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Fabrice Muamba Meets The Doctor Who Helped Save His Life, Nine Years On

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Fabrice Muamba Meets The Doctor Who Helped Save His Life, Nine Years On

Fabrice Muamba pauses for a second. He takes a deep breath and looks at the man who helped save his life on that harrowing evening in north London. "Doc, you know when I was in the hospital, did you think I would have woken up?"

"No," says Dr Jonathan Tobin, nine years on. "I didn't think you would ever wake up again mate. Nobody did."

"Are you serious?" a surprised Fabrice asks, before the doctor delivers a line that still beggars belief to this day. "Nobody thought you were going to wake up. You were dead for 78 minutes. I mean, Jesus. You are a once in a lifetime case."

On March 17, 2012, Muamba suffered a cardiac arrest in the 41st minute of a televised FA Cup quarter-final clash between Bolton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane, as 30,000 fans in the stadium - and millions of people at home - watched on in disbelief.

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After not responding to defibrillator shocks and life support from the medical team, the 23-year-old was rushed to hospital.

"Nobody expected him to leave that hospital," Tobin tells SPORTbible. "Nobody expected him to walk out that building. Everyone thought that he was going to have some sort of brain damage or be permanently disabled if he did get out. If you ask a cardiologist, nobody has a downtime of 78 minutes and makes a full recovery. Nobody."

This is the story of Fabrice Muamba: a "miracle man" who defied all odds and lived to tell the most extraordinary of tales, featuring interviews with former teammates and those who fought to save him.

Image: PA
Image: PA
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March 17, 2012 began like any normal match-day for Muamba.

He got up in the morning and spoke to his father, Marcel, who would be in attendance for the FA Cup game after picking up his tickets through Bolton's liaison officer. Fabrice's half-brother Daniel, only 12 years old at the time, was also going to be in the crowd while his wife Shauna and three-year-old son Joshua watched from home.

"There was nothing strange happening in the day. It was normal," Muamba tells SPORTbible.

"I knew I was in the starting XI when we reached White Hart Lane. We went into the changing room before going to look around the pitch to have a feel of the grass. I got changed and went out for a warm-up. There wasn't any problem. No issues. I was just looking forward to going out to play, to be honest."

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With six minutes on the clock, Owen Coyle's Bolton side got off to the perfect start when Gareth Bale put the ball into his own net. But Kyle Walker equalised just minutes later, towering above left-back Marcos Alonso at the far post with a powerful header.

It was a high-energy game full of chances for both sides but as the first half came to a close, an unsteady and faint Muamba began to feel strange. He stopped and knew something was seriously wrong. "Around 40 minutes in, my vision started to get very blurry. When I looked at someone, I could see two of them," he explains.

"Then out of nowhere. Bang. I was on the floor. That was the last time I was able to play football again."

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Image: PA
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Fabrice was face down, gasping for air. But he was barely moving. Cameras panned away from his body and focused on players from both teams, who looked on in shock. Rafael van der Vaart later described the moment as "the absolute low in my football career."

Bolton's physiotherapist Andy Mitchell, meanwhile, was the first person to see him fall to the ground and immediately ran over to assess the situation before the Spurs doctor, Shabaaz Mughal, and his colleague Jonathan Tobin quickly followed.

"When we got there, Fab was unconscious," Tobin tells SPORTbible.

"There was a moment when we we were just trying to work out what the hell was happening. The Spurs doctor was on and we both looked at each other. We didn't say anything but really we were thinking, 'Are we really going to start resuscitate someone in front of 36,000 fans at White Hart Lane while a global audience of millions were watching from home?'

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"I had a thought run through my head... so what happens if we start and Fabrice just wakes up and says, 'What the hell are you guys doing?' We looked at each other again and said, we're going to have to do this. After that point, we focused and got on with it."

Mughal flipped a lifeless Muamba onto his back and began chest compressions. After hitting the ground, It took a total of 67 seconds for the midfielder to receive CPR. Seconds later, doctors had already placed a defibrillator on his chest to try and get the heart started again.

Ultimately, he was extremely lucky that it happened at a Premier League football ground.

"Everything was there within 27 seconds," Tobin says. "From arrest, he was being resuscitated and after one minute 17 [seconds], he had his first shock. It all happened so quickly - much more quickly than if someone went down in a supermarket for example."

At this point, the majority of those inside White Hart Lane started chanting Muamba's name as Tobin continued to try and resuscitate the player by using mouth-to-mouth. He remembers every moment. "We could hear the crowd chanting Fab's name in the background while this was all going on, too. It was one of the most surreal experiences."

Somebody who remembers that day in north London more than most is former Bolton Wanderers centre-back David Wheater. He was on the substitutes' bench when he heard someone say, "Fabrice has gone down" from the touchline and naturally, he thought Muamba had pulled a muscle.

Little did he know that his teammate was fighting for his life.

"The atmosphere suddenly changed from a football game, where people were chanting, to complete silence," Wheater tells us. "You could hear the roar start when the doctor started pushing on his chest. It kept getting louder and louder. I've never seen anything like it.

"It went from a football game to willing a man to get through. All the lads didn't know what to do. I remember there were a few lads crying as well."

Wheater recalls Spurs manager Harry Redknapp approaching him on the touchline shortly after Muamba collapsed but because he was so concerned about his teammate, his focus was elsewhere.

"He started talking to me as well and I couldn't remember what he said. I mean, Harry is a great of the game but I just wasn't processing what he was saying to me. I was so fixed on Fabrice and how he was doing."

The chants of "Fabrice Muamba, Fabrice Muamba!" stopped when the realisation and seriousness of the incident began to dawn on the thousands in attendance that day. As the stadium fell silent, with several members of the crowd in tears, referee Howard Webb decided to call it a day. The match was abandoned.

For the medical team, however, this journey was far from over.

Image: PA
Image: PA

After trying to resuscitate him on the pitch without success, Muamba was transferred to an ambulance. It was here where Wheater and his Bolton teammates were hit with the shocking reality of what just happened.

"He'd gone off the pitch and afterwards, we arrived in the dressing room, got changed and the ambulance was still outside," Wheater says. "You could still see them pumping his chest. It was lucky we were at the stadium and there were so many professionals there."

It was a long journey to the London Chest Hospital. In fact, it took 38 minutes from the moment Muamba collapsed to the moment he arrived at the hospital. In the ambulance, doctors were doing basic life support and giving him shocks all the way through that harrowing journey.

Andrew Deaner, the cardiologist who ran from his seat in the crowd that day to help doctors fight to save Fabrice's life, was in the ambulance too. He was only at the match because he had been given a spare ticket by his nephew who was unable to attend. "He wasn't supposed to be at the game," Muamba tells us.

Muamba was taken to the London Chest Hospital on the evening of March 17 with a slim chance of survival. Tobin says he couldn't see any recovery being possible at that point and you can understand why. Muamba received a total of 15 shocks before his arrival, but to no avail.

Doctors spent a further 40 minutes restarting his heart and 15 further shocks later, in a moment Fabrice himself describes as a "miracle", the midfielder was brought back to life after effectively being dead for 78 minutes. His heart started beating again.

He was put in a medically induced coma and against all odds, he was on the long road to recovery.

Image: PA
Image: PA

The following Monday Muamba eventually opened his eyes for the first since his collapse. He thought people were pulling his leg when they told him the news. "I thought they were lying to me when they said a had a heart attack. I just said, 'Good one what really happened?'. I couldn't believe it was happening to me.

"I soon realised how serious it was as the day went on. I started to see so many faces I hadn't seen in a long time, coming into my room to check up on how I was doing. It took me a while to understand what went on but in the beginning, I was in disbelief."

During his stay in the hospital, many friends and family visited Muamba, including Wheater, who recalls an incredible story involving Lionel Messi, of all people.

"I went to see him in the hospital with Jussi [Jaaskelainen] and Zat Knight a few days later," the former Bolton defender tells SPORTbible.

"He was in bed telling us that Lionel Messi had been to see him. He was telling us what he'd said and everything. I was thinking, flipping heck, that's not bad is it. His wife came up to us afterwards and said no, Messi hadn't actually been there."

Muamba left the London Chest Hospital four weeks later and returned to his home in Manchester. There were many obstacles to overcome in the coming days, weeks and months - and they weren't just physical issues either.

"I left the hospital and I was able to do things around the house. But for me, It was more like a mental recovery than a physical one. It was very draining. You are asking yourself so many questions and because the incident is so internal, you don't really know what the cause was.

"I was speaking to a psychiatrist and a number of qualified doctors just to put to mind at rest and help me to understand the level of it all. It took me a while, I have to say. But eventually I was able to move on."

Image: PA
Image: PA

Fabrice admits he also struggled with his mental health in the early stages of his recovery, which meant he took his emotions out on those closest to him.

"I was just very horrible to the people close to me. I was effing and blinding, very moody and selfish. I think they understood what was going on, and they let me be what I needed to be at that present time, but at some point you need to calm down and see the reality of it all.

"That's when I went to see a professional, just to speak out. They told me it was normal at the beginning but you are going to have to be able to understand this is real life and what it'll be like forward."

In terms of a career in the game he loved, Muamba knew he would never play football again. But again, it was the mental aspect he struggled with most. After the incident at White Hart Lane, he forced himself to go and watch football but admits he "hated" going.

"I'd go and watch but the part I found difficult was when the boys are warming up and afterwards they're coming out the tunnel before shaking hands, I found it so difficult. I used to wait when that was all over before sitting down inside the stadium when the whistle blew. It was difficult."

The year after his cardiac arrest, Muamba was supposed to be in the GB squad for the 2012 Olympics. On July 26, Stuart Pearce's side welcomed Senegal to Old Trafford in their first game of the group stages and, despite not being in the squad to play, Fabrice decided to turn up.

"I wore a hoodie so nobody knew I was there," Muamba says. "I saw them warming up and it was so painful to watch. I wanted to go home after five minutes because I couldn't watch. In my head, I should have been playing. It wasn't anybody's fault but it was a bitter pill to swallow."

Image: PA
Image: PA

You can see why it would be such a painful experience for someone who was forced to retire at age 24 from a circumstance out of his control but as time has gone on, Muamba has learned how deal with it. The question remains though; what could have been?

"He wasn't the most technical of players and we had a laugh about it in training because he used to always lose the skill games, but he's the sort of player you wanted in a team," Wheater recalls.

"He was so hard to take on. You never really seen anyone get past him. He just sat in front of the defence and did his job. He had a great passing range as well. He was a massive miss for us and we would have been safe if he was fit that season. We would have survived."

Bolton were relegated and then fell down the football league in a sad demise.

"I think I was getting to the point [in 2012] where I was going in the right direction in terms of my career," Muamba says. "I was hitting some form and then, boom. That took the plug out of my career.

"As time goes on, I just appreciate that I'm here. I can spend time with my children and I've lived to see them grow. My health is the number one priority."

Even nine years on, the 32-year-old still feels the mental effects from the incident.

"I still worry that this might happen to me again. I feel like, when it happened before, I wasn't prepared for it. Because of the pacemaker I'm OK, but deep down, I'm thinking: please don't happen again. It's that fear that worries me the most to be honest."

Despite his fears, it is clear throughout our chat that Muamba continues to be incredibly thankful for life, nine years on. Last year, he and his wife Shauna welcomed a fourth child to their family.

Image: PA
Image: PA

He graduated from university with a BA in Sports Journalism and, after getting all his coaching badges, Muamba became a member of Rochdale's coaching staff in 2018, where he coached the under-16s based at the club's Manchester Development Centre.

Muamba continues to give advice to players in a role with the PFA but whatever happens in his life from now, the former England Under-21 international knows how lucky he is to be alive considering what happened on that harrowing day in 2012.

"Every day is a miracle," Muamba says. "I know people who have gone the same route as me and never came out. I'm no different to any of them. But the big man up there spared my life for me to still be here.

"To be able to have a conversation with you is amazing. To me, everyday is a bonus. I don't take life for granted. I'm thankful to be here. I can spend time with my kids. I can do things that most people have gone through this journey wouldn't have been able to do. I can move around and do everything I want to. Every day is a blessing."

And what about the doctors who saved his life that day?

"Even now, when I go for a check-up, I go down to London and see the people who treat me that day," Fabrice says.

"I had a choice to stay up here in the north but to me, because we've built that rapport with them, it's best we keep it that way instead of moving information.

"I'm used to them guys. We have a great relationship."

Featured Image Credit: PA

Topics: Spurs, Spotlight, Football, Premier League, FA Cup

Jack Kenmare
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