The model ambassador : Chad Meihuizen
The glamour of the lifestyle of living it up in cities around the world changed somewhat when Chad Meihuizen’s dad contracted Alzheimer’s disease. He tells Joy Watson about this life-changing experience.
When Chad Meihuizen was a boy, he wanted to grow up to be a baseball player. “I played for Western Province. My dad was our team coach. My dream was to go to the USA after high school and make my way up to the major leagues.” As fate would have it, Chad did end up going to the USA after high school but not to play baseball.
Shortly before his matric year his mom entered him into a competition. “My mother, without my knowledge, sent my picture with an application form for a competition. I think it was for Mr N1 City. To cut a long story short, I won it and the prize was a modelling contract with an agency.” Tall, good-looking and with a well-toned body, Chad was predestined for international acclaim. He was soon spotted by an agency in Miami. “They offered me a contract and wanted me to go to Miami. I was so excited to travel. It was so much fun, but at that age you’re too young and stupid to know that you really shouldn’t be put in this position. “I was 17 years old.
In Miami, I was put into an apartment on my own and had to find my way around South Beach. Everything was just so big and overwhelming.” Chad got into a rhythm of waking up early, training at gym, going to castings and hanging out on the beach. From that point on for the next 10 years, it became the cycle of his life – being abroad for extended periods in cities such as New York, Milan and Paris and doing castings and shows such as for Armani and Calvin Klein, followed by short visits home. “I was one of the busier guys with about 13 – 15 castings a day.
I was easily overwhelmed at the time and was always a somewhat reluctant model. I have huge issues walking into public places, even walking into a video store, if there are a lot of people. I have such a phobia of people looking at me.” It is this reticence and humility which is part of Chad’s appeal. The glamour of the lifestyle of living it up in cities around the world changed somewhat when his dad contracted Alzheimer’s disease.
Ivan Meihuizen took ill after having an allergic reaction to his Alzheimer’s medication. Rushing to be at his side, Chad got to the hospital to find that he barely recognised his father, he had been so ravaged by his illness. After six weeks in hospital, his dad passed way in his arms. Losing his father was to have a huge impact on his life. “Personally, it was such a difficult period. I lost my fiancé a month after my dad’s passing. I also lost my business that I had put my life’s savings into. So it was a very rough time. I was stripped bare.”
Propelled by a deep sense of loss and grief, Chad decided to Google “Alzheimer’s disease” and came across the link to Alzheimer’s South Africa. “Before I knew it, I was dialling the 24-hour helpline. The next thing I knew was that an hour had passed and I was still talking on the phone. For the first time, that conversation made me realise that I did not have to be strong, that I didn’t have to be the head of my family.
The organisation wanted absolutely nothing from me; they were literally just there for me. By the end of that conversation, in my mind, I had pledged whatever I could, my money and my time, to support this charity. This is why 10 per cent of my salary will, for the duration of my life, go to Alzheimer’s SA.” In the period of his dad’s death, Chad began to feel that he would like to do something that made a difference. “A friend of mine, a runner, had done a race in Morocco.
I remember seeing a picture of his feet. It looked destroyed; it was so gruesome, filled with blisters. I thought that if I do this, I’m going to do it for Alzheimer’s SA.” This marked the beginning of his strenuous, disciplined lifestyle doing endurance races for them. Chad’s daily routine is not for the faint-hearted. He trains on most days, at around 6am in the mornings and again in the afternoons. He doesn’t earn a cent for the work that he does for Alzheimer’s SA, so he still has to hold down a day job.
Chad has to earn his bread and butter by working for an asset management company. In between the demands of training and work, he does public awareness campaigns for Alzheimer’s SA in the evenings and on weekends. Amazingly, he also finds the time to do online movie reviews twice a week. Training for endurance races is arduous. It requires discipline and a targeted focus on diet and keeping his body in good shape.
His next race, in June, is a 7-day, 250-km self-supported foot race across the Gobi desert in China where daytime temperatures reach as high as 50 degrees Celsius, a mission for only a very brave heart! “Using these exciting platforms, I will raise funds for Alzheimer’s SA. I’ve chosen these specific ultra marathons – the toughest the world has to offer, as a vehicle to accomplish my goals.
A year on and I’ve worked my way up to claim average runner status. But what I do have, something I’ve discovered through my life experiences, is the ability to suffer physically through long periods of time. This is what endurance events are all about. No matter what I experience on this journey, it won’t even come close to what my dad went through.” Chad has never really enjoyed running. Yet he does admit that it can bring about clarity of mind if done in scenic natural settings. “There is this weird pull that I feel towards running even though I don’t enjoy it all that much. I am drawn to going into a forest or to the mountain to physically exert myself. There is a sort of meditation that happens when you run, the clutter just disappears. I find answers. There’s this saying that if you can’t find the answers to a question after a four-hour run, then there aren’t any. I come up with some of my best ideas when I’m out running by myself.”
The races that he runs are not an easy feat. They require tremendous strength of mind. Yet Chad is driven by his passion for Alzheimer’s SA. He is very aware of how the disease can take away the dignity of those who have to live with it. Its effects can also be far-reaching for caregivers. “A person with Alzheimer’s can sometimes not be aware of what is happening around them – they could stare at a painting for hours and be fine. This is tough for their loved ones, to watch someone sit there and lose who they were. The hardest part is watching them slip away from the powerful people that they used to be.” Chad’s life has been fundamentally transformed through his charity work.
“When I was a model, I knew how my day would unfold; there would be no surprises. Now there are always surprises and endless possibilities that I have come to almost expect. I feel quite blessed and my life is certainly not boring.”
Cold facts Alzheimer’s is a brain disorder that cannot be reversed. It is most common among people 65 years and older. It develops over a period of years. Its symptoms include memory loss and confusion. Over time, this could lead to behaviour and personality changes and a decline in cognitive abilities such as decision-making, language skills and even in recognising family and friends. Ultimately, it leads to a severe loss of mental capability as the breakdown of the connection between certain neurons in the brain intensifies. Currently there is no medication that can slow down the onslaught of Alzheimer’s, although its symptoms can be treated. For more information go to the website of Alzheimer’s South Africa www.alzheimers.org.za. Follow Chad on Twitter @ChadMeihuizen