Abu Dhabi: For the longest time, Emirati athlete and Olympic hopeful, Mohammad Hassan, had to plan his life based on the access and availability of restrooms.
Diagnosed 15 years ago with ulcerative colitis — a chronic condition in which the colon and rectum become inflamed, Hassan, 33, was forced to eventually step away from professional rugby because of his illness. A life-saving surgery at the Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi (CCAD) has now finally allowed him to lead an active life as a professional surfer, even though the procedure involved removing his colon and fitting him with a waterproof pouch — an ostomy bag — to collect solid waste through a hole or stoma in his abdomen.
Sports are possible
“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 free-diving. No matter what, you can play any sport you want — even with a stoma,” Hassan said.
Hassan has been an athlete for most of his life, despite the limits of his ulcerative colitis. He began his career playing for Dubai Football Club before turning to rugby, where he joined the UAE national team and represented the country in Rugby Sevens. However, his bowel condition forced him to give up the game he loved.
In many cases, the common symptoms of ulcerative colitis — abdominal pain, recurrent or bloody diarrhoea, weight loss, and fatigue — can be controlled with medication. But medicines did not relieve Hassan’s symptoms, even though he had seen doctors in several countries.
“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 remembered.
After stepping away from rugby, Hassan found a new passion — surfing. He travelled the world competing in the World Surfing League, and recently moved back to the UAE with his eyes set on representing his nation at the Tokyo Games. A friend who also suffers from ulcerative colitis then suggested that Hassan visit CCAD to finally manage his condition.
Upon visiting the hospital, Hassan’s care team recommended a colonoscopy to monitor his colon for signs of cancer. Patients with ulcerative colitis are at a higher risk of developing the disease, particularly if their condition isn’t under control.
“During routine follow-up for a patient with ulcerative colitis, a colonoscopy revealed precancerous cells in Hassan’s colon. After examining the results, we discussed his case in a multidisciplinary team meeting that included surgeons, pathologists and other colleagues to explore all possible treatment options. It was established that he should be referred for a total colectomy (colon removal). In addition to stopping the cancer in its tracks, this would effectively cure his colitis, eliminating his symptoms,” said Dr. Zaher Koutoubi, consultant gastroenterologist at CCAD.
Following his surgery, Hassan’s care team taught him how to use and care for his stoma and ostomy bag. When the ostomy bag is full, he can disconnect it and empty it into the toilet. Doctors have also planned two more surgeries to restore his bowel function by constructing a ‘j-pouch’ that will eliminate Mohammad’s need for a stoma or ostomy bag, allowing him to use the toilet normally again.
Dubai Fitness Challenge
Following his recovery, Hassan participated in the Dubai Fitness Challenge, taking on 30 different sports in 30 days.
“Because we did his first surgery minimally invasively, Mohammad 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 colectomy surgery at CCAD.
Sense of freedom
Since the surgery, Hassan has found a new sense of freedom. No longer forced to plan his activities around the availability of toilet facilities, he is doing things for the first time that many people take for granted.
“To be honest, I wish I’d done this surgery a long time ago. My life has changed completely. Yes, I am adapting to life with an [ostomy] bag now but there are so many things I can do now that I could never do before. I had a coffee while going for a walk, and I’ve gone on a long bike ride and even 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,” Hassan said.
As he continues to recover, Hassan is planning his return to surfing and his road to the Tokyo Olympics. And while living with a stoma, he is keen to push himself to his limit in order to rebuild his strength and confidence. His next opportunity will come at an international surfing competition in South America.
“Not long ago, I was surfing 55-foot waves in Portugal. Now, here I am playing ice hockey, and going diving to see just how far I can go with the stoma,” Hassan said.
“Adapting to the bag wasn’t easy but I’ve been able to lay on my board and get back to surfing. At first, I was hesitant to do it with my stoma but [I realised] that the 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,” he added.
What is ulcerative colitis?
Ulcerative colitis is a chronic autoimmune condition where the colon and rectum become inflamed. Small ulcers can develop on the colon’s lining, and can bleed and produce pus. Common symptoms include abdominal pain, recurrent or bloody diarrhoea, fatigue and weight loss.
The condition can often be controlled with medication, but patients are susceptible to colorectal cancer because of the inflammation. In these cases, removal of whole or part of the colon — a colectomy — may be required.
What is an ostomy bag?
An ostomy is a surgery that makes a temporary or permanent opening in the skin called a stoma to provide a pathway from an internal organ — either the large intestine, the small intestine or the urinary system — to the outside of the abdomen. The ostomy helps waste, gas or urine exit the body without having to pass through the rectum or the urinary bladder.
In all ostomies, the waste is collected in a waterproof pouch worn on the outside of the body.
Ostomies are often required for cancer patients, those with inflammatory bowel conditions or for people born with congenital defects.