'Heart warrior': Aloiai's bond with brave young Tigers fan

Doctors at Westmead Hospital were prepared for the worst when Wests Tigers prop Josh Aloiai visited a brave boy awaiting emergency heart surgery in August.

There were fears that 12-year-old Lachlan Fleming, born with the very rare congenital heart disease Truncus Arteriosis, wouldn't survive the third major open heart operation of his young life.

He could have gone into cardiac arrest at any moment.

A huge Tigers fan, his story was shared with Aloiai - and so the Ken Stephen Medal finalist headed in to see Lachlan in his own time despite nursing a season-ending hand injury.

The pair quickly formed a beautiful bond, with Aloiai staying for more than two hours talking and performing magic tricks.

"They were saying there was a fair bit of risk, whether he'd make it or not," Aloiai told NRL.com.

"Once I got in the car after seeing Lachlan, I was pretty emotional. I was really thankful that the parents let me come and see Lachlan.

"He's a lovely boy, good manners."

Wests Tigers forward Josh Aloiai and brave Tigers fan Lachlan Fleming.
Wests Tigers forward Josh Aloiai and brave Tigers fan Lachlan Fleming. ©NRL Photos

Fortunately, the operation was successful and, after spending a month at Westmead and then a week at Ronald McDonald House, Lachlan returned home to Newcastle to recover.

He still faces another open heart surgery to replace his truncal and aortic valves. If all goes to plan, he hopes to play sport again.

Aloiai keeps in regular touch with Lachlan by phone and that simple act means the world to his parents.

They wrote to Aloiai: "You gave him hope and joy when you came to visit and took away just for a short while the stress that our family was facing.

Wests Tigers forward Josh Aloiai and Tigers fan Lachlan Fleming.
Wests Tigers forward Josh Aloiai and Tigers fan Lachlan Fleming. ©NRL Photos

"We never expected we would hear from you again ... You are a very special human being."

Aloiai was humbled when the recuperating Lachlan was most concerned for the Tigers forward's welfare after he had a rib graft to repair his hand.

"I was telling him it was a bit embarrassing - please stop asking me!" Aloiai laughed.

 
 
 
 
 
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On the mend 🤕 # 💨 👀

A post shared by Josh Aloiai (@joshaloiai) on

Aloiai organised tickets for Lachlan and his family to attend the Tigers' last home game against Cronulla, where Lachlan presented him with a leather bracelet that had "Heart Warrior" engraved as a gift of thanks.

This touching experience is far from a one-off. A devoted Christian, Aloiai constantly visits hospitals to lift those doing it tough.

"Every time you talk to the nurses, they talk about the long-lasting effect that going and visiting the kids and spending time with them has made," Aloiai said.

"I feel really lucky l that as part of my job description I can go and see kids and make a difference."

Among Aloiai's most impactful work is his involvement with Feel the Magic, an organisation that assists bereaved kids aged seven to 17 to cope after the death of a loved one.

The cause is personal for the 23-year-old, who lost his father unexpectedly when he was 13.

"To be able to help kids go through the same things that I went through and be able to partner with them in their grief and be an ambassador for such a great charity - I'm really blessed," he said.

The Samoan international is also an advocate for the Tigers' Celebrating Differences anti-bullying program as well as the NRL's Voice Against Violence initiative alongside teammate Ryan Matterson.

"As footballers, we're role models in our community whether we like it or not. We want to use our platform to influence people in the right way," Aloiai said.

Between all his commitments, Aloiai has completed a Certificate IV in Business and intends to finish a Diploma with the plan to start a public speaking venture.

"I do a lot of public speaking on the side - at the moment I do it for free out of passion, whether it's schools or youth groups or things like that," he said.

"I really like to show how much I care about people."

The extremely modest Aloiai admitted he almost didn't want to be nominated for the Ken Stephen Medal but is now one of the four finalists for the prestigious award.

However, he also understands the positives from the attention.

"For someone that's not a super high-profile player - I'm not a James Tedesco or a Kalyn Ponga or anything like that - it shows we can all be really influential anyway which is really nice to see," he said.

 

The 2019 Ken Stephen Medal is proudly supported by wealth, property and well-being consultancy, One Solutions.