Last month we presented André Lassooij with this year’s ELF Award at the European Respiratory Society (ERS) International Congress in Amsterdam.
In this interview, the double-lung transplant recipient turned international sports star talks about how his transplant changed his life, some of his proudest achievements and why it was so important for him to be active following his transplant.
Congratulations on receiving the ELF Award! How was the experience of receiving the award at the ERS International Congress in Amsterdam?
Receiving the ELF Award has been so magnificent – I feel so proud and humbled. All of my sporting performances and voluntary work have only been possible thanks to my unknown donor and his or her family.
Could you give a brief overview of how you came to receive a double-lung transplant?
My mother and uncle died as a result of lung conditions, and my cousin died whilst waiting for a lung transplant.
I used to play squash and some other sports. In 1992, I noticed that I was feeling more breathless during daily activities. Doctors, oxygen and a stair lift came into my life. An operation explained what was wrong: lung fibrosis.
At that time the prognosis for lung fibrosis was poor, with a lung transplant being the only ray of light at the end of the tunnel. This was a new therapeutic technique, and there were uncertainties as to whether there would be a donor in time and whether the transplant would be successful, but what did I have to lose?
In February 1996, my doctor from the University Medical Centre Groningen called me at home. It was a phone call that I will never forget. There was a donor; someone unknown to me was dying and had decided before to donate his or her organs, giving me the gift of life.
An ambulance brought me to the transplant centre with sirens on. It would either be my last day in this world or the start of a new life.
How has your life been since then?
Four days after my transplant I woke up and felt very emotional, because I realised that my donor would be being buried very soon, but at the same time I was very happy to still be alive.
The recovery was very fast and changed my life completely. Four months later I was well enough to go back to work and could cycle there and back! I also started training to become stronger again.
Following my transplant, I decided to do more of what I really liked to do. One of those things was athletics, and I started to train three times a week. I also met my new girlfriend after a tough divorce during my illness.
What have been your biggest achievements since you received your transplant?
I am lucky to have more than one.
Athletics brought me lots of medals, even world records, at the World Transplant Games. I also became Dutch National Champion of the 200m sprint in my age group – in that race, some of my competitors did not know that I had had an organ transplant and were not transplant patients themselves!
I was the chairman of the organising committee of the European Heart and Lung Transplant Championships in Apeldoorn, The Netherlands in 2012. I have also served as the Vice Chair of the European Heart Lung Transplant Federation (EHLTF).
In 2013, with the support of a transplant centre, I organised a group climb of Mount Kilimanjaro (5,895m) with 11 other people who have received transplants. Early in the morning of 14 October, 2014 eight of us, along with the medical team, reached the summit!
At the moment I am councillor of the World Transplant Games Federation (WTGF).
One very special moment was during the Dutch Transplant Day, where people who have received transplants and families of organ donors meet to talk and share their emotions. I presented my gold 100m world record medal on stage to a family of a young boy who had sadly died waiting for a heart transplant. At the time, his younger sister said “if something ever happens to me, I want to be an organ donor”. Tragically, she had a traffic accident a few years later, and her parents followed her wish. She and her family deserve so much honour and respect.
What do you plan to do next?
I will be raising awareness of the ethical issues around organ donation for children by cycling to the five transplant centres for children in the Netherlands. I will also be visiting some transplant centres for children in Brussels, London, Paris and Madrid, and will end in Malaga, where the 2016 World Transplant Games will take place.
I am working together with the Make A Wish Foundation, who will receive all the sponsorship from my bike ride. Everybody who wants to cycle with me for one or more days is welcome.
You can follow my cycling tour and see the daily cycling schedule on my website www.lifeforkids.org.
What advice would you give to people living with lung conditions or people who have received a transplant in terms of being physically active?
I want tell everybody with lung condition, those waiting for a lung transplant, and even those who have received a lung transplant to be physically active too, but with professional assistance!
When I became ill it felt like something or somebody squeezed my throat. My nails and lips became purple, and it was hard to meet my family and friends because you need oxygen just for laughing and crying and my lungs could not bring enough oxygen into my blood.
I could have been sitting at home feeling my body getting weaker and getting in bad shape after my transplant. But I found the power to start training using my oxygen. I was not able to do cardio training, but I was able to use small weights to keep my bone and muscle structure as strong as possible. Taking care of my body like this has helped me to be able to do more of the things I most like to do.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
The lungs are in direct contact with the air and everyone needs clean air, especially people who have had lung transplants. I live in Amsterdam and I am glad that the issue of air pollution seems to be being taking seriously.
ELF and the European Respiratory Society both promote lung health. This is only possible with clean air and by taking good care of yourself. I want to say to everyone to look after your body, as you have only got one.
I also want to mention that before I got ill I never expected to need an organ donor. Do you think that too? Talk with your relatives about organ donation, so that you know each other’s wishes.
Learn about the factors that can cause lung disease and the ways to reduce your contact with them.
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