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Ireland rugby legend Willie Anderson feared pitchside collapse was massive heart

By Laura Abernethy

Published 09/02/2016

Willie Anderson with his wife Heather
Willie Anderson with his wife Heather
Willie Anderson interrupting the Haka
Willie in his Ireland pomp
Willie Anderson coaching pupils at Sullivan Upper

Rugby great Willie Anderson said he thought he was in serious trouble after he collapsed at the side of a pitch at the weekend.

The former Ireland captain was rushed to hospital after suffering severe chest pains and dizziness while watching a Schools Cup match on Saturday.

The 60-year-old said he thought he was having a massive heart attack but the episode has actually led to doctors discovering that he has a heart defect that could have led to a stroke.

He said: "It was very scary. I really thought it was a heart attack because I had the symptoms. I couldn't breathe and I had palpitations in my heart and a very tight chest. I was starting to black out. I thought I was in very serious trouble. It was so frightening."

Willie, who lives in Belfast with wife Heather, was capped 27 times for Ireland between 1984 and 1990 and famously led the team into a confrontation with the All Blacks while they were performing the Haka. In recent years, he has worked as a physical education teacher and rugby coach. His team Sullivan Upper were preparing to take on Regent House when he started to feel unwell.

He was rushed from Regent House in Newtownards to the Ulster Hospital for treatment.

Doctors discovered that he had atrial fibrillation - a condition which causes an irregular and abnormally fast heartbeat.

Willie had been feeling unwell for some time and minor dizzy spells had caused him to have six months out of work last year but doctors were never able to establish a cause.

He said: "I had a chest infection and gastroenteritis last week as well so I think that took it out of me but I had been suffering last year with bouts of dizziness. They did all the tests back then from neurology down to cardiology, blood tests, everything but they had never found out what it was. It was just fortunate that this time they did."

He said that the collapse on Saturday was much worse than before and if the condition had been left untreated, he would have been at a high risk of having a stroke.

People with atrial fibrillation are four to five times more likely to have a stroke as the upper chambers of the heart don't pump as effectively and it can cause blood clots in the blood circulation.

Willie added: "The silver lining is that they found out what was wrong. It was very acute this time and it finally showed up on my trace. Even though it was scary at the time, it was a good outcome because I'm now on medication.

"I know that if you don't get treatment for this, it can lead to a stroke so it could have been much worse."

After diagnosing the condition, staff were able to stabilise him, start treatment and he was sent home later that day.

"The staff were absolutely brilliant", he said. " My blood pressure was through the roof and my heart rate was through the roof but they stabilised me quickly and I was able to get home."

He is now taking medication for the condition and he will be having a procedure called cardioversion in a few weeks' time to correct the irregular heartbeat with an electric shock.

Despite the scare, Willie plans to get back to teaching and coaching at Sullivan next week.

He said: "I still feel a little bit groggy and I just have to be careful that I don't take another turn. It's a pretty manageable condition but I just have to be careful. I'll be off work this week and I'll take some time off for this operation but I don't want to miss too much. I want to get back to coaching the guys because we're through to the next round of the cup."

The Sullivan team had a difficult morning as skipper Chris Jordan was also rushed to hospital after he broke his leg 25 minutes into the game.

The young player was able to keep an eye on his coach as they ended up in A&E beside each other.

Willie said Chris is now recovering from surgery to his leg and is doing well.

"He has broken his tibia and fibula. He's our captain and he's a sprinter. It's a very bad break but the surgery went really well and it's pinned right the way down his leg. Hopefully he'll make a full recovery but he'll be out for six months," Willie said.

Although they were missing their coach and their captain, the team still celebrated a 14-0 victory.

Willie said: "It was a very dramatic morning for everyone but the good thing is that we still went and won. I'm very proud of the players. They were fantastic from what I gathered.

"They've all been checking up on me. They're so supportive and they've been passing on their best wishes to both me and Chris. They're glad to hear we will both be OK."

Belfast Telegraph

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