomokino for being my rock. I literally couldn’t have done it without her as she was there through the hardest time of my life. She’s been there since day one and continues to be there for me today ❤️ Goodbye rugby, hello to living ✌️
Johnson has undergone three previous heart procedures since contracting rheumatic fever, a disease that attacks the heart’s valves, at 13.
Following a valve replacement surgery, Johnson was told he would never play rugby again but returned to his professional career. After breaking into the Blues squad in 2018, he opted to undergo another surgery to replace the valve and returned to the field less than five months later.
“It was a struggle for the first two weeks physically and mentally”, he told the NZ Herald.
“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.”