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13 October 2018

Meet the footballer who died and lived to tell the tale

Former Bolton Wanderers midfielder Fabrice Muamba, who suffered a cardiac arrest on the pitch, believes mobile defibrillators need to be more readily available.

By Rohan Banerjee

On 17th March 2012, just before the end of the first half in the FA Cup quarter-final tie between Tottenham Hotspur and Bolton Wanderers, midfielder Fabrice Muamba’s heart stopped. It did not start beating again for another 78 minutes. According to Bolton’s then club doctor Jonathan Tobin, Muamba was “in effect dead” during that time.

But his life was saved thanks to quick thinking from both the Spurs and Bolton medical teams at pitch-side, aided by consultant cardiologist Andrew Deaner, who had been watching the game as a fan. Muamba received crucially timed CPR – the American Heart Association estimates that every minute’s delay in starting CPR reduces a person’s chance of survival by ten per cent – and was given electric shocks with a defibrillator, handily kept on-site at White Hart Lane, to kick start his heart back into action. 

He was then transported to the London Chest Hospital in Bethnal Green, where Deaner oversaw his specialist care. In total, Muamba was given 15 300-joule shocks: two on the pitch, one in the tunnel, and 12 in the ambulance en route to East London. 

What does Muamba remember of that day? “In the lead up [to the game], things had been pretty normal. I warmed up as normal, I was playing as normal. And then suddenly I felt very dizzy, my vision blurred and I couldn’t stand properly. My focus went, I couldn’t concentrate my vision on anything, and the moment I fell down and my head hit the turf, that’s when I was really gone.” 

The cardiac arrest ended his professional football career, but six years later, Muamba, a father of two, has gained perspective. “I think leaving the game was more difficult at the start for sure,” he says, “but I’m all about the bigger picture. Obviously I wanted to keep playing, but I’ve got the chance to be with my family again, and I’ve got to put my kids first.”

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According to the National Institute for Health Research, the chance of someone surviving a cardiac arrest in a public space is around 30 per cent, but when there is a defibrillator and someone trained to use it present, that chance can increase to 80 per cent. In front of just over 30,000 fans at White Hart Lane, as well as the television cameras, Muamba’s cardiac arrest could have hardly been more public. He reflects: “I know that were it not for the defibrillator and the excellent medical teams from both clubs, I wouldn’t be here today. I was very lucky to have my cardiac arrest in the right place with the right equipment, and with highly trained people around me, but I know that not everyone is so lucky.” 

Since the incident, Muamba has supported various campaigns and product launches to promote heart health. In 2014, for example, he leant his voice to a joint venture led by the London Ambulance Service (LAS) and Marks & Spencer, to get 1,000 mobile defibrillators fitted in shops, businesses and gyms around the United Kingdom. “The point is that my experience happened unexpectedly, and that shows that you can have a heart problem wherever you go, whatever you are doing. I would encourage all companies to have a defibrillator, because it will make a massive difference in the chances of someone surviving a cardiac arrest.” 

As well as a defibrillator rollout, Muamba also encourages people to “take more of an interest in heart health” by “learning CPR and other similar techniques” because “there may not always be a team of expert doctors nearby”. 

Mobile defibrillators cost between £700 and £2,000 per unit. For Muamba, they are “definitely a worthwhile investment”. While he appreciates that for smaller businesses the price might be high, Muamba stresses that “you just can’t put a price on a person’s life”. He adds: “If companies do their research, there are some models that are more affordable and some providers actually let you rent the unit. If companies train their staff and make the equipment accessible, then it means that they’re going to be more prepared should the worst happen.”

Muamba, 23 at the time of his cardiac arrest, was in ostensibly peak physical condition, playing regularly for a Bolton side then in the top flight of English football. Had there been any indication of a problem with his heart beforehand? Muamba shakes his head. “Most sports clubs will regularly examine their players, but nothing had been picked up. Sometimes things can slip through, which is why it’s important to get checked more than once. Maybe one or two times a season should become more like four or five.” 

Muamba says that athletes, especially footballers, are very aware that their careers “depend on their bodies”. Some players, he says, “may have anxieties. They don’t want to sound like they’re weak. That’s how they see it, but they really shouldn’t. When it comes to your own body, you’ve got to take responsibility and make a proper decision about how you look after yourself.” Muamba says that the “culture in the dressing room is changing, but there is still a lot of work to be done”. 

Although Muamba no longer plays football, he has not left the sport. Since his cardiac arrest, Muamba, born in Zaire before becoming a naturalised British citizen, has found work as a pundit for ITV’s coverage of the Africa Cup of Nations and a co-commentator for BT Sport’s coverage of African World Cup qualifying fixtures. Muamba studied for a degree in sports journalism at Staffordshire University, graduating with honours in 2015. He has also completed coaching qualifications with UEFA and hopes to one day be “given a chance to coach at the highest level”. Muamba is currently working for the Professional Footballers’ Association – the English game’s trade union for players.  

Having temporarily died in 2012, it is clear that Muamba in 2018 is a man determined to make the most of life. He is glad that his experience has raised more questions about heart health in professional sport. And he is glad for the defibrillator that ultimately gave him the chance to survive. “I’m pleased that the sport is looking at this very seriously, from the top level, right down to the lower divisions. Even in [youth] academies, it’s good to see players being regularly checked. And obviously, if it wasn’t for a defibrillator, I know I wouldn’t be here today.” 

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