The family and friends of former Sydney Roosters prop Danny Shepherd were so certain he was going to die they held a memorial service for him.
That is how close the former professional rugby league player came to the brink after suffering from heat stroke playing for the Roosters against Gold Coast in Sydney in 1990.
He spent four weeks in a coma as a result of that health scare and a church vigil was held at Mary Immaculate Catholic Church in Waverly for his loved ones to say goodbye.
Shepherd, pictured playing against Cronulla, suffered heat stroke in a pre-season match when he was 33 that put him in a coma for four weeks and nearly killed him
Now 62 and happily living in Cardwell in Far North Queensland, Shepherd grows concerned when he hears about current players being made to play in oppressive conditions.
Leading sport doctor and former NRL player Nathan Gibbs said this week: ‘Serious heat illness can kill you. Heat stroke is deadly.’
Now with Penrith due to play the NRL’s World Club Challenge against the visiting St Helens side from the UK, Shepherd is also worried about their welfare.
Shepherd survived that incident, but grows concerned when he hears games like the World Club Challenge between Penrith and St Helens could be played in 37 degree heat
‘I was in a coma for 14 days and was in hospital for six weeks,’ Shepherd told The Daily Telegraph.
‘It was really serious, I was touch and go. Things weren’t looking good.
‘I was on life support. After I got out, I spent a month on dialysis because I had liver and kidney failure. I had to go to dialysis every day.
‘They actually had a service for me, it was Cardinal Freeman. They had that because they thought, more or less, than I wouldn’t be here.
‘It was a frightening time. It could have been a different outcome and I might not have been here.
‘The specialist said I had intravascular coagulation. The lucky part was that I got out of it all and I’ve come through it well,’ he continued.
‘Touch wood, I was lucky. And I have no side-effects.’
Leading sport doctor and former NRL player Nathan Gibbs warned this week that the heat can be deadly
Shepherd was one of the lucky ones. Perth teenager Torran Jake Thomas was not so lucky.
The junior rugby league player was only 15 when he died of heatstroke after training in Perth with the West Coast Pirates in 2015. The mercury peaked at 44.4C that day, but training was held off until 5.30pm when it was still 34.3C.
‘I just assumed he was conceding to the fatigue and tried to get him to push through,’ coach Luke Daniel Young told a coroner’s inquest.
He was in a coma for several days before dying from multiple organ failure associated with hyperthermia.
Perth teenager Torran Jake Thomas was only 15 when he died of multiple organ failure stemming from heat stroke after training in extreme heat
Around 50 high school football players in the USA have died from heat stroke in the past 25 years.
Pro Bowl offensive tackle Korey Stringer of the Minnesota Vikings collapsed and died at NFL team’s first practice of the preseason in 2001. Eraste Autin, a 250-pound freshman fullback at Florida died of complications from heatstroke following a volunatary conditioning session that same year.
North Carolina senior Chad Wiley died of heatstroke complications, resulting from a sickle cell trait in 2008 while Baltimore Suns player Marquese Meadow slipped into a coma and never recovered in 2014 after training in temperatures of just 30 degrees celcius.
Freshman 275-pound offensive lineman Tyler Heintz died in 2017 after conditioning drills at Kent State while 325-pound sophomore offensive lineman Jordan McNair died in 2018 after a conditioning test at Maryland. He was only 19.
Shepherd warned that surviving heat stroke was not a guarantee of a clean bill of health either, detailing his long recovery from that fateful day.
A fan blows mist onto the Eels bench during the NRL Trial Match between the Penrith Panthers and the Parramatta Eels at BlueBet Stadium on February 11
‘Runners who have had heat stroke have lost their legs and had their muscles fade away,’ he said.
‘When I woke from the coma everything was blurry. They had tied up all my fingers because I kept pulling tubes out in my sleep.
‘I don’t remember the (incident). I don’t even recall going to the game. I got lucky but it was worse for my wife and kids. They had to go through it but I don’t remember anything other than waking up in hospital.
‘They put it down as heat stroke. It wasn’t conclusive but that’s what they reckon it was — heat stroke. Back then, that was probably the fittest I’ve ever been and I was pushing myself harder.
‘I haven’t had any problems since but I still get myself checked once a year.’
St Helens players insist their are acclimatised after arriving early for their matches against NRL sides during the pre-season
Now he hopes the players taking the field in western Sydney this weekend are monitored properly and given the right care in temperatures forecast to reach 37 degrees.
‘I do get concerned,’ he said.
‘Every year there is talk about playing in the heat and heat stroke. Maybe play at night when it’s cooler.
‘Perhaps they could look at unlimited interchange and play matches in quarters.
‘There isn’t a lot they can do about it other than monitor the players more; maybe not have trials or put the season back until the cooler weather arrives but I don’t think you can do that.
‘From when I was playing until now, the players are more educated, looked after and monitored differently and they are all full time professionals. They’re super fit.’
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