How do I get through this?

Doctor raised money for brain research by going on a severely challenging swim

Though she could barely move ten years ago, last month, Annabelle Slingerland (44) swam from Robben Island to South-Africa’s mainland through ice-cold, shark-infested waters, battling dangerous currents and huge waves, to raise money for research into an unknown brain disorder.

"I tried to save a small child from an incoming tram but I got hit myself. I had trouble breathing, my ribs were broken. Sometimes I couldn’t get out of bed. In fact, the doctors gave up on me, by which I mean they said: you’re alive, but don’t expect too much. Settle down and accept your situation."

Annabelle Slingerland (44), a physician-scientist in training at Leiden University Medical Centre, can smile about their advice now.

"I accepted that I’d had an accident – how could I deny it? – but I would change my situation. I lived close to the swimming pools which had a paddling pool. I thought warm water might help. And moving gradually became easier. After a year, I could at least float, so I switched to the competition pool where I started swimming."

After the tram accident, she also encountered problems with her brain. After staying in various hospitals, she recognised the frustration of patients with similar disorders. "I noticed how much people struggle when they have such disorders – when doctors don’t know exactly what’s wrong and they can’t explain it either."

Then someone mentioned CADASIL, a hereditary brain-vasculature disorder: patients suffer strokes and dementia from an early age because the supply of blood to the brain is impaired. In the Netherlands, the disorder has been diagnosed in 176 families, but researchers have recently discovered that CADASIL affects far more people than was previously supposed. Because the symptoms are quite aspecific and the disease is not very well known, doctors often miss it. LUMC is the only place in the Netherlands where research is being done into this illness. "It’s a small-scale research project but its impact is considerable", Slingerland explains. "It can mean so much to the patients, and if they’re happier, it will make a world of difference to their families too."

Slingerland decided to raise money for CADISIL research by competing in one of the toughest swimming races in the world: a three-to-four-hour swim from Robben Island to the South-African coast.

She raised 5,000 Euros via the crowdfunding site, money that will go towards MRI scans so the researchers can follow the development of certain proteins as the disorder progresses. Donations are always welcome, she adds.

Slingerland already had quite a lot of other international swimming experience. In the United States, she trained every day for six weeks to swim from Alcatraz to the San Francisco coast. "After that, things really took off. People asked me to swim the English Channel for diabetes, a relay race from France to England. There, they asked me to compete in Siberia. I’m really not an Olympic-Games type of person. I’m good at navigating, but in a pool, there’ll always be people who can easily overtake me."

Still, the sea off Cape Town was an entirely new experience for her. "The first time I entered the water there, I thought: how am I going to get through these ten kilometres? I was shocked by the big waves and the chill. The water in Siberia was much colder, but I didn’t need to spend hours in it.

And there are sharks. "(Dutch TV biologist) Freek Vonk acts tough about his shark bite, but I’ve seen people with leg amputations. Not fun. And if you’re really unlucky, they might eat you whole. Some swimmers think it’s scary if seals swim along with them because they can bite, but I liked it. I knew there weren’t any sharks around if seals were near."

The largest danger of the South-African sea is the rip channel, a strong current pulling out to sea. "The chances of drowning are much bigger than the chances of a shark bite. You can read about such accidents in all the papers. The problem is that swimmers try to swim back to the coast, fighting the strong current, but get tired. You need to stay calm, let yourself be carried along until you can gradually swim out of the rip channel."

She swam the distance of over ten kilometres within three hours. The last part was the toughest. "My theory is that eighty per cent of swimming is mental. If I find it hard going, I tell myself a story: ‘If I swim for an hour, I’ll be much nearer the end. All I need to do is to reach the beach.’"

According to Slingerland, Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, represents the situation of CADASIL patients. "They lock themselves in their heads by thinking only of the impossibilities and waiting around for a solution. What they should be doing is seeing how they can progress in the meantime."

Susan Wichgers

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