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Klaas Willems in the background with his sister Jolien in the foreground, in 2016 during her last holiday before she passed away two months later from Cystic Fibrosis. 'I had to wear a mask so I wouldn’t infect her with my bacteria.'
Photo by archive Klaas Willems
Klaas Willems hangboarding in hospital. 'If you are forced to stay in a hospital for 2 weeks there aren't many options to stay in shape. I don't want to lose all the hard work I put into my climbing during this antibiotic treatment so I try and train. Antibiotics are destroying the bad bacteria but all the rest in the body as well. It is hard to find motivation to do these things when you feel sick and tired but these are the moments I need it the most.'
Photo by archive Klaas Willems
Klaas Willems on El Capitan, 700 meters above the valley floor in Yosemite, doing aerosol therapy for his Cystic Fibrosis during a 6 day ascent of the Pre-muir Wall with fellow Belgians Nicolas Favresse and Sean Villanueva O'Driscoll. 'I prefer doing my therapy outdoors than in hospital. Good memories from 2017'
Photo by Sean Villanueva O'Driscoll
Klaas Willems making the first ascent of Tales of the rocking lizard 8c at Ulassai in Sardinia.
Photo by archive Klaas Willems

Klaas Willems: Cystic Fibrosis, Coronavirus and why further apart is closer together

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Extremely talented Belgian climber Klaas Willems, affected by Cystic Fibrosis, appeals to the climbing community to stay at home to decrease the spread of the Coronavirus.

My name is Klaas Willems and I have a lung disease called Cystic Fibrosis. Without entering into too much detail, it’s a hereditary illness that mostly affects the respiratory and digestive system. The body produces mucus that can clog the lungs and obstruct the pancreas. I was diagnosed with this illness from birth, the doctors estimated I’d have 25 years. I'm 33 now. Unfortunately my sister passed away as a result of CF in 2016, aged 32. There is no cure. A simple cold can prove life-threatening.

I have always enjoyed doing sports. Being out in nature, breathing in clean air, is where I feel I should be. I need to do sports to stay in good health, both physical and mental. On good days I climb 8c, find myself hanging out on El Capitan or trying to free climb my own routes in Sardinia. On bad days I can barely crawl out of my hospital bed, which can also feel like 8c at that particular moment…

Although I’m what many would consider a good climber, this does not come easy. In addition to the training, from morning till evening I have to take medication and do breathing exercises to stay healthy enough to keep doing what I love most. Wherever I am, be it in bed in hospital, or strapped to a portaledge hundreds of meters off the deck. Climbing and being outdoors have saved my life. Now all this isn’t possible anymore. Like many in our society, I’m part of the group that can die from this virus.

Like so many of us, at first I didn’t think this virus would be too much of a problem. I would just continue climbing outside and stay away from people as much as I could. I thought this would be possible if we all took this virus seriously and did the same.

Sadly this doesn’t work. We all have to accept that containing the spread of this virus only works as well as the weakest link in our society. And the weakest links, here in Belgium for instance, get-togethers are organised at home now that bars are closed. So instead of staying home, people continue to meet. People continue to go about their everyday lives as if nothing too much has changed. We will never manage to contain the spread of this virus if only a part of our society abides by the regulations given by our doctors and scientists.

There are enough scientific articles and graphics that show how the coronavirus outbreak is escalating and the only thing to do about it is to avoid meeting people. If you want to inform yourself, read those instead of Facebook messages. Don’t just listen to whoever is saying what you want to hear. Every doctor and every scientist that is specialised in viruses is currently saying the same thing: stay home and avoid contact whenever possible.

Last weekend I was still climbing outside. I noticed that there were too many people staying in groups, not realising the risk of spreading the virus. I understand that if you don’t actually know people who might die from this virus, it can be difficult to grasp the seriousness. But there are no two ways about it: I, like many others I know, can die from this. And to be honest, I’ve already had my share of illness and would prefer not to see if I can survive this one, too. So even though I always get more sick when I stop climbing outside and stay at home for a long time, I know that this is what I have to do now to avoid an even worse scenario for myself AND others.

Now we need to do what is right, not only for ourselves, but for the society we live in. Please be aware that through your actions you are responsible for helping to save many lives, or the direct opposite. If we want to demonstrate that the climbing community is strong and united, there has been no better time than now. Thanks.

Klaas Willems, 18 March 2020, Belgium

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This Covid19 virus can kill many people you love and you don’t want to go through life thinking you maybe got them sick. This picture is from 2016. During my sisters last holiday before she passed away two months later from Cystic Fibrosis. 12 years before, She had a double lung transpant. I had to wear a mask so I wouldn’t infect her with my bacteria. If the achromobacter and pseudemona bacteria from my lungs would get into her lungs, she could die. All those twelve years I had to stay away from my own sister. Twelve years! I didn’t want to risk killing my sister, as I would think nobody would like to kill someone they love. A couple weeks avoiding people isn’t the end of the world. Let’s try to get this virus under control and hope we learn from it for the future. #covıd19 #coronavirus

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