As some of you may have noticed, I have been absent from your screens for some time. I am now back at work and many of you have been very kind in welcoming me back via social media. Along with your kind words and welcoming statements have also come the natural, and inevitable, questions about where I have been and the reasons for not being on air or on social media. I had chosen during my absence not to speak about it with the full intention of explaining everything upon my return. I’ll be honest and tell you that I have sat down numerous times to write this blog trying to give an explanation and have abandoned each and every attempt thus far.
So here I am again, trying to explain. I’m not sure why I am having difficulty in doing this, it could be my natural inclination towards being a fairly private kind of person, it could be my Irish Catholic upbringing that says you shouldn’t talk too much about yourself because that’s just sinful self-indulgence and boastfulness, or it could simply be that I, perhaps, haven’t quite come to terms with everything that has happened myself and the longer I delay talking or writing about it the longer I get to go on living without having to acknowledge that, fundamentally, life has changed for me.
So what did happen, where was I? Well, to answer that question I think I need to tell you a story, if you will indulge me.
There was a little five-year-old boy who remembers waking up one morning to the sound of a lot of raised voices and the sight of a nurse in a starched uniform and a doctor running up the stairs of his house and into his parents’ room. A five-year-old boy who, later that day, saw his house filled with all his aunties and uncles and his mum and dad not being there. A five-year-old boy who saw his mum arriving back to his house, but not his dad.
That little boy had lost his dad that day to a fatal heart attack; his dad was 47 years old.
From that moment, the only way the little boy could feel safe and secure that he wasn’t going to loose his mum as well as his dad, was to be a big boy and to be brave. The thing that helped him to be brave was playing a ‘game’ in his mind, a game that no one else ever knew about. A ‘game’ he has never spoken about, ever. The ‘game’ was “what age should I be before it is OK for mummy to die?” Not the sort of game that any little five-year-old boy should ever have to play.
As time went on, the little boy continued to play this game in his head and as he grew older, the acceptable age for his mummy to die grew older too.
When this little boy was finally a grown up himself, his game changed. When he was an adult the game he played in his head was “let me beat the odds in the game of life and get past the age of 47”. He didn’t play this game all the time, but it was always there in the back of his mind. He liked winning at games and he knew that even when he wasn’t consciously playing the game, most of the time, in reality, he was always playing the game, all of the time. He desperately needed to beat that 47 milestone without any major health incidents. Winning this game was, literally, life or death for him.
The little boy I refer to is, of course, me.
Hurtling back into the present day and 2018, in May of this year, my brother, who is four days shy of being one year older than me and lives in the north of England, had to go into hospital to have stents put in the arteries of his heart because he had coronary artery disease. History and genetics were following us through the generations, it seemed. I travelled up to be with him. We were told it would be fairly straightforward and the procedure itself would take about an hour and a half. When they took my brother off to theatre for this procedure (the theatre is called a CathLab), I went off to buy a bottle of water, as my throat suddenly felt extremely dry. It was a very large hospital, but I had only been gone about 15-20 minutes. When I returned to my brother’s room, they told me he was on his way back from the CathLab. This didn’t feel like a good sign. When my brother returned, he told me that the planned stent procedure couldn’t happen and they needed to perform a triple bypass ASAP. I kept my face as natural as I could, desperately trying not to gasp in horror or turn completely pale.
I stayed with my brother for the rest of the day. Making lists of things he needed me to do, cancelling work, and going out and buying him bags of food that he liked from the supermarket right next door to the hospital – not that he could eat any of it, as he was fasting in preparation for his surgery. I just wanted him to know I was there and I would help. My brother and I were very close as children, being so close in age, but life and time had disconnected us a little. In that moment, though, I became fiercely protective of him – it felt like, what I can only imagine, being a parent must feel like. In that moment I loved him so much, I would have moved mountains for him.
I stayed strong, though, and spoke gently with him about how he was feeling about everything happening so quickly, and he took a surprisingly pragmatic approach to it all. I had to be brave and practical for him; he was in hospital so someone else would have to do the ‘heavy lifting’, for the moment. The day was moving on and time was running out, and I had to have the inevitable conversation with him about what to do should the worst happen – what were his wishes? A difficult and painful conversation that no one ever wants to have, but I put my practical pants on and so did he, I loved him for that. Between us we made an arrangement not to tell my dear old mum what was happening, well not yet anyway. Instead, we would wait until he was safely out of surgery and had gotten through the first 24 hours in Intensive Care. Mum is getting on a little bit and her own health has not been the best for a little while, so it was decided to spare her the worry until my brother was out of the woods and on the road to recovery. This was easier said than done because mum and I speak regularly and she knew I was with my brother so, regrettably, I had to lie to her through faux cheery, breezy telephone conversations and that only added to the stress I was already feeling, trying to be brave in front of my amazing brother who was fighting so hard to battle through his surgery and recovery.
In order to cope, I went into full organisational mode. I got stuck into getting his apartment organised, doing laundry, changing his bed linen, buying a spare fold up bed for me, and any visitors who may come to visit in the coming months, to sleep on. I sat quietly by his bed side offering cold drinks and mopping up his sweat as he battled his way through the physical aftermath of his surgery – the psychological aftermath would have to be dealt with later.
I stayed for another week whilst he was in hospital and then my sister and nephew came over from Ireland to stay with him at home, as I had work and other engagements I needed to attend to. It’s been a long road to recovery for my brother and I don’t mind admitting that when I was alone I sobbed tears for him and everything he was going through and how his life would be different now. I also cried because I didn’t know what the future would hold for him. What kind of a life would he have now? I mean he was still young, he was just 47 years old, the same age as dad was when he died from heart problems, and I kept thinking that, unlike dad, he would survive to see the age of 48. My brother had taken on my game and won. He made it passed 47 years of age. A major milestone, certainly, but at what cost?
In time, I returned to work and my brother and I spoke almost every day during his recovery. My sister was amazing and had arranged all kinds of care for him at home. Everything was going well. He was recovering, slowly, and he was heading in the right direction.
In the meantime, I was at work and had been sent an email to come and have a health check via my work health insurance, which I duly accepted. My health check was set for a date in June, about a week before my birthday. To put my health check in context, I am someone who has always gone to the gym and been active, I also kept a very keen eye on my diet and nutrition since my late teens. On my return from being with my brother, I had requested a preliminary checkup from my GP, which I thought prudent given my history and everything my brother was going through, and he told me I was in good health and there was nothing to worry about.
Knowing I look after myself, I made my way to my health check in a fairly positive frame of mind.
This was my first ever full health check and I wasn’t sure what to expect. They call it a 360 degree health check as it is a thorough and comprehensive check of your physical and psychological health, inside and out, top to bottom. A full service and MOT as it were.
I arrived at the appointed time and place with my bag, containing some gym gear and trainers (required for a treadmill ECG) as requested. A young woman came and introduced herself and gave me a form to fill in requesting all the usual info. (I should mention that a couple of weeks prior to my appointment, I had been asked to complete a very detailed question about my diet, lifestyle, fitness activities and psychological outlook on life).
This form I had been handed was just a few standard questions: you know, the usual – name, age, etc. The final question, though, was one that gave me reason to pause: “Are there any issues you wish to particularly focus on during your health check?” Hmmm, I thought. I do have that painful shoulder problem that keeps recurring and then there are my ongoing problems with my back since I put it out two or three years ago. Should I ask to focus on those? Honestly, my family’s propensity for heart problems didn’t occur to me initially. After all I am the one who for 30 odd years went to they gym anything up to 5 times a week (the reason my back was causing me problems was because I had injured it just after a Bootcamp in Spain where we worked out 3 times a day, for goodness sake!), I was physically fit, in my opinion. Not only that, I looked after my diet too. Drinking homemade green smoothies regularly, eating a predominantly plant-based diet and not having eaten meat for over 30 years, I didn’t really drink much alcohol and I kept myself fairly well hydrated. I genuinely thought I had nothing to worry about.
For some reason, though, the game that I played with myself popped back into my head. “Will you make it past 47?” I heard it taunting me. So I requested that we focus on my heart health, if only to stick the proverbial two fingers up at the taunting game and tell it that I was the one winning here!
I returned my form to the young woman and she asked me to step into a room with her where, over the course of an hour or two, she took blood samples to be sent off to the lab, carried out an ECG, made me bend and stretch whilst she measured my flexibility, measured every part of my body, talked to me about the ‘Mediterranean diet’ and told me that generally she thought that I was doing well and would probably only need a few very minor tweaks to my life.
Once all of this was done, I was asked to take a seat and was offered a snack to eat as I had been fasting overnight for all of the initial blood tests. I was told to relax and I would then have the next part of my assessment with a doctor, who would have all the results of the tests and would talk me through everything.
I had the rest of the day off work and I was just planning in my head what I might do with my time – maybe pop to the gym and get some shopping done? I was also smugly thinking to myself how well I had done in my diet and exercise questions and wondered if I had detected a note of disappointment in the young woman’s tone that I actually had a pretty good diet and activity levels and there wasn’t much she could actually lecture me about. After all, I had maintained the same waist size for over 30 years! How many middle-aged men coming in for health assessments does that happen with? Probably not that many, I was telling myself when I was jolted from my self-indulgent praise by the very same young woman who was telling me that the doctor was ready to see me and that I could get changed into my gym gear after our meeting for my treadmill ECG and she would be waiting for me.
Off I headed to see the doctor, still praising myself for all the time and energy I invested in my health and nutrition up to this point in my life. How smart was I? How well I had done outfoxing that gnawing, psychological ‘game’ in my head.
I sat down with the doctor who was warm and friendly and he started to go through some of the preliminary results with me. They have there own phlebotomy lab on site so all of my blood results were already there with the doctor. He started by asking why I had asked to focus on my heart health and I explained about my brother and my father and also that I had not been firing on all cylinders for a while (which I had just been putting down to work and the pace of modern living).
He said that my ECG showed anomalies which clearly suggested there was a problem and that, combined with several red flags in my blood results, suggested that I should speak with a specialist in Cardiology as soon as possible. Everything slowed down suddenly. The room felt smaller and the floor was suddenly rushing away from me.
I asked how serious it was and he said he felt it was serious enough that I should contact a cardiologist the same day. I didn’t know any cardiologists? How was I meant to find a cardiologist? What is this guy talking about? He made a few helpful suggestions, but I wasn’t really listening properly. He must have known this as he wrote everything down for me.
When he was finished I guess I wasn’t fully processing what he had said, or the enormity of it as I asked about getting changed for my treadmill ECG, where they make you run on a treadmill whilst they measure the electrical waves in your heart and I knew the young woman from earlier was waiting, but he told me he didn’t feel it would be ‘safe’ for me to do that. Not safe? What did that mean? That was the moment I realised that this was serious.
A week later, I was sitting in a room with my cardiologist as he told me that based on the results of the tests from my health checkup and along with everything else I had told him he was sure, before he carried out any tests of his own, that I had heart failure. It was the day before my 47 birthday!
It would take many more paragraphs to go through all of the details of everything that followed. Suffice it to say that I had heart surgery early in August of this year. My situation was serious and the worst is over me, for the moment. I chose to not say anything publicly at the time, firstly because, as with my brother, I didn’t want mum to know until the worst was over and mainly because I didn’t want to make a big deal about it – as I said before, I am a fairly private kind of guy. It was at my request that the management didn’t make an announcement about it either. There are actually still people at work who don’t know where I have been or why.
I am writing this blog because many of you have contacted me and my fellow presenters on social media asking where I was. I know that they, and I, gave a vague reply that I was having some time off and would be back soon. That was a form of protection and self-preservation at the time, as I just didn’t have the energy or inclination to go into details. I do want to say how touched I have been by the messages many you have sent and for all of you who have asked after me and where I was and when, or if, I was coming back. I apologise to those who felt they weren’t being given any information about the situation, but, again, that was at my request and my colleagues and managers were doing a wonderful job of protecting me and my privacy at the time.
My road to recovery was, unfortunately, not a straightforward one. It was long and bumpy and difficult, dealing with side effects of medications (I’ve never had to take prescribed medications for any length of time in my life, so that’s been an adjustment), bouts of Pericarditis (an inflammation of the Pericardium, the sack that surrounds the heart), late night ambulance trips to A&E, readmission to hospital etc., but I am back at work at last and have been on air this past week.
I am still in the latter stages of recovery but feel well enough to be working and hope I continue to improve and get stronger as time goes on. Hopefully, most of you won’t notice any difference now to when I was on air before and I want you to know that your many well wishes and enquiries are part of what got me back there. I am so grateful to have a degree of normality in my life that many of us take for granted. Commuting to work, being in an office, doing my job, shopping for groceries, cleaning the house, walking, sitting, sleeping – all things that at times over the last four months I was unable to do for various reasons. All these normal everyday things sometimes feel like miracles to me. For that I am truly thankful.
To finish up, I want to publicly thank my cardiology team, the Nuffield Health Check team, all my friends and family who rallied around me and supported me through this and for all my colleagues and those of you who have wished me well. I have beaten the ‘game’ for now. Long may I continue.
Until next time, look after yourselves (and have your heart checked!)