Radio 4’s Justin Webb celebrates a Christmas he almost missed

The Today presenter opens up about the heart condition which almost killed him


It ended well. My heart surgery was over and my wife, Sarah – hoping, for the sweetest possible reasons, to condemn me to eat only lettuce evermore – had asked the doctor for his view. Or should I say: His View.


The doctor leaned nonchalantly against a scrubbed hospital pillar. “One large glass of red wine. Every day. Till you die. And make it the best-quality red you can afford.” And he stressed that quality point. Antioxidant properties come with the ageing in the casks. If medicine is on your mind the stuff laid down in cellars is really what you are after.

So happy Christmas to one and all, and particularly to us chaps of a certain age who are blighted by furred up arteries. Take the pills and drink the wine (I am assuming not together, though I am feeling my way in this new world). And I am happy to be raising a glass with you. Happy and lucky.

Because along with this Christmassy happy talk there needs to be, as my wife correctly realised, some lettuce talk as well. “Take chest pain seriously,” they say.

But what is chest pain? Not, it turns out, the kind of pain you see in the movies, when ham actors stagger, clutching their chests, towards phones they can barely whisper into: “I’m having a heart att…” No, it is much more prosaic. And much more ignorable.

Mine came while I was sitting at a desk talking to someone in America about a book I am publishing there. It was a moment of zero stress. It did hurt, and it did grip my heart area in a peculiar way, but it didn’t stop me making a cup of tea and driving off to pick the children up from school.

But it persisted and here three pieces of good fortune came into play. First, I have a loving wife who has medical knowledge. She had no hesitation: go to hospital now. Secondly, that hospital, King’s College, is two minutes from our house. I had no excuse not to go. They found nothing wrong with me. But they suggested more tests and here the third piece of good luck came into play.

I have a friend who is a heart surgeon. When the letter came inviting me back it took one look from him to persuade me. And then, while I pounded away on a treadmill it became obvious to his colleagues that something was wrong. Not to me, I may say. I felt fine. Impressing the nurses. Or so I thought.

In fact the result of this half hour, that left me puffed but exultant, was not quite what I had in mind. I was to undergo urgent angioplasty. This operation is conducted without a general anaesthetic. It involves a doctor putting a tube through an artery into your heart and rummaging around. (Sorry, doc, but that is what it feels like.)

This particular rummage turned up the following fact – which the doctor showed me on the screen. I had an artery, a rather important one, hanging by a thread. It was almost completely blocked by gunge. If the gunge had moved I was at risk of a massive and quite possibly unsurvivable heart attack.

He fixed it in a few minutes. The past century has a lot to answer for. It was dominated by world wars that devastated countless lives. Cruel men dominated the world. Nuclear weapons were used. And yet in the dark reaches of the night in my King’s College Hospital bed, I have to say that the modern world – modernity itself – looked rather wonderful.

The first angioplasty using a stent was performed on a human in 1986. Nineteen Eighty Six! That was yesterday. I had already joined the BBC and started eating too much cheese.

We are right to be worried about the predicament the world is in, but we wealthy westerners should take time as well to notice and praise the fact that we are good at solving the problems we create. I would rather be living now than in any previous moment in human history.

I begin 2013 buoyed up on a wave of optimism. Fuelled, I admit, by that fine red wine.


Justin Webb returns to work shortly, and will present Today on Boxing Day, Radio 4