Gulf Today, Staff Reporter
UAE national and Olympic hopeful Mohammad Hassan has had a whole new world opened up to him following surgery to remove his colon at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, an integral part of Mubadala Health, effectively curing his ulcerative colitis.
With his colon removed, the 33- year-old professional surfer 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, Mohammad 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 thirty different sports in thirty 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,” says Mohammad.
Diagnosed with ulcerative colitis fifteen years ago, Mohammad has been an athlete for most of his life. 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, setting him on an entirely new path.
A chronic condition that involves inflammation of the gut, the most common symptoms of the disease include abdominal pain, recurrent or bloody diarrhoea, weight loss, and fatigue. Most patients are able to control their condition with medication. However, in Mohammad’s case, medications failed to reduce his symptoms despite having visited doctors all over the world.
"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,” says Mohammad.
After stepping away from rugby, Mohammad found a new passion – surfing. He has 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 suggested that Mohammad visit Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi to finally manage his condition.
Upon visiting the hospital, Mohammad’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 pre-cancerous cells in Mohammad’s colon. After examining the results, we discussed Mohammad’s case in a multidisciplinary team meeting that included surgeons, pathologists and other colleagues to explore all possible treatment options. During the meeting, it was established that he should be referred for a total colectomy. In addition to stopping the cancer in its tracks, this would effectively cure his colitis, eliminating his symptoms,” says Dr. Zaher Koutoubi, a Consultant Gastroenterologist at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi.
Following his surgery, Mohammad’s care team taught him how to use and care for his stoma and ostomy bag while he recovers. Doctors plan 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.
"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 Mohammad proving not only can you live a normal life with one, but pushing his athletic boundaries. It’s inspiring,” says Dr. Shafik Sidani, the colorectal surgeon who performed the surgery at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi.
Since the surgery, Mohammad 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 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,” says Mohammad.
As he continues to recover, Mohammad is planning his return to surfing and his road to the Tokyo Olympics. As he gets used to living with a stoma, 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.
"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. 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,” concludes Mohammad.
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