“The support that the AFLPA has given me … is something I don’t take for granted.”
Those are the words of alumni member Jason Heatley; whose AFL career included a three-game stint at West Coast and a further 60 games for St Kilda in the late 1990s.
In 2012, Heatley began to suffer from chronic rheumatoid arthritis.
“It’s basically just a degenerative condition of your joints,” he told aflplayers.com.au.
“Once your joints become arthritic, eventually it gets to a point where you’re just bone on bone.”
It’s a painful process, which can only be stopped in its tracks through one measure: removal of the affected joints.
For Heatley, this has meant replacing both hips, a shoulder, and most recently, an AC joint removal.
“In 2014 I had my left hip replaced, in 2018 I had my right hip replaced. Only last year, I had my left shoulder replaced. The AC joint has now come back to being arthritic, hence I’ve got to go into hospital and have that taken out,” the 49-year-old explained.
“The only way to get rid of the arthritis is to basically take the joint out. That’s the best way to become pain-free effectively, along with all the other medications that you’ve got to take, just so your body is manageable.”
Prior to these operations, the father of two was struggling to enjoy “normal Dad things” due to considerable pain. When ordinarily simple tasks — like walking up the stairs at home — became difficult, Heatley knew surgery had become the only option.
“With your hips for example, the quality-of-life issues that you had were going to the park, chasing the kids around,” he said.
“Walking up the stairs was quite painful. At the end of the day, I made a decision to get (my hips) replaced.”
The solution wasn’t as simple as it sounds. Hip replacements are no low-cost operation, often entailing significant out-of-pocket expenses.
But the AFLPA soon came to Heatley’s aid via its Injury and Hardship fund, alleviating financial pressure and helping the two-time St Kilda leading goalkicker make a return to pain-free life.
“The support that the AFLPA has given me to be able to have the quality of life that I do is something I don’t take for granted and I’m incredibly appreciative,” Heatley said.
“If there are guys out there who are struggling they should certainly ask the question and hopefully the PA can help them just like they did me.”
Heatley said he was enjoying being able to live a more normal life.
“At my age, I’m still very young to have these sorts of surgeries. What it’s actually doing is giving me the opportunity to live as close to a normal life as I possibly can,” he said.
“Even just getting out for walks and going for a jog now, they were things I couldn’t do five or six years ago. You just take the basic stuff for granted, and for me, just to able to exercise efficiently and be healthy in my own body, hopefully, touch wood, moving forward I don’t have any issues for the next five to 10 years.”
It’s enabled Heatley to stay involved in the game he’s been immersed in most of his life.
Post his AFL career, the forward, who was renowned for his accuracy in front of goal, suited up for Tasmania in the VFL, before returning to Victoria to take on a range of coaching roles.
He now coaches fellow alumni Brent and Shane Harvey at North Heidelberg, the same club he finished his playing career at in 2005.
“That’s still the connection for me to stay involved in the game,” he said.
“Just to watch things come to life through young kids, that’s where I get my biggest kick.”
Heatley’s favourite kick, it must be said, comes at the local oval with son, Parker and daughter, Shelby.
“My son’s now 16, and I can go down, kick the footy, run around with him to an extent. Even my 18-year-old daughter played footy for four or five years, and just to have that ability to go and kick the footy and teach her a few things from your own experience, those are the joys of being a parent.”
Heatley’s story serves as a reminder of the support available for alumni suffering from career-related injuries.
“If there are guys out there who are struggling, they should certainly get in contact with the AFLPA,” he said.