When flight BA 54 from Johannesburg touches down at Heathrow Airport amid typically bleak London weather, it brings with it a ray of sunshine for sufferers of Motor Neuron Disease (MND).
On board is former Springbok captain, Joost van der Westhuizen, a man who was advised in March that he would never again travel internationally.
Almost a year after the 42nd birthday he was told he would likely not celebrate, this icon in world rugby is touring the UK on a quest for a cure for MND that attacks the central nervous system, causing progressive disability. There is no known cure. The prognosis: death.
Joost was diagnosed in April 2011.
“They said I would be in a wheelchair after a year. They said I had a 20 percent chance to live two years. And I decided ‘Stuff them.’ I will decide when I go,” he says.
Known for his lightning speed, gritty determination and fearless defense, Joost’s game-changing prowess as a rugby player is now galvanized in a fight to both survive and make a difference in the lives of others with the disease.
“In the beginning you go through all the emotions and you ask, ‘Why me?’ It’s quite simple, ‘Why not me?’ If I have to go through this to help future generations, why not me?” he emphasizes.
From England to Wales and Scotland, Joost – alongside his team from the J9 Foundation – will raise awareness and funds in support of those afflicted with MND worldwide: in support of research; in pursuit of a cure.
The tour kicks off in Cardiff on the 7 th of November, moves to London on the 11th and heads for Edinburgh on the 14th, where Joost will engage with the world-leading research being conducted at the University of Edinburgh’s * Euan MacDonald Centre for Motor Neuron Disease.
“This is going to be the most important tour of my life. We are not only raising awareness and funds, for the first time we are bringing international research partnerships home.”
Joost will also have a private audience with HRH Princess Anne, the patron of MND in Scotland and Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh. In addition, he is being honoured by the Scottish Rugby Union at the South Africa vs. Scotland International on Sunday the 17th of November.
Scotland and British Lions centre Scott Hastings, who lined-up against Joost during their playing careers and who is now patron of MND Scotland, has been instrumental in many of the arrangements for Joost’s visit, including a fun sports quiz at Murrayfield Stadium on Friday 15 November.
“All the work that Scott Hastings has done and the fact that both the Scottish and Welsh Rugby Unions are putting my battle and Motor Neuron Disease under an international spotlight are proof that the rugby family sticks together – no matter what. Thank you,” says Joost.
Joost van der Westhuizen returns to South Africa on the 20th of November and, following a family holiday, will begin planning his 43rd birthday party.