In early 2022, Pedro Basson, a Grade 11 pupil at Helpmekaar Kollege in Braamfontein, lay fighting for his life in Johannesburg’s Netcare Milpark Hospital with his heart rapidly failing.
Just over a year later, following a remarkable turn of events, the same young man brought home a gold medal from the men’s singles tennis championship at the April 2023 World Transplant Games in Perth, Australia, and won a silver medal in the men’s doubles.
This would not have been possible if not for a lifesaving heart transplant, which got him back to school by May 2022 and onto the tennis court, playing with greater determination than ever before.
Basson speaks movingly about the transplant that changed his life, while paying tribute to the medical team under the leadership of cardiologist Dr Graham Cassel and cardiothoracic surgeon Dr Martin Sussman, who performed his transplant at Netcare Milpark Hospital.
“Sport is my life and not everyone gets the chance I have been given. The transplant recipients I have spoken to all have the same feeling of being given a stronger sense of self.
“Exercise is my stress relief and when I got so sick, being hospitalised really affected me. I was shocked when I learnt that a transplant was my only hope but Magda Greyling, Dr Cassel’s receptionist who also underwent a transplant nine years ago, knew just what to say to me.
“The weekend before my transplant, Isabella Rajak, a young heart transplant patient who had her transplant four years ago at the age of 11 and went on to become an exceptional waterpolo player, came to see me.
After talking to her, I knew what I had to do. “I am feeling good and am pretty much back to normal. I am a stronger, better player with greater purpose – I just need to work on my fitness levels.
“I really want to thank the family of my donor, my own family, the doctors and nurses at Netcare Milpark Hospital and Discovery Health, who carried me through this difficult time,” he added.
Recollection of events
His mother Rene recalled how up until October 2021 her son, who lived for sport and had a particular affinity for tennis, had no healthcare issues.
“Pedro was playing tennis in a tournament at Sun City when he started feeling unwell. Soon afterwards, exams started and while pushing himself academically, he did not play sport but continued with moderate exercise, as he was not feeling great and was somewhat tired and out of breath.
“November brought the school tour and when Pedro came home he was very tired. Despite ample rest, Pedro’s tiredness continued, his heart was racing and he was hot and sweating.
“We took him to the doctor who referred him to a cardiologist at Netcare Linksfield Hospital where he was immediately admitted to critical care.”
Basson’s family was shocked to learn that he had heart failure and an echocardiogram diagnosed myocarditis, which is inflammation of the heart muscle, as well as cardiomyopathy – a condition that stretches and weakens the heart muscle, making it difficult for the heart to pump blood to the rest of the body.
Basson also tested positive for Covid and two other viral and bacterial infections and was transferred to Netcare Milpark Hospital, where a multidisciplinary team of experts were ready to assist.
“Pedro’s condition was critical and doctors considered placing him on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, which would support his critical cardiac condition while assisting in improving his chance of survival.
“The medical team persevered with his treatment programme and eventually he started turning the corner,” said Rene.
According to Cassel, after being hospitalised for more than three weeks, Basson’s mental health was deteriorating.
“He was depressed and we felt that getting him home for Christmas would substantially aid his recovery. “However, despite the very best home care and continued treatment, Pedro started experiencing symptoms of heart failure, including fluid build-up, swollen feet, ankles and legs, and he had to be readmitted a few weeks later.
“Days after being readmitted, Pedro was at the point of death. His condition was so serious that we had to tell his parents his only hope of survival was a heart transplant.”
After draining the excess fluid from his body for the procedure, the team found a perfect matching heart which, according to Cassel, “became available due to the unselfish gift of life from a family who donated their loved one’s heart and other organs for transplantation”.
After the transplant, Basson’s recovery was quick and by the third day he was able to walk a short distance.
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According to biokineticist Byron Williams, who is part of the multidisciplinary transplant team at Netcare Milpark Hospital, there is a tremendous benefit in the early mobilisation of transplant patients.
“We started focusing on regaining Pedro’s strength to improve his mobility and continued with upper body exercises following a progressive exercise programme.
His youth and fitness levels meant that he recovered quickly.” Williams said he has worked with some inspirational people, one of whom was a woman who underwent a double lung transplant and ended up participating in the World Transplant Games.
That planted the seed to get Pedro there too – an opportunity he grabbed with both hands. “We had to get him ready in record time. He stuck to the programme and that is how we achieved such good results.
“Pedro is very focused and understands what it means to be given a second chance at life. He wanted to honour the donor’s memory and the decision by the family, made at a time of great trauma, that ultimately saved his life,” said Williams.
Pedro’s tennis coach, Ntando Lungwazi, director of tennis at Northcliff Country Club Tennis, said: “In my 16 years of coaching, Pedro has by far displayed the most talent when it comes to the mental toughness aspect of the sport.
His ability to take responsibility for the reality he is carving has afforded him a sober outlook on life and his tennis.
“After his operation, a calmer more intentional player surfaced with a laser-focused mindset, which led him not only to finding, but exceeding, his level prior to his illness. This is special.”
Cassel said it is of great significance that this transplant and so many others involve very young people who have their whole lives ahead of them.
“This is what makes procedures such as these so meaningful and rewarding for us as a medical team. “The hearts of these young patients were so severely damaged that they had lost much of their childhood.
However, since their transplants, they have gone on to live full and productive lives, often playing sport competitively.
“It is with these exceptional young people in mind that I appeal for members of the public to consider registering as organ donors,” said Cassel.
According to Mande Toubkin, general manager: emergency, trauma, transplant and corporate social investment of Netcare, the successful heart transplant programme, started at Netcare Milpark Hospital in 1994, has had a marked impact on the SA healthcare landscape.
“Without organ donation and life-saving transplantation, many patients would not be able to lead productive lives as they would not have survived. For thousands of sick people, there is no other option and the high number of successes speak for themselves.
“With so many patients needing organs there is a need to encourage more people to become donors. “Quite a few patients have already undergone organ transplants during the first five months of this year and with more donors, many more lives will be turned around in the coming months.”
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