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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Diabetic schoolboy defies doctors to play in Dubai Rugby Sevens

Abdullah Omar El Haj was diagnosed after collapsing earlier this year but has trained hard to make it to the tournament

Abdullah El Haj has overcome type-1 diabetes to play for his school this weekend. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Abdullah El Haj has overcome type-1 diabetes to play for his school this weekend. Chris Whiteoak / The National

For many, the Dubai Sevens is the highlight of the UAE sporting year and for rugby-mad schoolboy Abdullah Omar El Haj it is no different.

The anticipation has been a little harder to bear in 2018, as just a few months ago doctors told Abdullah he would not play rugby again after collapsing as a result of undiagnosed type-1 diabetes.

This weekend, Abdullah will run out at the Sevens Stadium in the colours of Deira International School.

“Everyone has this belief of diabetes being associated with an unhealthy lifestyle and obesity, and I was the same,” said Abdullah, a Canadian living with his family in Garhoud.

“I was playing rugby three times a week, and going to the gym every day. The illness came out of nowhere.”

His weight dropped from 74kg to just 61kg in just two months, and he was drinking a lot more water to quench an insatiable thirst.

He was going to the toilet 15-20 times a day, but did not recognise the classic symptoms of diabetes.

Abdullah was in Belgium to have surgery on a thigh muscle he had injured playing rugby when his health took a turn for the worse.

He collapsed and was rushed to hospital where he would spend the next ten days in an intensive care unit.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - November 27, 2018: Schoolboy Abdullah El Haj has overcome the challenges of a recent type 1 diabetes diagnosis to win selection for his school rugby team, Deira International School, that is to play at the Dubai Sevens tournament this weekend. Tuesday the 27th of November 2018 in Festival City, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Dubai, United Arab Emirates - November 27, 2018: Schoolboy Abdullah El Haj has overcome the challenges of a recent type 1 diabetes diagnosis to win selection for his school rugby team, Deira International School, that is to play at the Dubai Sevens tournament this weekend. Tuesday the 27th of November 2018 in Festival City, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National

He was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes on March 26 and told he would be on lifelong medication.

“I was at my grandparent’s house when it happened, no one knew why or what was wrong,” he said.

“The day before I travelled I was in a restaurant in Dubai and had one of their milkshakes, doctors said that could have triggered the collapse.

“My blood sugar was up to 650 milligrams per decilitre of blood, and safe level should be around 110. If it reached 700 I would have been in a coma.”

For the average person, a safe blood sugar level is between 70 and 105 mg/dl in a fasting state.

Diabetes is diagnosed when the fasting blood glucose level is at or above 126 mg/dl.

“If I had not had that milkshake, maybe I would never had found out I was diabetic and could have blacked out at any time,” said Abdullah.

“When doctors told me it was type 1 diabetes; I didn’t accept it. I got really angry and was lashing out. I had no knowledge of diabetes and was scared.

“The doctor bombarded me with lots of information about going blind, or having limbs amputated if I didn’t learn how to manage it properly.

“When the doctor said I could no longer play contact sports, I was devastated.”

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Abdullah spent the next weeks researching his condition, how it affected his body and looking at those in professional sport with the condition.

Legendary Pakistani fast bowler Wasim Akram and American football quarterback Jay Cutler are just two athletes to make a successful career in sport, while living with type-1 diabetes.

Team Novo Nordisk is a cycling team made up of diabetic athletes who compete around the world in global events, including the Dubai Tour.

Abdullah must carefully manage his diet and regular insulin injections by constantly monitoring his blood sugars, particularly before he plays rugby.

This weekend he will be playing on the wing for Deira International School at the Dubai Rugby Sevens.

Parents in need of support after a recent type 1 diagnosis have set up an online support group in the UAE.

The Facebook page ‘Type 1 Diabetes Parents Support Group’ is a support system for parents to share experiences, news, information, tips and recipes.

“Type 1 Diabetes turns life on its head, from needle pricks, middle of the night blood sugar tests and then the misconceptions,” said Sadaf Ahmed, Deira International's school doctor.

“Worst of all is the lack of education for the patient and their family.

“School adds extra challenges - exams, sports, social life as maintaining optimal blood sugar control requires frequent checking in a very busy day.

“Monitoring levels, administering insulin, counting carbs, adjusting for activities - all this is made so much easier when the family and patient have been educated about the disease.”