Joost – the final whistle

I woke up this morning and the first thing I read was that Joost van der Westhuizen had passed away.

He was amazing: what rugby lover can forget his contribution to South Africa’s iconic 1995 World Cup win? But that was only one season; besides being a member of the 1995 Springbok squad, Joost represented South Africa in 89 test matches, scoring 38 tries, and he was inducted into the International Rugby Hall of Fame in 2007.

In 2011, Joost revealed that he was suffering from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a form of motor neurone disease, and that there was no cure.

What is Motor Neurone Disease?

A group of severe disorders of the nervous system make up Motor Neurone Disease (MND), rather than one specific illness. Motor neurones are specialised nerve cells in the brain and spine that help regulate many of your body’s automatic processes, such as swallowing or breathing, and they also send signals from the brain to the muscles and bones, allowing you to move. MND happens when these motor neurones progressively stop working properly.

How do people get MND?

A small amount of sufferers (around 5% of people with motor neuron disease) have a close family member with the related condition fronto-temporal dementia, or MND. This is known as familial motor neuron disease and is more closely linked to a genetic problem.

More often, a sufferer has no family history of the MND. Called sporadic motor neurone disease, it is probably caused by a combination of environmental and genetic factors building up over the years.

While there is no cure for motor neurone disease, treatment can help relieve symptoms and slow the progression of the disease. In Joost’s  case, symptoms first showed in 2008 when he felt a weakness in his right arm. It was easy to write this off as an old rugby injury, but the pain grew steadily worse and he sought medical advice. The diagnosis: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, one of the most common forms of motor neurone disease.

Joost’s battle created awareness

Joost and David Thorpe, a close friend, formed the J9 Foundation, a charity raising awareness around the debilitating condition. Someone else you know who is battling with MND is Stephen Hawking.

South Africa and the world SA watched him face down his illness with the same courage he displayed on the pitch. Thinking about Joost hauling down the unchallenged giant Jonah Lomu just outside the 22m line in 1995 – that’s how I choose to remember him.

Peace to you.

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