I hadn’t slept well the night before. Terrorists had attacked the Borough Market area around Southwark Cathedral. I’d been shopping there just a few hours earlier. And I knew my 21-year-old daughter was at a party around there. Just after dawn, I wandered to the police cordon on Borough High Street and said a quiet prayer for those who’d lost their lives. It was a Sunday morning. I had to go and preach a sermon. Later that day, I had a heart attack.
I’m generally of the “ignore it and it will go away” school of self-care. And that was my initial approach to a feeling of extreme tiredness and a pain down my left arm. I’d slept on it badly, surely. And the tightness in my chest was just a bit of indigestion. My wife was having none of this and within minutes the ambulance had blue-lighted me over to St Thomas’ Hospital, where they were still receiving casualties from the Borough Market attack.
I still wasn’t taking the whole thing seriously. In A&E, doctors did some tests and told me the results would take a couple of hours. I was already feeling much better. So I popped out for steak and chips and a glass of red. In a concession to my condition, I only ate half the chips. Later, the results confirmed a heart attack. But it was only when they tried to fit me with a stent that I began to take it seriously. My arteries were so blocked up with rubbish that they couldn’t get a stent in. Looking at my chart, and its map of all the blockages, it was hard to see how I was still alive at 52. I had a seven-month-old baby at home. I couldn’t die now.
It’s now several months since my quadruple heart-bypass operation. I feel like a new man. They stripped out a vein from my leg – ankle to groin – and used it to replumb my heart. So I now have a pair of scars that a Spetsnaz war veteran would be proud of. And a whole new approach to life to go with them. As I lay in my hospital bed a few days after the operation, on the seventh floor overlooking the Houses of Parliament, I watched a tower block burn on the horizon. From the attack on Borough Market to the horror of Grenfell Tower – in the light of all of that, my own drama was insignificant. And self-inflicted. I was secretly ashamed.
While I lay in bed, the Bishop of Southwark, my boss, came to see me. He’d been dealing with all the horror around his cathedral, so it was nice he could make time to visit. He was clutching a piece of paper on which was printed the Bible reading for that day: “We have this treasure in clay jars.” We sure do. Life is fragile. And so much more valuable for being that way.
Lying in bed gave me plenty of time to wonder about this 300 grams of muscle that can be seen simply as a pump and also as a metaphor for our deepest emotional longings.
Now I’m exploring its significance in a series for Radio 4’s Heart Week. I began by sitting down with Vassilios Avlonitis, the cardiac surgeon whose skill fixed my heart. It was a weird experience, looking at his hands, imagining them cutting through my chest bone with a circular saw then reaching though to hold my heart. I knew so little about the operation that it comes as a shock when he told me that he actually stopped my heart beating for nearly an hour in order to sew in the new arteries. Before death was redefined as “brain stem death”, the heart not beating was what constituted being dead. So on the old definition, I’d been dead for an hour. Gulp.
What was reassuring about Mr Avlonitis is that he wasn’t much interested in being drawn on the existential issues of having one’s heart fixed. Has the increasing medical emphasis on the brain downgraded him to a mere plumber, I rudely asked. He smiled, without a flicker of irritation. His job as a surgeon is to keep himself athlete-fit and to put all his personal bothers aside when he goes into surgery. It’s this steadiness that clearly makes him so good at his job.
Plumbing aside, I also wanted to talk about how such an operation changes people emotionally and spiritually. Susie Orbach used to be my psychoanalyst and probably knows me better than my own mother, so she was an important person to contact. As was my friend Adam Phillips, another psychoanalyst, with whom I’ve often sat down to chew the fat about the meaning of life.
But the conversation I’ll long remember was with Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury. We talked mostly about the heartbeat and how its continual rhythm anchors human life. About how great poets like Shakespeare use this rhythm through iambic pentameter – be-bum, be-bum, be-bum, be-bum, be-bum. This noise is the first thing we ever hear. It is the drumbeat of life itself, pervading our every moment. And we neglect it at our peril.
This Old Heart of Mine is on Monday 4th – Friday 8th December at 1.45pm on Radio 4