A YEAR ago today, former Newport Gwent Dragons favourite Rhys Thomas was just minutes away from death after suffering a heart attack while training with the Scarlets.
His life was saved by surgeons after he was swiftly taken by the ambulance service from Llanelli to Swansea’s Morriston Hospital.
Last April, at the age of 29, the Wales tighthead prop was forced to retire on medical grounds from the game he loved.
Today he speaks exclusively to the Argus about how tough the last 12 months have been for him as he battled to rebuild his life.
Thomas, who lives in Langstone, talks of how helping to coach at Newport High School Old Boys rugby club and the love and support of family and friends have kept him going through the dark days.
“It has been a year of real ups and downs and although I haven’t really improved, I haven’t deteriorated either – my heart hasn’t got any worse so that’s the good news,” he said.
“It’s not in a good state either but as long as it doesn’t get worse, then I don’t have to have a transplant.
“I have peaks and troughs but as long as I don’t have to have the transplant – that’s the main thing.
“What happened has changed my life dramatically. I used to be extremely active and now I’m lucky to walk for 20 minutes in a day.
“I just can’t walk, it’s uncomfortable to walk far because I can’t breathe and because of that I feel nauseous so it’s a real pain.”
He added: “I struggle to sleep which is one of the worst things. I don’t know whether it is because I am so inactive. I just can’t sleep and I wake up feeling tired.
“I watch a phenomenal amount of television, Dexter’s my favourite series – that’s keeping me going at the moment.”
It is one of Thomas’ ambitions to coach at professional level and he has taken his first step towards achieving his goal at a local club who play in Divison Three East.
“I help out coaching at Newport HSOB – I help out with the seniors and the under-14s who didn’t have a coach and they are my son Ethan’s team,” he said.
“They have been brilliant – the smallest club have been the biggest help to me, a small grassroots club. They paid for me to do my level two coaching course and I’m in the process of finishing my level three.”
Thomas said: “I spend my weekends there, my kids play there and it’s a great club. Without them, I think I would go mad. Obviously coaching is very different from playing as I have found and it keeps my mind off things.
“I am ambitious, I would like to coach or be involved with a professional set up one day – that is ideally what I would like to do.
“But it’s still early on in my recovery and there’s not a hell of a lot I can do but I don’t have a lot of options either really. I’m not medically fit to work at the moment and struggle to walk up the stairs.”
As well as the coaching, his family, wife Paula, four children and friends play such an important part in his life.
“My friends and family have made this a lot easier. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know what I would have done,” Thomas said.
“I still see a lot of the boys and I speak to them a lot and meet them for lunch.
“Players from the Dragons and Scarlets and my friends from around Newport and the rugby club keeps me going.”
Thomas reveals how stark the reality of life after rugby can be.
“It has been a huge wake up call because when you’re in the game, you just think it’s never going to end,” he said. “It sounds clichéd, but I mean it’s actually pretty stupid really, because people tell you about it and to do something about it when it comes so that you prepare yourself for when you do finish.
“But you don’t take any notice and you just think it’s going to go on and on and on and that something will happen.
“But that’s not the case. I was a shocker at school and left without any qualifications.
“And I didn’t do anything to get myself a trade. Quite a few boys I know, some of the old Dragons boys, would go a couple of nights a week to do a plumbing or a carpentry course.
“If there is anything I would tell the youngsters today it would be that rugby is a short career and it’s brutal if you get injured.
“Make sure you get insurance because in all honesty, there’s only so much the club can do for you because when it’s the end, it really is the end.”