Shattering boundaries: SA doctor who saved Siya Kolisi’s World Cup dream – Dr Willem van der Merwe

Shattering boundaries: SA doctor who saved Siya Kolisi’s World Cup dream – Dr Willem van der Merwe

Siya Kolisi, the captain of the Springbok rugby team, believed his World Cup dreams were shattered when he injured his cruciate ligament six months before the Rugby World Cup in France. It was his teammates Pieter-Steph du Toit and Handré Pollard who suggested consulting Dr Willem van der Merwe, a Cape Town orthopaedic surgeon and former Free State all-rounder cricketer. Rachel Kolisi appealed to her social media supporters to pray for the Bok captain, hoping for a miracle. After 119 days led his team onto the Millennium pitch in Cardiff in April 2src22, marking a recovery of less than 4 months—significantly shorter than the typical 6-9 months athletes endure. In an interview with BizNews, Dr. van der Merwe attributed Kolisi’s recovery more to the captain’s mindset than medical procedures, though he acknowledged making slight adjustments to the surgery to ensure graft protection. Dr. van der Merwe emphasised the significance of the signals doctors convey to patients, revealing that he advised Kolisi against using crutches and encouraged him to cycle, despite objections from the physio who deemed it too early. The response from peers was predominantly negative, with a French orthopaedic surgeon even berating him for jeopardising Kolisi’s future. According to Dr. van der Merwe, athletes like Kolisi and others, including Chad le Clos, possess a unique presence and confidence. When faced with adversity, they believe in themselves, a trait he regards as truly special. – Linda van Tilburg

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • srcsrc:src8 – Introductions
  • srcsrc:49 – Dr Willem van der Merwe on Siya’s recovery journey and how it started
  • src2:33 – Injuries of Siya’s nature usually take 9 months to recover
  • src5:19 – On what he does that’s a bit different
  • src6:src5 – The negative reaction surrounding the recovery plan
  • src8:49 – On trying to do things differently
  • src9:5src – His support team
  • 1src:35 – Dr Willem van der Merwe’s background
  • 13:src3 – Siya’s belief
  • 15:41 – South African doctors possess this unique mindset that encourages innovative thinking
  • 16:43 – The uniqueness of Rassie Erasmus
  • 17:5src – The weight of Expectation
  • 19:17 – Conclusions

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Edited excerpts from the interview

Dr van der Merwe has used similar technique on other Boks and SA sportspeople 

I played a little bit of sport myself, and I remember certain matches are really important, and I remember how you can get there and the things that can happen. So when Siya came to see me, he was asked by Handré Pollard and Pieter-Steph du Toit to come and see me because I’d done something similar to them.

Pieter-Steph’s operation was in 2src15, before the World Cup. He got injured four months before that, and we had to get him fit, and we did that successfully. Handré Pollard was four months before the Lions Tour, and we got him back. So, they said, well, if you want to play, go and see Dr. van der Merwe.  I must say, when he came to see me, he was on crutches, and I think there was one Argentinian and an All-Black that tore their ACLs in the same week, and they were out. They were gone. It was over.

So, I said, we have done it before; we have got some different techniques. I cannot promise you, but we can have a go, but we won’t put your health at risk, and your long-term career is more important. Now it’s a good story, everything went out fine, and everything worked out well.

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How a hatred of dogma led to trying new techniques for sports injuries 

Siya snapped his ACL completely. I think the average recovery period is six months to nine months, but as doctors, the big thing for us is we don’t want re-injury, but we changed the surgery a little bit.

I think I spent my whole career hating dogma. Dr. Freddy Fu was my mentor. He was from Pittsburgh in the US and he always told me, ‘Listen, there are better ways. You must find a better way to do this.’ He passed away last year—a truly amazing man. When I looked at the literature, the six-month recovery wasn’t really based on science. I think the biggest problem we have is that the athlete doesn’t do anything for six months, and he doesn’t believe in his knee and I think that’s a big problem. But, we did change the surgery a little bit. We ma

…. to be continued
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