At the youthful age of 30, rugby star Chris Henry never imagined that he would suffer from any major health problems. However, on the 8th November 2014, Chris was left terrified when he suffered from a mini stroke just hours before the Ireland vs South Africa autumn international.
When he got up that morning, Chris went into the hotel bathroom to splash water on his face when his left arm suddenly fell down, the left side of his face fell and his speech was slurred. Chris knew he needed urgent help. His father had had a stroke and so he was well aware of the symptoms. However, because his speech was slurred, Chris’s roommate Rhys Ruddock was unable to understand him as he tried to tell him to get a doctor.
Rhys realised that something was badly wrong and so dashed through corridors of the hotel in just his underwear to get help, and within 3 minutes a doctor was by Chris’s side. After spending four days in St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin, it emerged that Chris had in fact suffered a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA), known as a mini–stroke, which in his case was related to an undiagnosed hole in his heart. He had an operation at the end of November 2014 to close the hole in his heart.
While he was recovering, he read as much as he could about other sportsmen who had had a similar experience. Richardt Strauss, who also plays for Ireland, had recovered from heart surgery the year before and been able to pick up his career again. The All Black Piri Weepu had also had a stroke caused by a hole in the heart but had returned to the game a couple of months before Chris’s TIA.
Chris was naturally unable to play rugby while he was still recovering from the surgery. At the end of March, he went to the IRFU doctor in Dublin for a check–up. Coincidentally he had been off his blood thinning medication for 7 days so when the doctors said that his heart was fully healed, he was given the all clear to become available for selection by Ulster. His first game back for Ulster was against Cardiff Blues on 27th March 2015. Ulster won!
Chris says that normally he really looks forward to a match, but on this occasion he was very nervous. He kept thinking about it happening again. He actually didn’t want to go on to play. But when he was brought on with about 20 minutes to go, and got through one tackle, then another tackle, he stopped thinking about it.
Physically Chris has made a full, speedy recovery and is back on top form. Having “rested” for a number of months, by the time the end of Ulster’s season came around, he was fresher than other players. So he was able to train over the summer and was picked for Ireland’s Rugby World Cup squad. He was absolutely delighted to be selected as he had understandably thought that he was going to miss out.
Looking at Chris now you would not think he had a TIA, but there is still some hidden anxiety, which is quite common amongst TIA and stroke survivors. He says, “There is still some element of `what if` that exists in my mind because of my dad having a stroke. I know that the hole in my heart has healed, but because my dad had a stroke, I cannot rule out the possibility that it will happen again for normal cardiovascular reasons”. So even though he is incredibly fit and is an international sports star at the height of his career, he shares and understands the anxiety that many stroke and TIA survivors feel.
As for what provoked the TIA – Chris says, “The doctors were unsure why young, healthy sports stars, all around the age of 30, should be prone to this – or even if they were more prone than the general public. But one explanation they gave me was that the impact; bruising and small injuries that come from contact sports mean that there is more internal bruising and scarring leading to a higher chance of small blood clots”. In Chris’s case it is likely that the clot took a shortcut through the hole in his heart and got to his brain.
“Despite everything, I am beyond grateful and overwhelmed with all the support I have received over the past year from my family, friends and teammates who have helped me with my rehabilitation process. For me the dream still lives on, but I am eager to raise awareness of TIA.”
Find out more about the stroke support that Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke offers.