Joost: I'll fight to the end
Gavin Prins - Rapport
Joost van der Westhuizen (File)
Johannesburg - "I'm fighting this illness with my faith. And my faith is strong."
Those were the words of former Springbok hero, Joost van der Westhuizen.
He talked exclusively for the first time about the "death sentence", which doctors informed him about four weeks ago.
The former rugby hero has been provisionally diagnosed with motor neuron disease
He still cannot believe it, says Joost.
The doctor who examined him, have given him three years to live.
The moment he heard the news, it felt as if his whole life came tumbling down, says Joost.
"The stress that I have endured over the last two years is nothing compared to this," says the man who went through personal hell for almost the whole of 2009.
Joost is only a shadow of the fit, muscular and self-assured sportsman of just a couple of months ago.
He struggles to talk about his illness without bursting into tears.
During the interview, he excused himself and went to cry in the kitchen.
His two children are his biggest worry.
"The first thing I did was to check if my policies are in order for my kids," says Joost.
He is hoping that a visit to a second neurologist will bring better news.
Shortly before his interview with Rapport, he cut himself with his razor because his hands are shaking too much.
The thought that he actually could die has not really sunk in yet.
"The wind has been knocked out of my sails. I stared at the doctor in disbelief."
He struggles to utter the word "death". All he could say was that "I might only have three years left…"
Van der Westhuizen says he started to realise something was wrong in December last year.
"I struggled to move my hand, but I just left it. It's typical; I thought it was an old sports injury.
"But, as time passed my speech became impaired. When I spoke to people, they would say: 'Joost, are you drunk?'
"Later on, when I took the kids to Sun City for three days, it happened again. The kids and I and old Kellies (his doctor and friend, Dr Henry Kelbrick) played in the pool with a ball.
"Then Kellies and I started to wrestle. That's when he realised there's something wrong with my arm.
"The next day we started to talk.
I asked him: 'Can you hear that my speech is becoming more and more impaired?'
"He immediately sent me to a neurologist and then they took X-rays.
"The next day, when he (Kelbrick) gave me the results, it was the first time I ever saw him being emotional.
He said: "Joost, what else could happen to you now?'
"After he told me I have motor neuron disease, he said that doctors didn't know how to treat it.
Joost says there was a moment of silence.
"I became a blank. I hardly remember anything from that day."
When asked about motor neuron disease, Joost says: "It's a disease they don't know much of. My condition has not been caused by stress and definitely not due to a hectic social life. It's my nervous system disintegrating.
He has since visited Dr Jody Pearl - a neurologist from Johannesburg - to get a second opinion. She has discharged him from hospital
, but is still waiting for a final diagnosis.
However, Joost says he is very hopeful: "My faith carries me. I get unbelievable support from my parents (Mariaan and Gustav van der Westhuizen) and my two brothers (Pieter and Gustav Jr).
"My parents are really taking it very badly.
"But, I will fight this thing. Even if it's the last thing I do."