Player Hopes To Be 'Inspiration' To Muamba

A Belgian footballer, the only active professional known to be fitted with his own heart defibrillator, has told Sky News he hopes he can be an "inspiration" to Bolton's Fabrice Muamba.

Anthony Van Loo plays in the top flight of Belgian football despite harbouring a life-threatening heart problem.

Extraordinary TV pictures show the player - who has represented his country at under-23 level - collapsing in 2009 while playing for SV Roeselare .

The 23-year-old had already had a life-saving defibrillator fitted after an echocardiogram exposed a weakened heart muscle in 2008.

In the pictures, the defibrillator - implanted beneath his ribs during a three hour operation - delivers a visible jolt and shortly afterwards Van Loo sits up and leaves the pitch on a stretcher before going safely to hospital.

He told Sky News: "Yes, I may be an inspiration to him, I hope so.

"I have been through this but now I hope to be able to save many other people and if somebody has questions about it, he can always ask me.

"I'm always willing to answer them. If Fabrice wants to ask me some questions for example, he can always contact me. It's no problem. I'd be more than happy to give him some courage (a pep talk) because I know what it feels like to deal with this kind of situation."

It has emerged since Muamba left hospital that he has had a defibrillator fitted, and the hope is that he may one day play top flight football again.

His situation differs from Van Loo's since it took his near death following a cardiac arrest during an FA Cup quarter-final match on March 17 at White Hart Lane to expose his heart problem.

But Bolton manager Owen Coyle has not ruled out the possibility that Muamba may return to the game in time.

Tonight, the 24-year-old will attend the Barclays Premier League match between Bolton and Tottenham at the Reebok Stadium.

It will be the first time he has been to a game since he suffered a cardiac arrest in an FA Cup tie against the same opposition at White Hart Lane on March 17.

Van Loo - currently on the sideleines with a thigh injury - missed out on playing for his country in the Beijing Olympics after his heart ventricle weakness had been identified during a routine screening in 2008.

He had been playing football competitively from the age of six without problems. He has only collapsed once, but the defibrillator had been fitted by then.

Van Loo has small scars on his left shoulder and beneath his rib cage as reminder of the three-hour operation to put the defibrillator in. It is placed beneath his ribs specifically to avoid contact.

"Normally, it's put in just under your chest," said Van Loo. "But they put mine under my ribs because I'm still playing a contact sport. To avoid all contact, they put mine there."

He added: "I can't see or feel it myself."

Van Loo He warns Muamba will have to be patient. "The rehabilitation took quite a while, about four months," he said.

"During the first two weeks, you literally can't sleep, you can barely walk. It was a really difficult time for me. But after a while, things started going better and better and eventually you feel fine again. Then it's only a matter of taking that step on a mental level.

"In the beginning I was still afraid of course. I was afraid to really charge, but after a while you start feeling better and you feel safer too. Then you stop thinking about it and give it your all, like you did before.

"Of course I don't know what exactly is Fabrice's medical problem, but if the doctor says 'Okay, with the defibrillator you can continue playing football' and if Fabrice stands by it 100%, he shouldn't hesitate and just give it his all. You should also know that you are actually safer than everyone else. If you have another cardiac arrest, the defibrillator rescues you. Some people might simply die on the spot." 

Van Loo takes a beta blocker pill - which regulates his heart rhythm - before heavy training sessions and matches.

He added: "Naturally, my situation was not as extreme as his because I already had my defibrillator, but my advice would be to just take your time and listen to the people who want to help you and who are experts in what they do.

"I think those cardiologists are no doubt professional. And what's most important: listen to your own body. Dare to say: 'I'm having some doubts or I'm not sure.' I mean it is a heart condition, that's not something you can ignore, it could decide your life.

"If you want to continue playing, you have to stand by this decision 100 or 200%, especially at this level. So he should just take his time and decide for himself what he wants to do in the future. I wish him all the best.

"If he's in top condition again, of course I'd like to see him play again, especially in the Premiership because that is no ordinary competition. I hope he can still pursue his dream, play many more matches and stay healthy."

KV Mechelen's manager Marc Brys took Van Loo to his club two years ago, despite his collapse while playing for SV Roeselare.

"In the beginning we had a major discussion in our medical staff about the situation," said Brys.

"For me it was clear, when a guy has a heart problem, already known, he did everything about it.

"So I think he's the safest player on the pitch. Everything is under control. He had an unlucky situation, the defibrillator was needed. So it works perfectly. For me it is one of the most safe situations."

Brys hopes Muamba may be able to show the same drive Van Loo was able to draw upon. The KV Mechelen player was fitted with his defibrillator at the age of 18.

"He (Van Loo) wanted to succeed as a professional footballer," said Brys. "But it took some while of course. It's a mental process that he went through. Every human being is different. But you need courage, you need guts to make a step forward, to accept it also. You have to live with it for the rest of your life.

"From a distance I think he (Muamba) has the drive, the special motivation to come back, to be ready to start all over again. But it will take some time. The mental process will come, but later of course. As a top sportsman you have need of a special character and most of them have a certain drive. So I think, in that segment of people, they all have the power and strength to go on."

Bolton, meanwhile, have already had a player return to their team with a defibrillator fitted after he collapsed prior to a game, but it didn't work out.

The Senegalese midfielder Khalilou Fadiga - who was with Bolton between 2004 and 2006 - retired from the game in 2011. He is now 37.

The Dutch former Celtic midfielder Evander Sno also had a personal defibrillator fitted - after suffering a cardiac arrest while playing for an Ajax reserve side, but his career appears to have slowed at the age of just 25.