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Durban - Former Springbok star Joost van der Westhuizen struggles to hold a pen, lift his arms, walk, or talk, such are the debilitating effects of his Motor Neurone Disease (MND).
But his blue eyes still sparkle and his smile lights up a room. And he laughs. A lot.
“I eat a lot, but I still keep losing weight,” he said at the home of Ryan Walker, a former Sharks player who also has MND.
Van der Westhuizen’s visit was part of the work his J9 Foundation does in raising awareness about the disease and assisting those who have been diagnosed with it. The foundation is known for visiting fellow sufferers to motivate, support and inspire them.
His visit to Walker at his Nottingham Road home was a result of the rugby community’s continuing support for both him and his foundation.
Despite the debilitating effects of the disease, Van der Westhuizen remains remarkably positive and exudes an energy that is nothing less than inspiring. He jokes, humorously acknowledges his disabilities, and even admits the Sharks are having an impressive Super 15 season.
But he did try, unsuccessfully, to convert Walker into a Blue Bulls supporter.
Walker was diagnosed with MND two years ago, shortly after the birth of his first child. He played rugby for the Sharks in 2002 and 2003.
He and his wife, Paula – who is expecting their second baby in three weeks – were comforted by Van der Westhuizen and the foundation’s chief executive, David Thorpe, with words of encouragement, hope and advice about everything related to the disease, including food, medication and mental attitude.
“The message we want to send people with MND is that we are close to finding a cure, we are getting there. And that life continues even with MND. They have to remain positive,” Thorpe said.
Walker said part of the difficulty with the disease was that information about it in South Africa was “a bit of a black hole”, with a lack of local research and trials.
Van der Westhuizen agreed: “There is nothing, and people with MND are ill-informed about it, they think it is the end.”
Thorpe said to him: “You were given 22 months (to live) and you are now on 44 months.”
Walker said he was confident that “we will beat this thing,” to which Van der Westhuizen replied, “We will”.
“You have to be there for your kids,” he said, gesturing at Paula’s tummy.
Van Der Westhuizen and Thorpe have travelled the world undergoing trial treatments and following research on possible cures. They have been assured by researchers in America that a cure will be found in four years. - The Mercury
* The J9 Foundation will host the Welsh Rugby team at a formal dinner at the Southern Sun Elangeni on June 7, in aid of Motor Neurone Disease. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org