Burnley Midfielder Hollie Kelsh Reurns After Three Heart Surgeries
Burnley Football Club Women’s Hollie Kelsh successfully battles heart condition that stopped her playing football for over two years While all players relish the opportunity of playing minutes for their team, Burnley Football Club Women midfielder Hollie Kelsh isn’t taking one second for granted now she’s back in contention for a starting place in the Clarets side.
Twenty-six-year-old Hollie has faced quite a road back to first team football having spent two years out of the game and enduring three extensive surgeries for a diagnosed heart condition. Hollie, who hails from Blackpool, developed atrial flutter, a heart condition which causes a type of abnormal heart rhythm, or arrhythmia. The symptoms developed during a training session at last Club AFC Fylde Women, league rivals of Burnley FC Women in the Northern Premier Division of the FA Women’s National League.
Hollie Kelsh’s Inspiring Return To Football
“I was on the pitch warming up and my heart started to feel funny, I had an overwhelming feeling of what I’d describe as like a fish flopping around in my chest. That’s the best way to describe it. I was feeling light-headed and just not right.”
On arrival at the hospital, staff ran tests and diagnosed Hollie with an atrial flutter. The diagnosis came as a shock and thorough follow up tests offered the midfielder an uncertain outlook in terms of her future ability to play the game she loves.
“I’ve played football since I was seven years old. I got scouted through school for Crewe Alexandra Centre of Excellence and represented Cheshire at County Level and England U15s, U17s & U19s. I’ve always loved it. When I was 18, I went to America on a full scholarship. In 2017 when I returned to England, I signed for AFC Fylde Women. I played there for a couple of years with the ambition of hopefully one day going professional.
Upon her diagnosis, having spent time in A&E, Hollie was then discharged. However, she was forced to return to hospital a short time later when the atrial flutter continued. “I was having blood thinners as they attempted to correct the rhythm of my heart. The first surgery took five hours. After the surgery, I was at home recovering and the first three months were great, we thought everything was sorted.
Then I started experiencing flutter episodes again. So, I had to go back to hospital to get tested again. I knew the second time it was serious. I had to be put to sleep and they used a defibrillator to try and get my heart out of the atrial flutter. This was during the first lockdown in March 2020 and the whole thing of having to go into hospital and be put to sleep, and anything to do with your heart, it was really emotional.
When you’re signing the papers and it says what could go wrong it really hits you. I couldn’t have anyone with me in the A&E resus room as I was being defibbed, because of the nature of the procedure. I had it done, then came back round, then it was a waiting game during Covid, to get my second surgery as the first one wasn’t successful. So, I had my second surgery in September 2020. That surgery we all thought went really well, it took four hours, and the doctors were confident that they had sorted the problem. For a good few month’s things seemed to be alright.
I don’t like to worry my family and all along I was trying to cover it up and pretend that what was happening wasn’t, as a way of getting through it. So that was really difficult as I was keeping it to myself. Unfortunately for Hollie, despite initial positive signs, the second surgery wasn’t successful as during a recovery gym session her heart again went into atrial flutter. “I went to the hospital, and they confirmed it was serious, I was put on a ward so they could treat me. This was during the tier system in lockdown, so I was completely on my own, which was hard.
They said they were going to defib me again, which I got upset about because it’s really difficult and especially having been through it before twice already. I was worked up; I was in quite a state when I phoned my family. However, shortly after that the doctors told me that in fact, they weren’t going to do that, they were going to treat to cure. Which was the third surgery. I had to wait a week, then on the Sunday night, from midnight I had to fast, all the way until the surgery, whatever time that would take place. So, the whole day went by, and it got to 4pm in the afternoon and they said sorry it won’t be today.
The same happened the next day and it didn’t end up happening, which is hard when I’d fasted and psyched myself up. The next day I got down to surgery, was signing the papers and it didn’t end up going ahead. Then on the Thursday the third surgery finally took place. I found recovering from that surgery really hard, mentally and physically. It was challenging as I didn’t have a coping mechanism, my coping mechanism is playing football or going to the gym and all that had been taken away from me. I was just a shell of myself. I looked healthy to look at, but the reality was I was crumbling inside. I felt low and broken.
Hollie spoke to counsellors during this time, to help her through the reality of what she had been through. “Initially for the first two surgeries I took myself away from football as I saw it as something I couldn’t have at that point as I wasn’t healthy enough. I removed myself from it and just kept a small eye on it because I knew that in the future I was determined to come back and hopefully play again. However, at that point in time I didn’t know if I would ever physically be able to.”
Three heart surgeries later, over the course of two years, Hollie was back in the position to tentatively look towards returning to the game. It was following the third surgery, in 2021, with recovery going well, that Hollie was in contact with Burnley about signing for the Club. Following the early curtailment of two league seasons due to Covid-19, the Clarets were looking to bolster their squad ahead of the 2021/22 campaign, with the women’s teams operations having been integrated into the football club.
Hollie spoke to management and despite a setback in her recovery resulting in an extended stay out of the game, the Club were fully supportive and assured her that her place in the squad was secure and ready for when she was fit enough to return. Working in close partnership with the Club’s Development Academy and Women’s Sports Therapist, Eve Parkinson, the pair worked on gradually building Hollie back up to playing.
“Since the third surgery and being integrated into the Burnley team, football definitely gave me a purpose and the will to say, ‘come on you can get back to what you’re good at’ and get back on the field. Football has been my life from a really young age. It was really hard to step away from it, not just the physical affect but the emotional affects have been really challenging but you’ve just got to stay positive and keep pushing. I’m excited for what’s to come at Burnley. It’s brilliant here.”
After a long journey, Hollie made her debut for the Club on an away visit to Middlesbrough Women FC on the 9th January 2022, playing 30 minutes as she gradually builds her game time up. Eve Parkinson, Development Academy and Women’s Sports Therapist at Burnley FC said: “I’ve been working closely with Hollie over the past eight months following her ablation surgery for atrial fibrillation. We’ve been in regular communication with her surgical team at Blackpool Hospital alongside our Club doctors to make sure her return to training and games was of the best quality.
Hollie has worked incredibly hard throughout her rehabilitation; this has been a long process and at times has been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. To see her back on the pitch doing what she loves is a very proud moment for all of us, myself included. She is an incredibly talented player and a huge part of the team here at Burnley, and I can’t wait to see the rest of her journey. Well done, Hollie!”
Burnley FC Chairman, Alan Pace said: “Hollie’s story is truly remarkable, having undergone such extensive surgery three times and to get back fighting fit to feature in the starting 11 is fantastic. The medical and physiotherapy team here at the Club have worked closely with Hollie and while it’s been a long journey, we are all delighted to see her back on the pitch and enjoying her football. To face such challenging circumstances head on and to come out the other side stronger shows real determination and character. She has inspired me and I’m sure her story will inspire many others.”