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Michael Palin health: The Monty Python legend’s health scare – ‘I must know when to stop’

The One Show: Michael Palin asks to be called 'Sir Michael'

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Since his Monty Python days Michael has made numerous BBC travel documentaries but a recent health scare to do with the health of his heart was a stark reminder that the actor “isn’t indestructible”. The 78-year-old has had to slow down his lifestyle drastically, replacing his love of running which he has done for over 40 years, for long walks round London’s green spaces.

The actor was advised by doctors to have heart surgery back in 2019 due to a “leaky mitral valve”. This small flap lets blood flow from one chamber of the heart, the left atrium, to another called the left ventricle.

When the valve “prolapses” part of the valve slips backward loosely into the left atrium and means that blood flow is interrupted and can sometimes flow the wrong way. This is known by the NHS as mitral regurgitation.

Reflecting on this health scare on his blog, the actor wrote: “My heart scare reminded me that my body isn’t indestructible and if I want to keep it that way I must know when to stop working as well as when to start again.

“Over the last year I discovered a rather enjoyable equilibrium, a balance between work and relaxation that for the first time in my life favoured the latter.

“After forty years I’ve given up running, and taken to long walks instead. Running was a fierce and competitive fight with myself, justified largely by how good I felt afterwards. Walking is something to enjoy at the time.”

The actor’s condition was discovered at a routine health check-up and until the beginning of 2019 it had not affected the actor’s general health. It was when Michael felt that his heart was having to work harder that he was advised that surgery was his best option.

He said: “Until the beginning of this year it had not affected my general level of fitness. Recently, though, I have felt my heart having to work harder and have been advised it’s time to have the valve repaired.

“I shall be undergoing surgery in September and should be back to normal, or rather better than normal, within three months.”

After the operation the actor seemed to be thriving, that was until Covid struck. Talking on the topic the actor said lockdown made him contemplate life and how to spend it.

“After six months, I felt absolutely fine, I feel terrific and then Covid started.

“So, I’ve had about a year in all of sort of being confined to home and seeing fewer people and not being able to contact people in quite the same way, or feeling the same human contact.

“And it does make you think, it makes you think a lot about how best to spend your life and what we all do to our planet… it for a while gave me a still quiet moment.”

Although Michael did not seem to experience any sort of symptoms straight away, the NHS states that those with mitral valve prolapse can sometime experience the following:

  • Dizziness
  • Breathlessness
  • Tiredness
  • An irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) or noticeable heartbeats (palpitations)

Those suffering with the slightly different diagnosis of mitral regurgitation – here the blood flows the wrong way may also experience similar symptoms, with the addition of chest pains.

A doctor will be able to diagnose the condition after listening to someone’s heartbeat, as the abnormal movement of the mitral valve can make a distinct clicking sound.

In the most severe cases the condition can lead to some fatal health conditions. So if you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.

Complications can include the following:

  • Irregular heart rhythms in the upper heart chambers (atrial fibrillation)
  • High blood pressure that affects the blood vessels in the lungs (pulmonary hypertension)
  • Blood clots
  • Heart failure
  • Stroke.

Although heart surgery is an option, like it was for Michael, some doctors will not recommend it until you experience symptoms.

Keyhole surgery to fix mitral regurgitation involves attaching a small clip to the mitral valve to help it close. This small clip is guided into the heart through a thin tube inserted into a vein in the groin area.

Instead of surgery, medical professionals may suggest making healthy lifestyle changes. This includes giving up smoking, and monitoring your caffeine and alcohol intake.

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