“Not everyone gets the chance I have been given…”

Strong comeback for heart recipient

Wednesday, May 10 2023

In early 2022, Pedro Basson, a grade 11 learner 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 very 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 tournament.

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 purpose and determination than ever before.

Today, Pedro speaks touchingly 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.

Heart transplant recipient Pedro Basson recently returned from the 2023 World Transplant Games in Perth, Australia, with a gold medal from the men’s singles tennis championship. Just over a year ago, Pedro suffered heart failure and was fighting for his life in Netcare Milpark Hospital. Netcare paid tribute to Pedro at an event in Johannesburg on Tuesday. Pictured at the event are Dr Richard Friedland (left) chief executive of Netcare, Pedro and cardiothoracic surgeon Dr Graham Cassel (right) with Pedro.
A deeply touching moment captured during an event hosted at Netcare Milpark Hospital as Pedro Basson, heart transplant recipient and winner of a gold medal of the men’s singles tennis championship places his gold medal around the neck of cardiologist Dr Graham Cassel, who together with cardiothoracic surgeon Dr Martin Sussman performed Pedro’s heart transplant early last year at the hospital. The medal will be kept in Dr Cassels’s office as a symbol of hope for others with life-threatening heart disease.


“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.

“Now, 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,” added Pedro.

Pedro’s mother Rene recalls how up until October 2021 her active 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 feeling very tired. Given the usual fun, exertions and lack of sleep on school trips, we were not too concerned. But 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.”

Pedro’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 hard for the heart to pump blood to the rest of the body. Pedro also tested positive for COVID-19 and two other viral and bacterial infections and was transferred to Netcare Milpark Hospital where a multidisciplinary team of healthcare experts were standing by ready to assist.

“Pedro’s condition was critical and doctors considered placing him on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), 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,” says Rene.

According to Dr Cassel after being hospitalised for more than three weeks Pedro’s mental health was deteriorating. “He was depressed and we felt that getting him home for Christmas where he could spend time with his family would substantially aid his recovery. However, despite the very best homecare and continued treatment, Pedro started experiencing symptoms of heart failure including fluid build-up, swollen feet, ankles and legs, and he had to be re-admitted a few weeks later.

A twist of fate
“Days after being re-admitted, 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. Meanwhile we drained the excess fluid from his body and worked at getting him well enough for the procedure while the wheels were set in motion to have him placed on the critical list for a heart transplant. Then fate stepped in, and a perfect matching donor heart became available due to the unselfish gift of life from a family who donated their loved one’s heart and other organs for transplantation. It is this selfless act, which happened at the right time for Pedro, that set a remarkable chain of events into motion resulting in Pedro’s transplant that very same day. After the transplant his recovery was quick, and by the third day he was able to get out of bed to walk a short distance,” says Dr Cassel.

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.

“Being part of the team caring for lung and heart transplant patients, I have had the privilege of working 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 that 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. It is a big concept to grasp and even though Pedro will never know his donor or their family, 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,” says Byron. 

Commenting on some of the highlights that characterised his journey as Pedro’s tennis coach, Ntando Lungwazi, director of tennis at Northcliff Country Club Tennis, who has coached Pedro since 2019 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.

“When returning after his operation, a calmer more intentional player had surfaced with a laser focused mindset, which led him not only to finding but exceeding his level prior to his illness. This is special stuff; his experience has certainly heightened my appreciation for life. I’m grateful for Pedro’s life and for those that played a role in saving it and supported him through this journey.”

Young and compromised – with a whole life ahead
Commenting during an event hosted in tribute to Pedro and other patients like him, Dr Cassel said it is of great significance that this particular 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 make an appeal for members of the public to consider registering as organ donors,” said Dr Cassel.

According to Mande Toubkin, general manager: emergency, trauma, transplant and corporate social investment of Netcare the highly successful heart transplant programme, which was started at Netcare Milpark Hospital in 1994, has had a marked impact on the South African healthcare landscape.

“Without organ donation and life-saving transplantation many patients would not be able to lead productive lives as they simply 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 renewed 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 the help of more donors many more lives will be turned around in the coming months,” concluded Toubkin.


Notes to editor

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