Rhys Thomas quips he’s the “luckiest and unluckiest person” in the world. Listen to his incredible story and it’s impossible to disagree.
It’s inspirational, one full of optimism, positivity and a will to live that has seen the former Wales prop defy the odds.
He had a mild heart attack caused by a knock in a match between the Dragons and Northampton in November 2007 and six months later was given the all-clear by doctors to play again.
But just over four years later he suffered a massive heart attack while pedalling an exercise bike during training at the Scarlets.
Only the prompt care of medical staff at Parc y Scarlets and specialists at Swansea’s Morriston Hospital, who performed a quadruple heart bypass, saved his life.
But the damage to his heart was serious and he was so desperately ill he needed an operation two years later, in 2014, to fit a ventricular assist device.
It’s a mechanical pump that takes blood from the lower chamber of the heart and helps pump it to the body and vital organs just as a healthy heart would.
The operation to fit it, at Birmingham’s pioneering Queen Elizabeth Hospital, was fraught with danger and carried out by three leading heart surgeons.
“Because of the amount of scar tissue caused by his quadruple heart bypass his chances of survival were slim,” said Thomas’ wife Paula.
“After six hours of what the surgeons said was ‘chiselling’ away at the scar tissue, one of them came out of the theatre and told Rhys’ parents and I they were not making progress.
“We made the decision they should abort the attempt and stitch him up but, during that time, they had made a breakthrough in the operating theatre and were able to insert the pump.”
The device, which works off batteries – Thomas carries it everywhere in a man-bag – or is plugged into the electricity mains at night, keeps the now 36-year-old alive and active.
But the seven-times capped Wales international has been warned he faces a less than 50% chance of survival if he has to have an emergency heart transplant.
“I was on the heart transplant list for a couple of years but took a joint decision last October, with Paula and the specialists, to come off it,” explained Rhys.
“My heart, because of the pump, had stabilised and we agreed it would be in my best interests to carry on as I am.
“My chance of surviving a transplant is less than 50%. I will only have a transplant if I deteriorate, my situation becomes urgent and there is a suitable donor.
“I must be the healthiest dying man out there,” he laughed. “Before I had the pump, I was out of breath going up the stairs. To say it has improved my life is an understatement.”
Thomas has always been a larger than life character but the way he has stoically carried on life, even doing some part-time coaching with Newport High School Old Boys, is astonishing.
“It helps that Rhys is so positive and optimistic – he rarely has a down day,” said Paula.
The couple have four children. “Kai is the youngest. He was only seven when Rhys had the pump fitted and he can’t remember his dad playing rugby,” she went on.
“He just thinks his father is a person who carries a brown bag around with him and is too lazy to work!
“Children are resilient and just get on with things. They worry in their own way.”
The shadow of Rhys’ illness hangs over the family with Paula saying: “It was horrific when he first had the pump fitted.
“It’s quite loud. Every time the noise from it changed I was petrified. And, when Rhys was on the donor list waiting for a heart, it was the same.”
There’s been close shaves along the way with an operation to remove Rhys’ appendix last year leading to major complications.
“It turned out very nearly to be a complete and utter disaster. Post-op, I had a massive internal bleed. I was so bad I couldn’t recognise Paula,” said Rhys.
“I was in the intensive care unit for two weeks and in hospital for nearly three months.
“I had been warned the clot could lead to a stroke and big, black spots suddenly appeared in my left eye. It was so scary.
“Doctors told me I had suffered a ‘silent stroke’, that the clot had shot into the back of my brain, affecting the part of responsible for vision.
“I got moved up on the list for a transplant. I was waiting every minute of every day and wondering if my phone was going to ring. I couldn’t sleep. It was horrendous.”
Being off the list has been a relief but there are still other things that must be done. The Thomas family are a priority for the company that supplies their electricity because an unexpected power cut could prove fatal.
Travelling through security at airports can also be problematic while he can only visit countries with adequate facilities to be able to treat him in an emergency.
Rhys, who takes 17 tablets a day, has to visit hospital for regular check-ups and to have his pump tuned.
“It’s like having your car serviced. They call it being ‘ramped up’. For a couple of days after they turn the speed of it up, I can literally feel the flow of blood in my head speeding up. It’s a strange feeling.”
Paula and a friend Lisa Price, from Llanmartin, near Newport, will attempt to conquer Britain’s highest mountains, Ben Nevis, Snowdon, Scafell Pike and the Yorkshire ‘three’ of Pen-y-ghent, Ingleborough and Whernside to raise money towards Queen Elizabeth Hospital purchasing more of the revolutionary ‘Heart in a Box’ machines.
Their two-day trek – they will drive between each mountain – takes place on September 7-8 and the pair will have to climb 18,244ft. The world’s tallest mountain, Everest, is 29,029ft, which gives an idea of the task they face.
The Heart in a Box is a device which keeps a donated heart beating outside of the body, which helps to keep the heart in a better condition for longer, increasing the length of time that surgeons have to perform the transplant.
Doctors estimate it can help to increase the number of heart transplants taking place at the hospital by up to 50%.
Currently, when heart transplants are carried out, the heart is kept in ice and stops beating as soon as it is out of the body.
Hearts kept on ice rapidly deteriorate, and the longer they are out of the body the less likely it is that the patient’s body and immune system will accept the heart.
Currently, only eight out of 10 people receive the heart transplant they need and over 1,300 people in the UK die each year waiting for an organ.
“It’s going to help lots of patients and for people like me, who require a complex transplant, it’s a game-changer,” said Rhys.
“Paula and Lisa have been training hard for tackling the six mountain summits. Paula is my carer, my rock and I’m so proud of what the two of them are doing.
“They’ve already raised over £1,000 towards a target of £3,000 but I hope and believe they can get much more from the rugby community and the public in Wales.”
*To donate to the Six Peaks for a Heart in a Box appeal, go to www.justgiving.com/fundraising/paula-thomas9