I think it’s safe to say that football quite literally saved my life.
It was through football, and specifically the England set-up at Loughborough back in 2007, that I found out I had not one, but two holes in the heart.
They were discovered when I went through a routine cardiac screening when I was 16. This is now common practice for most athletes at the elite level, but had I not had that screening, and the subsequent surgery, I was told that I could have been dead by 40.
I remember the day very clearly. I was studying at Loughborough at the time, I’d just finished some college work and then I went to have my screening. Karen Carney went in just before me and when she came out she said ‘See you at training’. But I never made that particular session.
Once I’d had my screening I went to walk out, but they wouldn’t let me leave. They said they’d found something. I was obviously young and naive and I told them that I couldn't stay any longer because I'd be late for training. But they were adamant. They wouldn't let me train.
I kept saying that I couldn't be late for one of Mo Marley's sessions, but by law they weren't allowed to let me train because they'd found a hole. I didn’t really know what that meant. I was more upset that I had to miss the training session than I was worried about my heart. While I sat out the session I text my mum and dad and told them. After that day, everything is a bit of a blur.
I had to have a scan pretty soon after to check the size of the hole. When I woke up from that they told me that they had actually found two holes! One was 0.5mm, the other was 0.2mm. If the 0.5mm hole had have been one millimetre bigger I would have had to have had open heart surgery. Thankfully that wasn’t the case, but I went to King’s College Hospital in London and I’ve now got a 15mm mesh device on the wall of my heart, covering the two holes.
I wasn’t really scared until I realised there was a chance I might never play football again. There was a lot of discussion about what was best for me and how they could fix my heart but still allow me to pursue a career in football. Looking back now, I don’t think I realised how big a deal it was. All I wanted to know was when I could play football again. I think my age and my naivety helped me handle the situation because I never really considered the consequences.
The only issue I had post-surgery was that I had to take blood thinners for about six months to make sure I didn’t get a clot. The problem with that was that I would bleed badly after any little knock. That was the biggest thing I had to deal with afterwards.
I was almost 17 at the time and the doctors said that if I carried on playing football without having the surgery, then I could be dead by 40. And the way the game has gone in the last few years in terms of the fitness levels required, it might have been a lot sooner because of the strain that would have put on my heart.
Thankfully everything is fine now, and I got the all-clear about six years ago.
I realise that I was one of the lucky ones that was good enough to be called up by England and obviously lucky to have had the screening. If I hadn’t have made the grade, I might still have been playing football at a lower level, so who knows what might have been?
I’m obviously so grateful that the holes were discovered. It saved my life and my football career. Without that screening I wouldn’t be in the England squad right now. I might not even be alive. And that’s why I’m a patron for Cardiac Risk in the Young. It’s a cause that is clearly so important to me and they do some fantastic work.
But I think my parents are the ones who are the most relieved. They realise how lucky I was and now I’m older I realise how difficult it would have been for them at the time.
Without England, and without that screening, who knows what might have happened?