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​An Emirati athlete who received life-changing surgery for a bowel condition is now able to pursue his Olympic dream.

Mohammad Hassan is a UAE Olympic hopeful and all-round athletic superstar. Following surgery to remove his colon in 2020, he has been given a new lease of life to participate in the many sports and activities he enjoys.

Mohammad was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis 15 years ago. The chronic condition causes inflammation of the gut, and symptoms can include pain, persistent diarrhea, weight loss and fatigue. Many patients can control ulcerative colitis with medication, but for Mohammad, they didn’t work. He visited doctors all over the world in an effort to find a cure. 

Always an active sports enthusiast, Mohammad enjoyed all sports and represented the UAE in rugby. However, when his condition began to deteriorate, he was forced to give up the game he loved.

Mohammad says, “I was really struggling – I was using the bathroom 15 to 20 times a day, which forced me to stop playing rugby. I didn’t want to let my team down, but the condition was controlling my life. I had to plan everything I did around having a toilet nearby.”

Although his bowel condition forced him to give up rugby, it did set him on an entirely new path, and he discovered a passion for surfing – something he found easier to manage with his condition. He travelled the world competing in the World Surfing League and set his sights on representing the UAE at the Tokyo Olympic Games. 

It was at this stage that a friend, who also suffers from ulcerative colitis, suggested that Mohammad visit Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi to finally take control of his condition. The care team recommended a colonoscopy, as patients with ulcerative colitis are at a higher risk of developing cancer. 

Dr. Zaher Koutoubi​, Consultant Gastroenterologist at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi says, “A colonoscopy revealed pre-cancerous cells in Mohammad’s colon. Our multidisciplinary team, including surgeons and pathologists, met to discuss Mohammad’s case and explore all possible treatment options. It was established that he should be referred for a total colectomy to remove his colon. In addition to stopping the cancer in its tracks, this would effectively cure his colitis and eliminate his symptoms.” 

Following surgery, Mohammad was fitted with a stoma and ostomy bag, which his care team taught him how to use and care for as he recovered. Doctors plan two more surgeries in the future to restore his bowel function by constructing a ‘j-pouch’ that will eliminate his need for a bag altogether, allowing him to use the toilet normally again.

Dr. Shafik Sidani, the colorectal surgeon who performed the surgery at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi said, “Because Mohammad’s surgery was performed using minimally invasive techniques, he was able to fly through his hospital stay and get back to his life – and sports challenges – very quickly. Patients are usually very reluctant to get a stoma, yet here’s Mohammad, proving you can not only live a normal life with one, but you can push athletic boundaries too! It’s inspiring.”

Following his recovery, Mohammad was keen to rebuild his strength and confidence, and show the world that he could still lead an active life. He found a new sense of freedom, no longer having to plan activities around toilet facilities. 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. 

Mohammad says, To be honest, I wish I’d done this surgery a long time ago. The last few months have been a rollercoaster and I have had to adapt to life with a stoma. I was worried I might have to give up playing sports, but I’m able to do things now that I could never do before. I want to show people there are plenty of sports you can do, whatever 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. I’ve been quite emotional taking in this newfound freedom.

Mohammad is now 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 his limits even further. 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. I was hesitant to lay on my board with my stoma, but that fear was all in my head. After my next surgery, I want to push my surfing to the next level – I want to go even 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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