Changing the conversation about work and cancer

Aorta: A Good News Story


You’ve probably never thought much about this central piece of equipment, the aorta, or how it got its strange name. I hadn’t either, until recently, when mine blew up (as mines do). I can report that it’s most inconvenient, and I can also report that I’m very lucky to be here to tell you about it. I wouldn’t be if the much-maligned NHS had not played a blinder. I’m writing about it because the Daily Mail is unlikely to. No-one likes a good news story less than the Daily Mail.

My adventure started on a Saturday morning, just after breakfast. That’s the first clue about how the aorta got its name: aorta give you some warning, but they don’t. It was a sudden tornado from a clear blue sky. I got severe pains in the chest, and after that I’m relying on the accounts of eye witnesses to tell me what happened between then and when I woke up five days later. They tell me the ambulance was at the house in fifteen minutes. Since childhood I’d wanted to ride in a blue-light ambulance and I feel cheated that I knew nothing about it. Apparently, I should feel glad rather than cheated. I was at Addenbrooke’s fifteen minutes later, scanned, assessed and on the operating table at the next-door Royal Papworth hospital before I could blink, something I had no inclination to do anyway. The speed was essential, as the rapidly disintegrating aorta exploded then, sending shrapnel all over the place. If I hadn’t had what I’m told was the best team of surgeons in England for that particular emergency that would have been that.

The French have a saying I’ve always loved: ‘with ifs, you could get Paris into a bottle’. The fact that they did that day relies on so many ifs: if the ambulance had taken longer, if they hadn’t assessed me immediately, if they hadn’t got me straight into the operating theatre, if I hadn’t been so close to Papworth Hospital, if I hadn’t had surgeons expert in that field…the list goes on. The second clue about how the aorta got its name comes with the beginning of the surgery: aorta put this important, central drainpipe in a more accessible place. To reach it they have to cut open your rib cage, which is a touch inconvenient. When they did, they discovered that there was such a mess in there that they had to stop my heart for seven minutes while they effected a repair that made it possible to hook me up to the ‘proper’ heart and lung machine. The cardiac nurse later told me she thought only my lead consultant could have done that. It did sound complicated! Aorta give that bloke a medal. There was concern that the seven-minute power cut might have damaged my brain, but it’s hard to think that it could be any worse than it was before.  

The operation took nine hours and I was in intensive care for a further five days. I’d had something called an acute dissection of the aorta, which is an interesting term as it sounds as if it’s a biological experiment being done deliberately. In fact, the aorta does its own dissection without any outside help. It just shreds from the inside: a shredded treat, to use the technical term. Then, of course, the blood, instead of following its predictable lap round the body starts to turn up in unexpected places. Mine had chosen to leak on a hairpin bend in my neck. The aorta had to be cut out, thrown away, and replaced by something resembling the overflow pipe on a washing machine. It’s good that they have ready-made spare parts for problems of internal plumbing, but really aorta make the original parts more durable.

When I was finally released from intensive care – my wife thinks that just unplugging me would have taken at least a day – I entered a strange world of half-consciousness trying to make sense of where I was and what had happened. Morphine is great for pain, but its contribution to confusion is perhaps underrated. The best example of my various delusions was when I was watching the world triathlon championships, from Sunderland, on the TV in my room. I say ‘watching’ as if it was deliberate, but it’s better to say that I was in the room and that was what was on TV. Knowing my love of sport, my family thought it was the least worst option, and it’s hard to deny that when surveying the alternatives on daytime TV. I used to do triathlons, and I used to work in Sunderland, so I recognised the activities and the places being run and cycled past. What I couldn’t work out was why I was in Sunderland, how I’d got there, and why some kind person was allowing me to lie in their middle room watching TV. I got all misty-eyed thinking about the milk of human kindness.

I’m now back home, less confused, and trying to enjoy the aftermath. The shrapnel in my brain has created a new wonder called ‘foot drop’. Always one for empirical discovery I found out about foot drop by planting my nose on the pavement on an early walk. The foot kept scraping the ground, and as pavement maintenance is, like road maintenance, a long-forgotten skill it doesn’t take long for the rolling English patient to meet the rolling English road (with apologies to G K Chesterton). I had developed the gait of a giant penguin, with one foot operating normally and the other slapping around like a flipper. So, is there still a way of p-p-picking up a penguin? It turns out that there is. It’s called a ‘foot drop brace’, which you put round your foot and then clip to your shoe laces to keep the offending foot off the floor. I can now walk without falling over, but I can’t drive for at least a year following a ‘seizure’ as I came round from the anaesthetic. Someone obviously knew that we’d just bought a new car.

Readers of my previous ramblings may remember that my principal private assassin used to be Melvyn the Melanoma, who’s been trying to kill me for years, making me more cautious than a Russian oligarch. He’s taken the gradual approach, quietly growing tumours and cultivating his garden, as Voltaire advised. No-one can fault his diligence. However, he’s been completely upstaged by my exploding aorta, and is probably impressed by its direct approach of going straight for the jugular. Maybe he got fed up with the delay and commissioned the work himself, confronting me with the dubious honour of being killed by a sub-contractor. I suppose that’s more in keeping with the modern world, but, frankly, aorta put a stop to it. In fact, aorta put a stop to me, and it isn’t for want of trying!

About Harmer Parr

Harmer Parr is a former teacher and Ofsted inspector. During his time at Ofsted, he held national responsibility for the development and quality assurance of school inspections, and for leading the work on assessing the impact of Ofsted on the education system.