Former South African rugby player Joost van der Westhuizen is considered by many fans and commentators to be one of the best to ever play the game. Yet, for the last two years he has been struggling with an opponent far tougher than any he encountered on the field: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known in the United States as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Van der Westhuizen is on a 13-day tour of the United States in order to raise awareness about ALS, learn more about how it is treated in the United States, and assist researchers in their study of the disease. Van der Westhuizen’s travels are being recorded by filmmaker Odette Schwegler, who for nearly a year has been making a documentary on his battle with ALS.
As a part of his visit, Van der Westhuizen visited the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown on Jan. 30, specifically to see its exhibits on Lou Gehrig.
“I had to come here. I wanna know more about the person, how he was treated, how he realized about the disease,” said Van der Westhuizen.
“The Lou Gehrig story is central to the story of ALS,” said Schwegler.
Gehrig, a Hall of Fame baseball player with the New York Yankees, died from ALS, two years after being diagnosed.
ALS is a motor neuron disease that causes muscle weakness and atrophy because of to the decay of motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord. Eventually, afflicted persons lose the ability to control their movements and paralysis and death ensues. The life expectancy of those diagnosed with ALS generally averages between two and five years.
At the Hall, Van der Westhuizen was met by Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson, and was given a tour by the Hall’s director of communications Craig Muder, which started with the Hall’s exhibits on Gehrig.