Emirati surfer sets sights on Olympic glory after life-changing operation

Mohammad Hassan was given a new lease of life after having his colon removed at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi

Mohammad Hassan can now pursue his sporting dreams after successful surgery. Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi
Mohammad Hassan can now pursue his sporting dreams after successful surgery. Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi

An Emirati surfer is dreaming of making waves at the Tokyo Olympic Games this year after undergoing a life-changing operation.

Mohammad Hassan, 33, feared he may never be able to play sport again when he was told his colon needed to be removed after a 15-year battle with ulcerative colitis, a serious bowel condition.

But after a recent successful procedure at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, he is out to prove there are no limits to what you can achieve.

His chronic condition forced him to give up his first love of rugby, a sport in which he represented his country, leading to a sporting conversion to surfing.

I’ve been quite emotional taking in this newfound freedom

Mohammad Hassan

The most common symptoms of his ailment include abdominal pain, recurrent or bloody diarrhoea, weight loss and fatigue.

“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," said Hassan, who visited doctors around the globe in an effort to improve his quality of life.

"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 near by. There were so many things I couldn’t do.”

On the advice of a friend who also suffers from ulcerative colitis, Hassan visited Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi to seek help.

His 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 is not under control.

“During a routine follow-up for a patient with ulcerative colitis, a colonoscopy revealed pre-cancerous cells in Mohammad’s colon," said Dr Zaher Koutoubi, a consultant gastroenterologist at the hospital.

"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.”

With his colon removed, the avid sportsman passes solid waste through a stoma in his abdomen that connects to a waterproof pouch called an ostomy bag.

Doctors plan to carry out two more operations to restore Hassan's bowel function by constructing a "J pouch" that will eliminate his need for a stoma or ostomy bag, allowing him to use the toilet normally again.

“The past 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," said Hassan.

"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 is now enjoying a sense of freedom so many take for granted.

Mohammad Hassan took up surfing after his ulcerative colitis forced him to give up rugby. Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi
Mohammad Hassan took up surfing after his ulcerative colitis forced him to give up rugby. Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi

“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," he said.

"I had a coffee while going for a walk, I’ve gone on a long bike ride and even went 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.”

Life has put him on a different sporting path than he first imagined – and now a journey to Olympic glory is in his sights.

His next challenge will be an international surfing competition in South America.

“Adapting to the bag wasn’t easy, but I’ve been able to lie 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," he said.

"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."

Updated: February 28, 2021 08:43 PM

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