Heart transplant

Ex-Wales rugby player wants to raise £500,000 for heart transplant in US

A former Wales international rugby player who suffered a heart attack in training needs £500,000 to buy a new heart.

Rhys Thomas was just 29 and nearly died from a heart attack he suffered while pedaling an exercise bike in 2012 with the Llanelli-based Scarlets.

Mr Thomas, who first represented Wales in 2006 against Argentina before making seven caps, retired immediately afterwards. The accessory has lost 50% of its heart muscle.

The father-of-four was fitted with a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) in 2014 – a mechanical pump that keeps his heart going.

But the LAVD comes with a time limit, and the 38-year-old’s heart is considered too damaged to bear the cost of a replacement.

He now plans to travel 5,300 miles to San Diego in California in hopes of getting a new heart privately because he is too healthy to be a priority to get one on the NHS.

“I’ve learned how precious life is and I’m grateful for every day I can watch my four beautiful children grow up,” he said.

“The harsh reality, however, is that time is running out and I need a new heart if I am to prolong my life.”

Mr Thomas (pictured centre) suffered a heart attack in 2012 while training with Welsh rugby team Scarlets

The heart attack caused him to lose 50% of the organ's muscle tissue and required doctors to install a mechanical pump called a left ventricular assist device to keep his heart working.

The heart attack caused him to lose 50% of the organ’s muscle tissue and required doctors to install a mechanical pump called a left ventricular assist device to keep his heart working.

What is a left ventricular assist device?

A left ventricular assist device (LVAD) is an artificial pump used to treat people with severe heart failure.

This basically allows the heart to pump if someone’s heart muscle is too weak to keep blood flowing through the body.

Some people are fitted with the device if they are not expected to survive waiting for a heart transplant.

The device is battery powered via a cable that connects to a control unit outside the skin and lasts around four to six hours.

People’s life depends on the battery working, so it is alerted to warn if it is low and has backup power for emergency.

A graphic illustrating the basic layout of a left ventricular assist device

A graphic illustrating the basic layout of a left ventricular assist device

“The longest life of someone with an LVAD in the UK is 11 years,” he added.

“In September, I will celebrate the eighth anniversary of my LVAD.”

LVADs are often tailored to save patients time while they wait for a heart to be available for transplant.

But since fitting a device helps improve a patient’s health, it can become a low-priority case, putting it low on the transplant list.

Currently, Mr Thomas says he would have to become seriously ill, such as with a serious infection or his LVAD stopping working, before he would be considered a high priority.

However, there would be no guarantee that he would survive long enough for a heart to become available in this scenario.

Mr Thomas once had a severe scare, suffering a blood clot in his LAVD after surgery on his appendix which led to a stroke.

He said the stress of living on borrowed time took its toll and he battled a drinking problem.

“Living with a machine that has literally kept me alive for the past eight years has been tough both mentally and physically,” he said.

“All of this trauma and difficult personal life circumstances led to a battle with alcohol addiction.

“Luckily, I am now 30 months sober, four stones lighter and in the best mental and physical health I can experience with an LVAD.”

Mr Thomas has now set up a fundraising campaign to raise £500,000 to get a heart transplant.

“The decision to travel abroad for a heart transplant was not a decision I took lightly,” he said.

“The past 10 years have been incredibly difficult for me, and my family and I have learned and lost a lot. One thing I’ve found is myself.

“I have found inner peace and love and am grateful for every day I spend on this earth with my loved ones.

Pictured here in his time at the Scarlets, Mr Thomas was forced to retire from professional rugby aged just 29 immediately after his hearing attack and has lived with LVAD since 2014.

Pictured here in his time at the Scarlets, Mr Thomas was forced to retire from professional rugby aged just 29 immediately after his hearing attack and has lived with LVAD since 2014.

Mr Thomas is now hoping to raise £500,000 to buy a new heart for transplant in the US

Mr Thomas is now hoping to raise £500,000 to buy a new heart for transplant in the US

The now 38-year-old pictured here center right surrounded by his family admitted the challenges and trauma of waiting for a heart led to alcohol addiction, but he has now recovered

The now 38-year-old pictured here center right surrounded by his family admitted the challenges and trauma of waiting for a heart led to alcohol addiction, but he has now recovered

“Yes, a transplant carries a substantial risk. But given the alternative, I’m happy to accept that risk.

Mr Thomas has raised just over £10,000, or 2% of the half million pounds he needs for the transplant.

People can donate to his campaign through a JustGiving fundraising page.

NHS Blood and Transplant says the routine, elective wait for a heart transplant is between 18 and 24 months.

However, the exact waiting time will depend on factors such as the patient’s medical condition, whether they are an adult or a child, as well as finding a suitable donor to match their blood group.