Saturday 1 June 2019

Takotsubo Hearts *

When I walk across my local park, I pass a municipal table tennis table and each time I do so I am inexorably sad. I’ll return to the table and that sadness later.

At age 74, I have had health hurdles not uncommon in those fortunate enough to have lived as long as I have. A subdural haematoma resulting in an operation to release blood from my cranium. Open-heart surgery to replace a valve with a bovine alternative and a stroke six months later caused by a streptococcal infection which had attached itself to the new valve. After seven weeks in hospital, I was left with a weakened left side. It also left me unable to play the guitar which may be a relief to some as I wasn’t very good.

This all came after a long and eventful life so I am not writing this as a complaint, nor as an exercise in self-pity. Quite the opposite. I don’t wish brain and heart ops and strokes on anyone but, if they turn up, don’t turn over and face the wall. If you are alive, breathe in deeply, look around you at the world as it is, with you in it still. And continue.

That is perhaps easier said than done. For those who are alone in the world, illness involves extra suffering. And those of us who aren't alone should watch out for those who are. But all of us are surrounded by the living and the dead.

In an excellent article about ageing in The New Yorker Roger Angell writes that, “Our dead are almost beyond counting and we want to herd them along, pen them up somewhere in order to keep them straight. I like to think of mine as fellow-voyagers crowded aboard the Île de France.” I agree but, in addition, I like to think in quantum terms that everything, everywhere at all times, is present. That includes my parents, my close friends, the baby my first wife and I lost at full term and me, of course.

It may also include the absent living. I have close family who have removed themselves from my life or, more truthfully, removed me from theirs. But even then, there is no need to turn to the wall. Family does not have to mean a reference only to the biological. I am fortunate that I have people in this living world who consider me to be a part of their family.

After my wife, Anne Aylor alerted me to a TED talk given by the cardiologist, Sandeep Jauhar, I decided to write this blog. I had a particular interest in his talk because of my own history. My heart had been broken, but was this a mechanical or congenital failure? Or was Sandeep Jauhar correct to argue thatemotions can and do have a physical effet on the heart.” That the heart,weakens in response to intense stress or grief.” He offered proof that it can actually change shape and form, the so-called Takotsubo effect, whereby the base becomes wider and the neck narrower. Quite literally and physically, a broken heart in every sense of the word.

So back to the table tennis table in the park. My youngest son lives with his wife and their son in Barcelona. I have had no contact with them for over four years and have never been given a reason for my expulsion. There has been hearsay evidence, all too awful to believe possible. When I used to visit them in Spain, my son and I would go to nearby Park Güell every day to play table tennis. It was great fun and became a strong part of our relationship. Indeed, the day I left Barcelona after being told I was no longer a grandfather, we played before I entered the Metro at Passeig de Gracia en route to the airport. It is a memory which I place on my own ghostly voyage of the Île de France.


* The photo on the left shows Takotsubo syndrome, a condition where the heart muscle becomes weakened and takes the shape of the Japanese pot on the right

My memoir, "Left Field" can now be read online for free at

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