Following a dream despite heart problems

After heart valve surgery, Ian Ayling followed his dream to become a groundsman at Twickenham. Rachael Healy hears how family and colleagues help him stay strong.

Ian Ayling, a groundsman at Twickenham

Ian Ayling was 25 when he received a diagnosis that would change his life. Back in 1996, Ian was a semi-professional footballer and a groundsman at Uxbridge Cricket Club. He was in hospital for a routine knee procedure when a junior doctor performing pre-operative checks noticed something unusual.

Ian appeared to have a heart murmur – an unusual sound present during his heartbeat. He was sent for tests, which revealed his aortic valve was leaking. Instead of the knee procedure he’d expected, Ian was told he would have to undergo open heart surgery to replace the faulty valve.

“I didn’t know what I’d be able to do; I didn’t know if I’d be able to continue with my job,” says Ian, 44. “Back then, when I heard about people having heart operations, I thought life stops. I didn’t know what was going to happen. It was tough – mentally, too.”

You have to live life and carry on. Whatever you’re going through, you just have to be positive

Surgeons gave Ian a mechanical valve and he now takes warfarin every day to prevent a blood clot forming on the valve’s surface. As warfarin can increase risk of bleeding, he was advised to give up football and other contact sports. “I was pretty distraught because I just wanted to carry on,” Ian says.

Fortunately, he was given the all-clear to continue working as a groundsman and, after a few months off, he returned to tending pitches. “I couldn’t become a sportsman, so this is the next best thing,” he says.

“I just love my job. I love being outside in the open. This job is physical, but it’s a good physical. You do keep healthy. Every time I cut the pitch, I’m walking around six miles. Even if I couldn’t do this job, I would try to do something active.”

Ian soon adjusted to his physical boundaries. “When I first had the operation, with every chest pain I used to go to A&E or the doctors’ surgery,” he says. “But I’ve come to manage that now. After being checked over a few times, I’ve come to terms with that fact that it’s usually muscular. I’ve been told if I get arm pain or back pain with the chest pain, to go back to the doctor.

“[My doctors] told me not to lift anything too heavy, where it might make your blood pressure increase or make your face go red. Anything too physical, and I have to think twice and get someone to help me.”

Family support

As well as a helping hand from his groundskeeping team, Ian’s had the support of his partner, Niamh. “She’s been there through all the little mishaps and big mishaps,” says Ian.

Ian Ayling, a groundsman at Twickenham

Ian recently helped prepare Twickenham for the Rugby World Cup

The pair met in 1997, just before Ian was offered a prestigious position as Head Groundsman at Hong Kong Stadium. “I didn’t expect to go to Hong Kong six months after my operation,” he says.

“I had this opportunity and I thought: ‘My valve isn’t going to stop me’. You have to live life and carry on. Whatever you’re going through, you just have to be positive.”

Niamh flew out to Hong Kong to visit Ian and when he returned, they got together. In 1998, they married.

“That was the next chapter in my life,” says Ian. “I couldn’t have done it without my wife and just having that person to talk to, to cry to… She said: ‘Don’t call me a rock, it’s too clichéd. I’d rather be an emerald!’

“When I got married, Niamh began looking after me and I look after her. We look out for each other.”

Ian and Niamh now have a 14-year-old daughter, Roisin. “We named her after my late mother. She’s a fantastic girl,” says Ian. “Life changes for anyone who has a baby. My life changed because I want to be there for my daughter. I think: don’t do it for yourself, do it for your wife and daughter.

“You’ve got to carry on for them. They’re who I live for. I want to see my daughter grow up, go to university, walk down the aisle.”

Overcoming challenges

Ian Ayling, a groundsman at Twickenham

Ian’s family network proved vital in 2013, when he was struck by two unexpected medical emergencies. “The first time, it was scary,” says Ian. “I was sitting at home and my fingers went numb and my speech went funny.

“The ambulance was in my driveway when my wife and daughter got back to the house. They came straight in and just burst into tears. I was taken straight to Charing Cross Hospital.”

I think: don’t do it for yourself, do it for your wife and daughter

Ian had suffered a carotid artery dissection, a tear in the lining of one of the arteries supplying the brain, which increases the chance of a blood clot forming, potentially causing a stroke. Six months later, a tear occurred in Ian’s other carotid artery.

“You think it’s over and done with, but then something else goes wrong,” says Ian. “You’re just getting on with things and then you get two dissections in one year, but I’m quite mentally strong now. You just get on with it.”

Thanks to Ian’s daily dose of warfarin, the effects of the dissection were minimised. “It could’ve led to a stroke if I wasn’t on warfarin,” he says. “I still have MRI scans to keep an eye on things, but they think everything is OK now.

“The hospital supports me. So does the whole family Niamh, Roisin, Niamh’s parents, my sister-in-law and her husband, my brother and his wife. They all look after me.”

Down the line

Through all the complications, Ian has stayed on track with his career, working his way up to become Deputy Head Groundsman at Twickenham Stadium, the home of the England rugby union team and the world’s largest dedicated rugby union venue.

“The ultimate aim for any groundsman is to work at a professional stadium,” he says. “To get the job here at Twickenham was unbelievable. I didn’t know anything about rugby when I came to work here, but grass is grass.

Ian Ayling's daughter, Roisin

Ian’s wife, Niamh, and daughter, Roisin (above), inspire him to live a full life 

“Everybody’s great to chat to and this is a lovely environment to work in. The staff who know I’ve got this problem always look out for me. It’s a great family. If I do have a bad day, I just go home and rest up, but usually I’m out here early in the morning. Just being outside and looking after the grass is fantastic.

“You dream of hosting a world cup and last autumn we had 10 Rugby World Cup games here. There was a great atmosphere for the New Zealand–Australia final. When the players came off, we clapped them and they were clapping us because of what we produced – a great pitch to play on.”

At one of the friendly matches in the run-up to the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Ian’s daughter Roisin graced her dad’s immaculate pitch to celebrate her mum’s heritage and sing the Irish national anthem. “I was so proud of her,” says Ian. “Her and Niamh have had to deal with my ups and downs, but she always gives me a big hug and says, ‘You’re going to be fine’.”

Ian’s advice to others is to get all the support you can from friends and family. “Try to get a network of people [around you] and be reassured by that.

“You will have ups and downs, but you’ll come out the other side. You will feel positive eventually. I just want people to realise that you can carry on with life.”  

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