I feel like I’m dying: O’Neill’s scary decline
QUEENSLAND rugby league star Justin O'Neill's wife has revealed for the first time how terrifyingly close he came to death after a horror on-field injury caused him to lose two-thirds of his blood.
Chantelle O'Neill has opened up to The Courier-Mail about the traumatising two months she spent at the Cowboys star's bedside as he battled to recover from a spleen rupture that could have killed him.
He had three blood transfusions after losing two-thirds of his blood, and doctors later said his fitness and good health had likely saved his life.
"Absolutely it was life-threatening when you lose that much blood," Chantelle said.
"I was told he only survived because he has a strong heart and he's so fit basically.
"I've nursed him through so many injuries, but it's terrifying to see him so sick."
The 28-year-old State of Origin and Australian representative played until full-time against the Canberra Raiders on May 25 - his 100th game for the Cowboys - but two broken ribs had punctured his spleen, causing internal bleeding.
Teammate Kyle Feldt had raised the alarm when he found O'Neill struggling the next morning and the rugby league star was rushed to hospital.
Chantelle was in Melbourne with the couple's two daughters, Giselle, 2, and Kasia, 1, when at 10am she received a numbing phone call from the team doctor to say O'Neill had been rushed to hospital and that she should "fly straight away".
"It was horrible (getting that phone call)," Chantelle said.
"He played the entire game. He had a really great game. But he didn't feel that well after.
"We did know something was horribly wrong, I just wasn't sure what.
"He was texting me throughout the night, he even sent me a text saying 'I feel like I am dying'."
Chantelle landed in Canberra by 2pm that Sunday as O'Neill had immediate surgery to patch the spleen, underwent three blood transfusions, spent four days in intensive care and a further two in the acute care surgery ward.
Complicating matters, Kasia, who was 10 months old at the time, stopped eating because she'd never been separated from her mother, so Chantelle had her mother fly the girls to Canberra, where they would spend two weeks before O'Neill was able to fly.
"When you're in the deep of it, it was traumatising and very scary," she said.
"I would stay with him (in hospital) until 1am, until he was comfortable, and then race home.
"I would never fall asleep because I was checking my phone in case the hospital called with bad news and then I'd be up when the sun came up … to catch the doctors on their morning rounds."
She added: "Giselle is absolutely his best friend in the whole world, so she was devastated." The family spent some time in Melbourne where Chantelle's family could help care for both O'Neill and the children before returning to Townsville.
One month later, O'Neill underwent a second operation and spent a further six days in hospital in Townsville.
"I took him to emergency and the doctors found he had a twisted bowel from the solidified old blood that stuck to the stomach wall," Chantelle said.
Another month later and, despite having lost 10kg, Chantelle said he was finally looking better and recently returned to light exercise.
"He was in so much pain, it was excruciating," she said.
"I'm just glad he's on the mend.
"There's not too much anyone can do.
"It's just time to let him heal and rest."
As the face of the Townsville Racing Carnival, Chantelle will head to the TAB Townsville Cup on Saturday with a group of Cowboys wives and girlfriends, whom she dubs 'Cowgirls', as an early birthday celebration before her birthday next week.
"It's been a very stressful few months, so it's nice just to do something with my girlfriends and celebrate the community," she said.
"I'm treating it as a small celebration."