Hethersett soccer ref's amazing return to action

Tara GreavesA year after a lifesaving heart transplant, popular football referee Paul Sturman is back in action on the pitch despite being told he would never need his whistle or yellow and red cards again.Tara Greaves

A year after a lifesaving heart transplant, popular football referee Paul Sturman is back in action on the pitch despite being told he would never need his whistle or yellow and red cards again.

Mr Sturman is lucky to be alive after being on life support for days and seeing his weight plummet from a healthy 14 and a half stone to just nine stone following the operation last year.

But after months of rehabilitation - including learning how to talk, eat and drink again - Mr Sturman, a father of two from Hethersett, refereed his first matches in this weekend's Great Yarmouth Cup after being given the all-clear from the hospital.

And he came through the experience unscathed.

He said: 'I feel fine, though my legs are a bit stiff. You still think you can run about and do the same things you did before, but then you realise you haven't done them in about a year.

'But it was nice being out there again and meeting up with the same old referees and having a chat. And the youngsters are all well-behaved so there were no real problems.

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'But we did get the two extremes of weather with hot and sunny on Saturday, and windy, wet and cold on Sunday.'

The 49-year-old's heart problems started eight years ago following a virus.

'I had been fit and healthy and it came out of the blue,' he said.

'I used to play football for St Johns, at Eaton Park in Norwich, but I kept getting injured and my wife said I spent more time injured than I did playing so when I got the chance to become a manager I went for it and then the opportunity to train to be a referee came up.'

Paul, who won a coveted shield for being the best referee at his level in 2007, mainly operated in the Ridgeons Football League, including refereeing the Ridgeons Division One final between Ely City and Needham Market, but also for the Norwich City Academy.

He continued officiating on the pitch after he was diagnosed, despite being told by doctors that he would never referee again.

'I didn't notice anything fitness wise for a few years and the doctor was shocked when I told him I was still refereeing four matches a week as he said I would never referee again,' said Paul, who has been married to Sara-Jane for 21years.

He then started feeling more unwell and following two operations to have pacemakers fitted, Paul was admitted to Papworth Hospital in Cambridge last March for what should have been a three day assessment.

'He started to go down hill rapidly and they kept him in. He ended up in intensive care on full life support,' said Sara-Jane, 41, who stayed with Paul throughout the ordeal.

Once they were able to stabilise his condition, Paul, who is dad to 13-year-old Lizzie and 11-year-old Megan, who both attend Hethersett High, was put on the emergency list for a heart transplant and, just four days later, a donor was found.

'I was very lucky,' said Paul, who remembers little about the time.

'I know the donor was in his 30s and was married with a family. Sara and I both wrote letters to be passed on to his family saying what it meant to us.

'I am so grateful that he was carrying a donor card because without his thoughtfulness I might not be here.'

After nine weeks in hospital, where he received lots of get well wishes, including from Bryan Gunn, then manager of Norwich City, Paul was allowed home but after he suffered nerve damage during the operation he was unable to eat, drink or talk and underwent treatment at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.

'Everyone at both the hospitals was brilliant; from the woman who brings the tea to the consultants,' said Paul, who says he has a new take on life thanks to the transplant.

'I am so grateful to Sara who gave me bed baths and did everything for me when I could do little more than just lay there. I think it has brought us closer together.'

Sara-Jane, who now works for Norfolk County Council, said Paul's second chance at life has also altered the way she thinks.

'It has been a real lesson for me as an onlooker. I don't get wound up by trivial things any more, life is too short,' she said.

Speaking ahead of his matches at the weekend, Paul said: 'I'm a little apprehensive. Although I am not normally nervous, I have being out of it for a year so it's going into the unknown.'

But once he was back in his kit with his whistle around his neck, Paul, who is an Arsenal fan, was soon into his stride.

He said: 'I referee the way I would want to have been refereed when I was a player. I'm going to be 50 in August and before I always said when I got to 50 I would look at when I was as see if I should carry on but I think now, if I am able to referee, I will continue to do so.'

Although this season is at an end, Paul is looking forward to many more.