'Why my heart is with Bill'

Just like Bill Clinton, Robert Chesshyre had little idea that his mild symptoms meant he would need life-saving surgery. But youth and good habits, he learnt, are no guarantees of healthy arteries
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The surgeon stood at the foot of my bed. "Your life has been hanging by a thread," he said. "Your principal artery is 95 per cent blocked." Three days earlier I had been going about my normal business - on this occasion going to Lord's to watch cricket - when I had felt breathless and experienced a burning sensation in my throat. I was not the fittest of people, but I was in my early fifties - quite a few years younger than Bill Clinton is now - and had presumed that life-threatening disease lay comfortably in the future.

The surgeon stood at the foot of my bed. "Your life has been hanging by a thread," he said. "Your principal artery is 95 per cent blocked." Three days earlier I had been going about my normal business - on this occasion going to Lord's to watch cricket - when I had felt breathless and experienced a burning sensation in my throat. I was not the fittest of people, but I was in my early fifties - quite a few years younger than Bill Clinton is now - and had presumed that life-threatening disease lay comfortably in the future.

It was luck that I had a slack morning the following day, and further luck that my often fully booked GP had a cancellation. Otherwise, I might well have soldiered on, expecting that my health, like the weather, would eventually change for the better. I had to park some distance away, and was breathless when I reached the surgery. I had expected a lecture on my sedentary way of life and to be advised to go running in the park.

Instead, the GP said "angina", and added that he thought I should see a cardiologist as soon as possible, which, happily - by virtue of my health insurance - proved to be immediately. I took an exercise ECG, which involves you walking on a treadmill as the incline increases until you're clearly distressed. I had scarcely got into my stride when the technician called "Whoa", and told me to stop. "Not good?" I surmised. "The cardiologist interprets the results, not me," he said, but the look on his face was all the diagnosis I needed.

Two days later I had an angiography, a procedure that shows up the state of your arteries on an X-ray after a doctor has injected your blood vessels with a coloured dye. You are awake throughout and watch on monitors. My main artery seemed to turn a near-right angle and was clearly silted up in the way that a bend in the river chokes up. I heard the cardiologist talking to someone who was out of sight. "Who is that?" I asked. "Just Mr X, a surgeon. He happened to be passing, so I asked him to take a look."

Pull the other one, I thought. I'm destined for the knife. So, 30 minutes later, I found myself face-to-face with Mr X. After his "hanging by a thread" diagnosis, he said that I would be booked in two days later for a coronary bypass. He added: "I have to warn people that there is a one-in-200 risk of not surviving this operation." Despite the fact that those seemed generous odds - when did you last back a 200-to-one winner? - I must have looked glum. He reassessed: "In your case, as you're young for this, that's probably 400-to-one."

Unlike Clinton - the US president is probably the most health-checked man on the planet - I had never had a thorough examination, but, if I had, I would certainly have passed as "fit for duty", if not with flying colours. I have never smoked (why, I don't know, as all my contemporaries have done, and I'm normally a sucker for anything going); I am not overweight; my blood pressure is textbook perfect; and my diet at home is pretty close to the recommended model - loads of fish, endless portions of fruit and veg, and not a huge amount of red meat.

Like Clinton, though, I had a family history of angina - my father and my grandfathers had died from heart disease. But all of them had survived well into their seventies - and I was far younger than that.

I came round from the operation in intensive care - by far the nastiest part of the whole process, with that awful dryness of the mouth that's alleviated only by lumps of ice, and that restless, near-suicidal feeling that hits one as anaesthetic withdrawal sets in - and found the surgeon standing beside my bed. "What," I croaked, "might have caused the blockages?" (In the event, I had had a triple bypass.) "Act of God or bad luck," he said, which I suppose amount to much the same thing. My good luck (or another act of God?) had been the swift diagnosis and treatment of my condition. All too often, I've read of men in their prime dropping dead without warning.

A few nights later, just before my discharge from hospital, the surgeon called round. I was eating my supper. "You should have red wine with that," he said. Before I left, the cardiologist added his fourpennyworth to the diet advice I had been given. "Take exercise with a purpose," he said. "Walk to the off licence and buy a good bottle of claret." So life wasn't going to be so bad after all.

That was more than eight years ago. I was very well behaved in the early years: I cut out cheese, didn't buy bars of chocolate when I felt peckish, exercised a moderate amount. I won't say that my lifestyle is now dissolute, but I do live much as I did before the bypass. The miracle that makes this possible is statins, the cholesterol-lowering drug. Each year that I've been taking it, my cholesterol level has fallen slightly.

The last time I went for a check-up, the cardiologist said: "If it weren't on your notes, no one could tell that you had had a bypass." He added that I was fit enough to apply for an HGV licence. So, if journalism fails, it's heigh-ho for the open road.

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