Matt Johnson, a former Blues rugby midfielder, is battling for his life after open heart surgery in Auckland this week – and travel bans stop his family being at his hospital bedside.
Rheumatic fever nearly claimed his life at 13, yet he showed a decade of fight to win a Melbourne Storm contract, then one with the Blues. Now the disease has come back to haunt him.
Matt, now 26, has a lengthy scar down the centre of his chest as a constant reminder of what he has faced and is facing again. He is in intensive care and on life support.
Rangi Mitaera-Johnson, Matt’s step-mother, said the family were very concerned about his health.
His dad Mataio Johnson was “feeling so hopeless” as he was unable to travel to New Zealand to see his son, she said.
Mataio couldn’t wait for the borders to reopen, so he could be by his son’s side.
“This has been a very challenging time for us his family with the Covid-19 restrictions. Visitors are restricted so even if we could get through to New Zealand, we still wouldn’t be able to see him,” Mitaera-Johnson said.
The family has created a group chat where Matt’s fiancée Taylah Hodson-Tomokino, a Sky Sports presenter and rugby player, is providing regular updates on his progress.
After the first surgery on Monday, which lasted 19 hours, Matt underwent another operation on Tuesday.
Hodson-Tomokino said the surgeons put him in an induced coma and, “quite frankly told us to hope for the best but expect the worst”.
But amazingly, his body started fighting back and the bleeding stopped.
Yesterday, Hodson-Tomokino said: “Matty opened his eyes twice today. Only briefly, but it’s a sign.
“The nurses said he can hear us so I have been reading out every single message that has been sent. I’m still making my way through them all and we’ve received well over a thousand … I can’t wait for him to wake up and see how loved he is.”
Mitaera-Johnson said they were encouraged by the progress Matt had made since his first surgery.
“He is really fighting hard. He is a strong boy and we are all praying that he gets well soon.”
The Auckland-born Matt comes from a large extended family with his mother Kaingarua (Mata) having connections in Rarotonga, Atiu and Aitutaki. His dad has Manihiki, Penhryn, Tahitian and English connections.
Matt has a degree in Physical Education and has been teaching at St Peters College in Newmarket, Auckland.
He has been a professional player living in England and has also plied his trade in Italy and Japan.
Matt has been playing for Southland Stags in the Mitre 10 Cup Championship.
He featured for the Aitutaki team in the Cook Islands International Sevens tournament two years ago and also played for the Tupapa Panthers rugby league team in 2014.
Matt has three sisters and a brother. His younger sister Helene Johnson represented the Cook Islands in sailing.
>Additional reporting: Stuff News