After putting their three children to bed, the Arsenal legend and his wife were enjoying the peace and quiet. They were about to go to sleep, but the former striker’s hammering heartbeat was keeping Amara awake.
She recalls: “His heartbeat sounded much louder than normal. I was listening to his chest and it sounded odd.”
More than a decade earlier, Kanu had needed lifesaving open-heart surgery after being diagnosed with a heart valve defect.
Amara Kanu's wife, couldn’t shake the niggling feeling that was something wasn’t quite right and insisted her husband get it checked immediately.
Kanu, says: “She was saying I should go for a check-up so I took her advice.”
And Amara, who runs an interior design business, was proved right because experts told him there was further damage to his heart and he urgently needed a second operation.
It was the same faulty valve,” she says. “It was like a ticking time bomb. It’s just one of those things we were lucky to find out.”
Not only did she save his life, Amara also nursed him back to health and has now written a book called Healthy Living with Amara Kanu, inspired by her battle to get her husband back on his feet.
Kanu’s first open-heart surgery was in 1996 after a routine medical examination at Inter Milan revealed the serious heart defect. He was a professional athlete at the top of his game and had just helped his native country of Nigeria win gold at the Olympics.
It was a complete shock but Kanu says: “Now I know that being fit and strong doesn’t make your heart 100%.”
It took him a year to recover and return to Inter Milan, before being signed by Arsenal for a reported £4.15million in 1999. His comeback was cemented by a hat-trick in the final 15 minutes of a game against Chelsea later that year.
In 2000, he set up The Kanu Heart Foundation to help underprivileged children across Africa with heart problems.
So far, it has helped save the lives of 538 children needing urgent heart operations. The couple’s next ambition is to open a new hospital in Nigeria so that families do not have to travel outside of the country for treatment.
Kanu, who retired from professional football in 2012, and Amara knew he was always likely to need another valve operation at some point.
As with the first operation, they travelled to the US for his second surgery in 2014, meaning they would be apart from their children Sean, Ian and Pinky – now 12, 10 and five – for several weeks.
Amara says: “Our youngest was just three at the time. It was very hard. We broke it to them little by little. I said, ‘Daddy will be OK. He’s in good hands’.”
The couple, who married in 2004 and live in Hertfordshire, were only too aware of the risks.
Kanu says: “Anything to do with heart operations is major. You don’t pray to be in that situation. The heart is the most important machine in the body and when it goes off it’s finished.”
Amara says she had to be strong for her husband and children.
“If I didn’t have positive thinking my life would have been in tatters,” she says.
The six-hour operation, which took place at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, was a success but Kanu went from being fit and strong, to very weak.
He says: “At first, I wasn’t the same guy. I had to gradually come back to life and it was very painful.”
It took the former Champions League winner two days until he was strong enough to sit in a chair. Amara says: “From lying down to sitting was a big deal. He had to learn to walk again.”
But Kanu was kept motivated during his recovery by regular calls from back home. Amara says: “The children would be face-timing me, asking: ‘How is Daddy?’
“I remember one time, he was wearing a hospital gown and the youngest said: ‘Daddy, why are you in nightwear? What’s wrong? You are normally always in sportswear’.”
After six weeks in hospital, Kanu was strong enough for the couple to fly back to the UK.
Kanu says: “The children were waiting for us when we got back. They wanted to jump on me but they had to take it easy.”
And just a few days later, he was able to have a kick-about in the garden with the boys. Amara says: “It was amazing for me to watch.”
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