For most of my career as a coach, a rugby match was like life and death for me. The next try was life or death for me. But when you’re lying in intensive care with tubes stuck down your throat, you quickly realise what life and death really comes down to. It’s not that next try. It’s that very next heartbeat, and your hope that it will happen.
I started feeling sick around the time of the Vodacom United Rugby Championship match against the DHL Stormers shortly before Christmas last year. That following week going into the match against the Cell C Sharks I would go to training and then come back home and just sleep. It became progressively worse to the point that when we arrived in Wales for our tour I couldn’t even get out of bed.
I thought it might be COVID, but I started to get severe stomach cramps. We had no sooner landed back home in South Africa after the tour than I was taken to hospital for emergency abdominal surgery caused by a blood clot in my small intestine.
This experience has changed everything for me because it’s hit home to me just how lucky I am to be alive. You know, as a coach your job is to motivate your players and you can often slip into those textbook sayings or speeches you often see in the movies. You know the ones. ‘Guys, let’s die for each other out there today’. ‘Never give up’. ‘Fight to the last’. ‘When you get knocked down don’t stay down.’ That kind of thing.
But let me tell you, when death is as close and real as the metronomic beep of a ventilator and heart monitor, and the silence of a solitary hospital room replaces the cheers of thousands of fans, clever sayings don’t mean much. That’s when you need to walk the walk.
When I coached the Springboks, I would often tell the players that it’s called a Test match for a reason. It’s a test. But you only really understand that when you face the greatest test of your life. And when you realise just how lucky you were to escape with your life.
This is what has left the greatest impact on me. It wasn’t the actual operation, but rather how the surgeon explained to me all of the things that could’ve gone wrong throughout this ordeal, and just how lucky I was.
When I came out of the operation, as a joke I asked the surgeon, “Doc, should I buy a Lotto ticket?” He was deadly serious when he looked at me and said, “Jake, you’ve already used it”.
He explained how if the aneurism had gone into my brain, I would’ve suffered a stroke. If it had gone into my heart, I would’ve had a heart-attack. If it had gone into my lungs, they would’ve collapsed. I found out later that this last scenario is how so many people died during the COVID-19 pandemic. So the fact that the blood clot manifested itself in my abdominal region was my first miracle.
Then the surgeon explained how he had to cut 30cm of my small intestine out because it had died. He said that if the part that had died was just a few centimetres lower and closer to my colon, I would’ve been in real trouble and would have probably had to use an external bag for the rest of my life because of my reconstructed bowel. I’m 59 years old. I’m young. I couldn’t imagine having to carry around a bag for the rest of my life. So the fact that there was still enough of my small intestine to patch it up was my second miracle.
Then he explained that because a part of my small intestine had died, it was causing an obstruction. If anything had burst or ruptured while I was on the flight home, he said nobody could’ve done anything for me on the plane. I shudder to even think if anything had happened while I was on tour. That was the third miracle.
Three miracles. Or in my rugby language, the kind of three-pointer that literally saves your life.
Then while I was recovering in intensive care, even the ability to perform the smallest bodily function becomes like a lifeline for you. It’s no longer all about this season or the next, or the bigger picture or five-year plans and so on. Life is condensed right down to the smallest detail of that next heartbeat, that next breath, and even the smallest bodily function that if you can perform ticks a box for the doctor, and if you can’t it sends up a major red flag for the doctor.
The doctor explained to me that every time they removed one of the pipes down my throat, I was one day closer to being released. But your mind then starts to race. When they take out this pipe, will I be fine without it? Will everything work like it should? One of the complications when they operate in your abdominal region is that your stomach or colon could go into a spam and not function. Or even the blood clot in the first place. What caused it, and how do I make sure it doesn’t happen again? The seemingly little answers suddenly become major answers.
All of this has given me so much more perspective about life and rugby. While lying in intensive care, I had a lot of time to think and reflect. I thought about how lucky I am to be involved in rugby. And I’m going to use that now. As a coach I’m going to use this balanced perspective I’ve been given. Yes, there is pressure in professional rugby. As players and coaches, we all feel it. I remain as competitive as ever and always will be. But the enjoyment of what we are privileged to do needs to be there as well. I’m going to push that at the Vodacom Bulls even more than I have been. That sense of enjoying the competition, and to not to be stifled by a feeling that this is do or die. The average age of the players I coach is 24. They are young, and I want them to learn these principles. Principles we all talk about as people. But to live them, and to live the reality of being here one day and maybe not being here the next, is totally different.
I have been given another shot at life, literally, and to truly enjoy what I do. And I’m going to live and coach knowing how fortunate I am. Because I know, it can quickly be taken away from you. You can be here today and gone tomorrow. We all say we understand this, but when you’re that guy living it, it’s different. Also, never take for granted the message of support you send someone in that situation. I’m pleading with you. Don’t ever send a message to somebody in that situation because you feel it’s the right thing to do. Then don’t do it. Only do it if it’s truly heartfelt. I was blown away by the number of people in rugby who sent me messages from their hearts. That was a sign for me of how great this family of rugby is.
When I came out of surgery, I asked the doctor if the Stormers had won their match. I didn’t ask because I am addicted to rugby. I asked for another reason. Hope. I had realised that just like in life, if you’ve got a team and you’ve still got a chance, you have hope. You have that next heartbeat. If the Stormers had won, we wouldn’t have had a chance this season. But now we do.
And that is all any of us have.