Emirati surfer Mohammad Hassan’s Olympic dreams are kept alive following a surgery to remove his colon.
The 33-year-old Dubai resident was battling ulcerative colitis for the past 15 years. Hassan, a blessed sportsman, has played for a football club in Dubai and represented the national team in Rugby Sevens.
However, his bowel condition forced him to give up the game he loved.
“I was struggling a lot. My colitis wasn’t under control at all, and I was going to the bathroom 15 to 20 times a day. I had to stop playing rugby because I would need to leave the field and let my team down during games.
"My condition really controlled my life, I had to plan everything I did around having a toilet nearby. There were so many things I couldn’t do,” Hassan recollected.
Hassan had tried doctors all over the world, but medications failed to reduce his symptoms.
Meanwhile, Hassan found a new passion – surfing. He travelled the world, competing in the World Surfing League. He recently moved back to the UAE with his eyes set on representing his nation at the Tokyo Games.
It was a friend, who also suffers from ulcerative colitis, suggested he visit Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi.
And a colonoscopy revealed pre-cancerous cells in his colon.
“It was established that he should be referred for a total colectomy (removal of colon). In addition to stopping the cancer in its tracks, this would effectively cure his colitis, eliminating his symptoms,” said Dr Zaher Koutoubi, a consultant gastroenterologist at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi.
With his colon removed, he now passes solid waste through a stoma in his abdomen that connects to a waterproof pouch called an ostomy bag. When full, he is able to disconnect the pouch and empty it into the toilet.
During his recovery, Hassan was keen to rebuild his strength and confidence to show the world that he could still lead an active life. He participated in the Dubai Fitness Challenge 2020, playing 30 different sports in 30 days to prove that his ostomy bag wouldn’t hold him back from his athletic career.
“The last few months have been a real rollercoaster for me. When I first heard I needed surgery, I thought I might have to give up playing sports. Now, I want to show people there are plenty of sports you can join, no matter your ability level.
"I played underwater hockey, golf and even went freediving. No matter what, you can play any sport you want - even with a stoma,” Hassan said.
Doctors plan two more surgeries to restore his bowel function by constructing a ‘j-pouch’ that will eliminate Hassan’s need for a stoma or ostomy bag, allowing him to use the toilet normally again.
“Because we did his first surgery minimally invasively, Hassan was able to fly through his hospital stay and get back to his life very quickly. The next thing we hear from him is that he’s taking on this sports challenge. It’s really amazing.
"Patients are usually very reluctant to get a stoma and here’s Hassan proving not only can you live a normal life with one but pushing his athletic boundaries. It’s inspiring,” said Dr Shafik Sidani, the colorectal surgeon who performed the surgery.
Since the surgery, Hassan has found a new sense of freedom. He is no longer forced to plan his activities around the availability of toilet facilities.
“I wish I’d done this surgery a long time ago. My life has changed completely. Yes, I am adapting to life with a bag now but there are so many things I can do now I never did before. I had a coffee while going for a walk, I’ve gone on a long bike ride and even for a hike. I’d never done these things before because I always had to be near a restroom. I’ve been quite emotional taking in this newfound freedom.”
As he continues to recover, Hassan is planning his return to surfing and his road to the Tokyo Olympics. He is keen to push himself to his limit to rebuild his strength and confidence. His next opportunity will come at an international surfing competition in South America.
“Adapting to the bag wasn’t easy but I’ve been able to lay on my board and get back to surfing. I was hesitant to do it with my stoma, but that fear was all in my head. After my surgery, I want to push my surfing to the next level. I’ve done 55-foot waves and I’m going to go bigger. At the moment there are minimal waves in the UAE, but I want to be ready for when the first swells hit,” Hassan added.
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