Watching St Kilda’s Dylan Roberton collapse without warning during the match against Geelong on Sunday was disturbing.
When I heard the initial diagnosis was that he had suffered from an irregular heartbeat, I was – without knowing all the peculiarities which may be unique to Roberton – relieved because I know it is treatable.
Roberton is likely to miss one to two weeks as he undergoes a series of tests to determine the exact nature of his condition. He was released from Geelong’s Epworth Hospital and returned home on Monday afternoon.
“It was a bit of a scare, probably more so for family and friends. I was fine straight away,” he told reporters outside hospital.
Watch the incident below:
Dylan Roberton has been helped from the ground after collapsing on the field.
— AFL (@AFL) April 15, 2018
In 2001, when I was coaching Hawthorn, I had been at a game at the MCG where I was scouting our opposition the following week. Leaving early in the final quarter to avoid the crowd, I ran some 400 metres back to my car but suddenly felt hopelessly out of breath.
I was not unfit, having continued to run after my playing career. But sitting there I wondered why I was so breathless. I didn’t have the sense to take my pulse. Instead, I drove home.
There, I lay on the couch and told my wife Jenny I was a little tired. When I got up an hour later, I felt so light-headed I nearly collapsed. Taking my pulse, she mentioned it was beating fast and skipping.
Finding a stethoscope in the house she listened intently to my chest. It didn’t sound right. That didn’t surprise me. It didn’t feel right either.
I rang the club doctor Terry Gay, an ex-Hawthorn player and also a cardiologist.
“Sounds like arrhythmia,” he said. “Relax and I’ll be there in the morning. If you are still out of rhythm, then we’ll need to do something about it.”
The next day we were scheduled to play Carlton at the MCG. When the doctor arrived that morning, he decided it would be better if I didn’t coach and instead booked me into the Monash Medical Centre for assessment.
The diagnosis was atrial fibrillation, which affects the upper chambers of the heart, known as the atria. Basically, it creates chaotic electrical impulses. In essence, they need to be brought back to normal.
The condition, commonly known as arrhythmia, is not uncommon in endurance athletes, which is what AFL players are. Pushing your body, and therefore your heart, to the extreme in training and competing takes its toll. Many suffer arrhythmia post-career. It is always a little less common for those still competing.
It is now almost 17 years since it first happened to me. That first time it was so unexpected that you have no idea of what it can do to you physically and mentally, how it occurs and what treatment you need to undertake.
That first time I had what they call a cardioversion. This shocks the heart back into rhythm. It worked and I was back coaching after another week off – though I was nowhere near at my mental best for another two weeks and physically I was tired for at least a month.
In 2003 I had another reoccurrence while coaching in a match against West Coast in Tasmania, but managed to see the game through, before returning to Melbourne for a cardioversion the following day.
Medication is also provided. But I have found some drugs sap too much energy. If Dylan has to undertake a similar regime he’ll find it takes some time before he regains his sense of normality.
There is a great unknown in all of this. Dylan will need to deal with his sense of wellbeing and be assisted in this process. Despite the wonderful people who have treated me over the years no one can guarantee you this condition will not re-occur.
While I would have done anything I could to have kept coaching, there have been times in recent years where the condition has frustrated me and made me wonder if all the training and playing was worth it.
I really have my fingers crossed for Dylan that this is a one-off incident, that he will be treated and will make a recovery and never have to deal with it again.
Peter Schwab played 171 VFL/AFL matches for Hawthorn from 1980 to 1991, winning three premierships. He later served as Hawthorn coach, AFL National Umpiring director, AFL Match Review Panel chairman and Brisbane Lions list manager.