Young ex-rugby player stunned by heart attack

As an ex-rep rugby player, non-smoker and young man, the last thing Josh Willoughby expected was a heart attack. He is proof that heart disease can strike anyone, at any time.

Joshua Willoughby knows all about pain. 

The 31-year-old spent years putting his body on the line as an Otago Sevens and representative rugby player. 

So when a grueling boxing session left him aching, dizzy and breathless last September, he wasn’t too concerned. 

“That two-and-a-half-hour session pushed me a lot and at one point I was dry-retching. It was a really good session but during the warm down, while the others were running, I could only walk and I felt a bit of pain in my chest.”

Josh hadn’t played competitive sport for a few years and was trying to get his fitness back on track. 

“I think I bit off more than I could chew with that first boxing session. I phoned my partner Tineille and said ‘You’re gonna have to put the bath on – I’m not feeling right'.”

Throughout that night, Josh experienced leg cramps, pain in his jaw, sweating, fatigue, breathlessness and nausea. He tried to eat but vomited. 

“At one point Tineille asked me if I was having a heart attack and I laughed and said ‘No, I just went a bit hard in that boxing session’.” 

Josh dropped his eldest daughter at school the next morning and carried on to work at East Coast Farm Vets, where he is Practice Manager. 

As the symptoms continued and Josh struggled to concentrate on his work, he finally called his GP and was advised to go to Gisborne Hospital – and quickly. 

“They threw me on the ECG and within five minutes I had three or four doctors telling me I was having a heart attack. At that point it was about 18 hours after I’d first felt the pain.” 

At such a young age, being a non-smoker and with no family history of heart disease, Josh was stunned. 

“Sitting there with my shirt off, hooked up to the machine and being told I was having a heart attack was a little bit surreal. I couldn’t quite believe it,” he says. 

Josh was put on a plane with Tineille to Waikato Hospital, while their two young daughters Celia and Charlotte went to stay with their grandparents. 

“The kids are 5 and 3 so they didn’t really know what was going on. They just thought their dad was sick.”

In hospital, Josh was told one of the arteries to his heart was completely blocked. He didn’t need heart surgery but was treated with a range of medications and discharged with a rehabilitation plan.  

Now, four months since the attack, Josh is doing everything he can to avoid future heart problems.  

He’s eating well, getting more sleep, doing gentle exercise at the gym and avoiding alcohol. 

“I’m organising my mate’s stag party in a few weeks and instead of hiring a party bus, getting on the booze and having a really big day, I’ve hired a minibus and I’m going to drive. Those little things don’t actually bother me – being sober and driving.”

But the biggest changes have been to Josh’s outlook on life.

“Having the heart attack has helped me appreciate what I’ve got, which is a beautiful partner and two beautiful little girls. Tineille and I used to spend a lot of time away from our kids doing things we thought were important, like working on the house and trying to get ahead. But now, man, who cares about painting the house if it means a weekend away from our kids?”

He says the family now spends more time playing together, exploring Gisborne, and visiting friends and family.  

Josh has also tried to slow down at work, with great support from his boss. 

“I was probably a workaholic before – I wasn’t sleeping much and I wasn’t eating all that well. We came back to Gisborne last year for family reasons and the lifestyle, and I’ve now taken a step back from work to try and enjoy that lifestyle and find more balance.” 

And although it may sound strange, Josh is incredibly thankful for his heart attack.  

“I’ve always looked at it really positively. I could have quite easily not known what was going on for another few years and the artery plaque could have got worse and then, ‘boom’, I wouldn’t be here.”

If you would like to support the Heart Foundation's Annual Appeal, which runs throughout February:

  • Call us on 0800 830 100
  • Go to www.heartfoundation.org.nz/donate
  • Head to your nearest BNZ branch