South African Rugby
Joost determined to fight "death sentence"
ESPNscrum Staff
May 23, 2011
South Africa scrum-half Joost van der Westhuizen, South Africa v Samoa, Rugby World Cup, Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane, Australia, November 1, 2003
Van der Westhuizen is the Springboks' joint-record try scorer alongside Bryan Habana © Getty Images

Former South Africa scrum-half Joost van der Westhuizen has spoken for the first time since being provisionally diagnosed with motor neurone disease.

The 40-year-old, a key member of the Springboks side that captured the 1995 Rugby World Cup crown, is still coming to terms with the initial medical opinion that he may only have three years to live but he has vowed to use his faith to fight what is currently an incurable disease.

"I'm fighting this illness with my faith. And my faith is strong," the 89-Test veteran told the Rapport newspaper in South Africa.

The ex-Bulls No.9 and the Springboks' joint-record try scorer has endured some difficult times since hanging up his boots in 2003. He was involved in a sex and drugs video scandal in 2009, that was confirmed with publication of his autobiography, and he also suffered a suspected heart attack earlier the same year. He was later dropped by broadcaster Supersport and his high-profile marriage to Afrikaans media personality Amor Vittone collapsed under the pressure in 2010.

"The stress that I have endured over the last two years is nothing compared to this," he said before adding that he felt his life was tumbling down when he heard the latest news. "The first thing I did was to check if my [insurance] policies are in order for my kids," he said. "The wind has been knocked out of my sails. I stared at the doctor in disbelief."

Van der Westhuizen revealed that he realised 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," he said. "But, as time passed my speech became impaired. When I spoke to people, they would say, 'Joost, are you drunk?'"

Family friend and physician, Dr Henry Kelbrick, then sent Van der Westhuizen for tests and the results confirmed his fears. "After he told me I have motor neurone disease, he said that doctors didn't know how to treat it," recalled an emotional Van der Westhuizen. "I became a blank. I hardly remember anything from that day."

He has since visited Dr Jody Pearl - a Johannesburg-based neurologist - for a second opinion and she has since discharged him from hospital while they await a final diagnosis. "We are doing everything within our power, based on global best practice, to rapidly establish Joost's diagnosis, and to offer him the best possible therapy," Pearl said in a statement at the weekend.

Van der Westhuizen remains positive. "My faith carries me," he said. "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."

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