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Chris Henry hoping to be back in an Ulster Rugby jersey this year

By Michael Sadlier

Ulster flanker Chris Henry has spoken for the first time about his recent health ordeal, which led to heart surgery after the 30-year-old suffered a mini-stroke on the morning of Ireland's game with South Africa, and has revealed that at one point he was preparing to be told that his playing career was over.

"It's been a scary few weeks to be honest," Henry admitted at the Kingspan Stadium yesterday.

"And I was preparing myself for the worst news and there was a stage where I thought I wasn't going to be able to play again," he added.

But Henry who successfully underwent surgery last week after being diagnosed with a small hole in his heart in the wake of his mini-stroke, which suddenly occurred hours before he was due to play for Ireland on November 8, has revealed that he is hopeful of returning to play and, if all goes well, might even do so before the end of the season.

The popular player was back in the Kingspan gym at the start of this week and is now doing bike work as he gradually begins to up his bid to get back on the pitch after suffering the same health issue which struck Leinster and Ireland player Richardt Strauss last year but did not prevent the hooker from making a full return to the game.

Henry was taken to Dublin's St Vincent's Hospital on the morning of the incident after suffering what is known as a Transient Ischaemic Attack (TIA) due to the hole in his heart, leading to a blocked blood vessel in his brain.

It meant that the player endured a terrifying experience after losing strength in his arm and on one side of his face but, with the help of his room-mate Rhys Ruddock, he received rapid medical attention in the team hotel before going to hospital.

"On the morning of the South Africa match I had a small TIA, which was a loss of strength in my arm and in the side of my face, they (the doctors) were able to get to the bottom of it and solve the problem which was a hole in my heart.

"Actually Richardt Strauss had the same procedure last year and it took him the guts of four to six months to get back and it was totally successful.

"It's been a scary few weeks to be honest, a rough few weeks but I feel very lucky I was in that environment and getting such incredible medical expertise so quickly and they got to the bottom of things very swiftly.

"I think that's the most important thing when something like that happens. It's a scary thing but to have clarity on what was going on and to have the problem fixed so very quickly and, for me, I just feel very, very lucky," said Henry.

Nevertheless, the 16-times capped Ireland player had to accept that his playing days were possibly over in the wake of his mini-stroke and he endured some dark moments before having his problem diagnosed and sorted out.

"When you're in the unknown your mind plays tricks on you and certainly at one point I was preparing myself for the worst news and there was a stage where I thought I wasn't going to be able to play again.

"Luckily I had the best people looking after me and they were able to get to the problem."

Henry is confident that he will be able to get back in an Ulster shirt again and though there is no definitive timeframe, he is hoping that he could be playing again within the next four to five months.

"I know it's going to be a long road back. But I am determined to get myself back on the pitch and that's the target at the moment.

"For me, the procedure was a lot smoother than I thought it was going to be. I felt a bit tired a few days afterwards but then I felt really great and I was able to get back on a bike on Monday a week after it," he said.

"It's been a great few days," he said of returning to the Kingspan gym this week. "And it's great to be back in with the boys.

"I haven't been able to do much training and I've been sitting on a bike for half an hour every day, but it's just so nice to be in this environment again with the team and being around the place.

"I know it's going to be a long road back and I've been told by doctors and my mother to take things very, very slow as you can imagine.

"I'm not rushing it but I'm determined to get back and hopefully before the end of the season is a realistic target.

"We'll have to take it week by week, month by month. I've got a month of light cardio work to do and then I'll start ramping it up a bit and getting back amongst the team.

"For me it's building blocks and small steps," he stated regarding his intended return to fitness.

Henry also took time to thank those who had sent him messages of support.

"The only word to describe it is overwhelming," he said.

"For myself, my family and my girlfriend, the support really was incredible. Players, coaches, past players, fans, the Ulster Branch, the IRFU and the wider rugby community - to have had such brilliant support was overwhelming."

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