From theater to tennis triumph with heart transplant for 18-year-old


If you are standing before death’s door, the life scoreboard shows that only a chest match point can now be averted and your (broken) heart of stone – just as Ezekiel says – must be replaced with a (healthy) heart of flesh; that’s what faith, grace and the gift of life gird your mind, says Pedro Basson (18).

It was an ordinary day in October 2021. The blond boy with the blue eyes was perfectly healthy, sixteen and ready to attack his opponent at the Sun City tennis tournament. Despite a feverish feeling, Helpmekaar Kollege in Johannesburg’s number one player kept pushing himself.

“I was fitter than ever, spent at least two hours a day on the track, swimming, cycling, surfing.”

Back at home, Pedro began to feel better and in November believed that he was hitting all the pistons again. “I suddenly started to feel terribly tired, at one stage I slept for a whole day.” Ma René realized something was wrong, because if Pedro is not on the track, he is usually in front of the books or the computer – certainly not in bed.

“The family doctor noticed that my heart was beating unusually fast – 135 beats per minute compared to a normal, resting heart rate of around 70 beats.” Pedro went to Linksfield Hospital to have tests done and it was here that it was determined that his heart was alarmingly weak.

Although the doctors could not do a computed tomography scan (CT or CAT scan) because Pedro is allergic to iodine, a sonar confirmed the diagnosis: myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) and cardiomyopathy (a heart muscle condition that affects blood flow from the heart to obstructing the rest of the body).

“My heart was as big as my diaphragm and the heart muscle was very stretched.”

A Vuisvoos 5 kVA petrol-powered generator that suddenly had to do the work of a three-phase diesel giant.

Death at the door

Pedro was transferred to Milpark Hospital, in the care of Dr. Graham Cassel, a cardiologist who specializes in transplants, and this hospital’s smart cardiology team. However, his heart weakened so quickly and drastically that he had less than 15% function left. A matter of days.

“Death was literally at my door. I was very weak and mostly slept.”

Because of his age and the severity of his condition, Pedro was placed on the transplant priority list. The heart is one of the rarest donor organs and, on top of that, an A-positive donor had to be found. With only about 30% of people belonging to this blood group, it was therefore a one-in-three chance. Finally a heart was found in the Cape and flown up.

“The transplant day felt like an eternity, because I knew I didn’t have much time left. The wait was exhausting, the fear that there is a possibility that you will be put under anesthesia, the operation will start and the heart will then not be suitable.” In Pedro’s case it was a perfect match.

He talks about the long road to recovery. “Initially, one is not very ‘at’. Especially the four thick drainage pipes that are placed in your abdomen (the body’s reaction to such an extensive operation is to build up a large amount of moisture), was very painful. However, when those pipes were removed, I had loads of energy and was ready to go home.”

Due to immunosuppressive medication, he had to isolate himself as much as possible to prevent infection. “It was a big adjustment. I wore a mask for six months and initially, because of the wires that bind my sternum, I couldn’t do any upper body exercises at all. The days of fast food, biltong and sushi were numbered. I missed the entire first term of grade 11!”

At the beginning of this year, Pedro felt for the first time that his matric body was strong enough to challenge. “Because the nerves around my heart have been removed, I have to warm up very well. The brain cannot tell the heart to pump faster, the body must first release hormones so that your heart rate systematically increases. So I can’t just do a 100m sprint. I will faint. My heart, like an engine, must first warm up.”

Theater to tennis triumph

Thanks to his biokineticist, Pedro came to the attention of the World Transplant Games. “It gave me new drive, a goal to chase. I have been playing tennis since the age of five and love this sport very much.”

The South African Transplant Sports Association (Satsa) was started in 1994 by a handful of sportsmen who had undergone transplants. South Africa has participated in the biennial World Transplant Games since 1993, participated in the first Winter Transplant Games in France in 2010, and participants have received national colors since 1997 (read more here).

However, Pedro could not just walk on the tennis court in Australia in April this year. “I had to prove that I could at least hit a ball,” he laughs. “I had to submit my tournament results from before the transplant and play a friendly match after the transplant.”

The organizers let him know “they are willing to take a chance on him” and the entire Basson family – mother René, father Paul and brother Christian (grade 11 in Helpmekaar) – jumped on the plane and traveled 10,400 km traveled to follow this tightrope walker’s every flight stroke and fall ax pot.

Pedro finally not only shows off the podium in Perth, but wins gold. What makes his medal even more remarkable is the fact that he taught great and respected players in the age group 18 to 30 years.

“The South African players were excellent. In the final I faced Jacques Boshoff, first team player from Tukkies, and in the quarter finals I had to compete against Joshua Kriegler, first team player from the University of Cape Town. They both underwent a kidney transplant. It was fun to measure myself against guys who are much older than me.”

The South African transplant team collected a total of 41 medals and Pedro can’t wait for the next Games in 2025 in Dresden, Germany. “I would really like to participate in more events, including swimming.”

Definite, definite purpose

Although Pedro has always been hardworking and disciplined, his whole outlook on life changed after the transplant. “This second chance was a confirmation for me that the Lord has a definite and specific purpose for my life. My faith has grown tremendously and the preciousness of time with my loved ones is something I cherish more than ever.

“My family’s faith and prayers really carried me.” He says that his mother, a teacher who currently writes, among other things, physical sciences study material, is someone who sticks to rules and strictly reported within visiting hours. Father Paul, who works for a large mining group and after whom Pedro (which means “rock”) was named, sneaked in at night without hesitation to pray for Pedro. “There is nothing a father would not do for his son!

“Dr. Cassel is also very religious and allowed my father to pray for me in the theater. He said before the operation: ‘You believe, I believe. It’s going to be ok’.” As this scene unfolds before my mind’s eye, my tears flow uncontrollably.

The Helpie family is incredible, he says. “I got so many messages, even from people I don’t even know. The school played a big role in who I am today. Helpmekaar is unique in the sense that it teaches you to handle pressure and master large amounts of work. Yes, we may do more than my friends do in other schools, but I know for sure that I will reap the rewards in college and in my career.

A quote that is close to his heart is precisely about endurance: “Dreams without goals are just dreams. And ultimately it fuels disappointment. On the path to achieving your dreams, you must apply discipline, but more importantly, consistency, because without commitment you will never start, but without consistency, you will never finish.”

A house on a rock

Pedro tells how he and his matric partner Reinhardt de Wet came up with the innovative Soekmekaar app with which the Helpies can locate any teacher’s class on a map. “Although we both have Engineering Graphics and Design as subjects, I did the programming and Reinhardt the CAD drawings. He is very creative.

“We gave the idea to Mr. Klaus König, the headmaster, and he made it a reality.” Today, learners can navigate their way through the school with a smartphone. “Show me another school that creates so many opportunities; turn simple idea flames into enormous torches!

“I thrive under pressure and can’t just lie around in my room,” he says. When he is not on the tennis court or bouncing a large ball around the house to the family’s annoyance, he immerses himself in the world of computer programming.

“For me, programming is like a third language – it sharpens one’s problem-solving skills. I love understanding subjects such as information technology, physical sciences, mathematics and accounting, and want to study BSc computer sciences at Stellenbosch University next year because a large part of our family lives in the Cape. And of course it’s nice and close to the sea!”

However, his vocation is more important to him than his field of study. “I want to be an ambassador for organ donation, inspire others to give the gift of life. Genesis 3 does not say for nothing: ‘For dust you are, and to dust you shall return’. You can either perish, or have the privilege of ensuring a full life for a stranger like me. It costs you nothing; all it asks is generosity.

“Today I know that, through organ donation, a person leaves a house on a rock that lives on years after your death.” A period is converted into a comma. Although all donations are 100% anonymous – for both the donor and the recipient’s family – Pedro has a lot on his mind.

“I would tell my donor family: the person lives on, in me, every moment. Every step I take today is a miracle. Every cherry on a birthday cake, every dream and goal, I share with this person. There are thousands who are not as lucky as I am. I am saved and therefore every victory is His.”

  • August is Organ Donation Awareness Month. This article is courtesy of the Spring edition of the Helpmekaar Magazine published.