NI teenager makes rugby debut after three major heart ops
A Ballymena schoolboy has defied the odds to keep his rugby career on track after undergoing three major heart operations.
Joshua McNeely made his debut for the First XV at Ballymena Academy on Wednesday – a proud day for his family, who feared the 17-year-old’s heart condition could restrict his exertions on the field.
His dad Martin, a minister at Ballykeel Presbyterian, said: “Joshua was born in 2003 with severe aortic spenosis.
“He was told he would die unless he had open heart surgery when he was about 14 or 15 days old in the Royal.
“He had an incision cut into his aortic valve and then he had that valve stretched when he was three months old.
“When he was one year old he underwent something called a Ross procedure in Birmingham Children’s Hospital.
“They cut out his diseased aortic valve and replaced it with his own pulmonary valve. In the pulmonary valve’s position they put in a transplanted valve from another boy.
“Two years ago he had that transplanted valve replaced by another transplanted valve, of an adult size so he could grow with it. Both operations came about from organ donation – we’re profoundly grateful to those donors.
“We’re also very grateful to Dr Andrew Sands at the Royal who has been with Joshua since he was born.”
When Martin was training as a minister the family lived in Belfast and Joshua, then aged four, began playing mini rugby for Malone, the same club his father played for.
It wasn’t until he began training for the Medallion team at Ballymena Academy that Joshua’s heart issues came to the fore.
Martin said: “He started to have shortness of breath. He had to stop playing at Christmas two and half years ago.
“He had a consultation in January, by June he was on the plane to Birmingham for his third heart surgery.”
Martin added: “Wednesday was a big day for us when he was able to play for the firsts.
“Nobody has worked as hard as Joshua for this. The school has been amazing, they’ve given him extra time and specific exercises which didn’t emphasise too much pressure on the chest. Special credit must go to conditioning coach Nikki Andrews.”
Martin said the family had been really encouraged by children’s heart charities, and the family of Ballymena boy Mark Lynn, who passed away due to a heart condition.
Martin said: “Mark went to same primary as Joshua, Ballykeel; he went to the same church youth club, he had same surgeons and doctors in Birmingham, sadly he didn’t make it. He had a heart condition, but a different set of problems to Joshua.
“Mark’s mum and dad have been amazing supporters of Joshua. We really appreciate that.”