This blog is about and by Guy Opperman – our pensions minister; it’s re-published with his permission. It was first published April 26th here
Today’s date is etched on my memory, and it will be forever.
On Tuesday 26th April 2011, I was embarking on a normal day in the House of Commons. It was the first day back after the Easter recess, and I’d just spent the previous three weeks at home in Hexham. I had been an MP for 11 months and was starting to make a real difference. Over recess, I’d been campaigning across the North East, leading the regional ‘No to AV’ campaign and fighting the local elections.
Since being elected in May 2010, I had increasingly found myself exhausted, but I didn’t put it down to anything. Why should I? I was a newly elected MP doing dozens of visits every weekend across Northumberland. I was working from the early hours until late into the evening almost every night and had a 600-mile weekly commute between Hexham and London.
I simply put the tiredness down to the new job. I was young, and despite suffering a fall as a jockey at Stratford races a few years earlier, I would consider myself to be reasonably fit.
I started the day like any other, with a three-mile run through central London, before heading into Parliament. We were debating the Finance Bill, but through the day I began to feel progressively worse. I had a blinding headache, like something I could only describe as the worst hangover you could imagine. I often say that the Budget nearly killed me.
At 10:30 pm, I was violently sick.
Thankfully, my good friend and colleague Nadhim Zahawi, the MP for Stratford-upon-Avon found me in Central Lobby and put out a call for a doctor. Another new MP, Dr Dan Poulter arrived in minutes.
Dan is a specialist in obstetrics and gynaecology, so I greeted him weakly by saying, ‘Dan, I am not pregnant, but I don’t feel very well!
I wanted to go home and get some sleep, but Dan knew something was seriously wrong and insisted I went to hospital. An ambulance was urgently summoned to take me to St Thomas’ Hospital which overlooks the House of Commons. I was taken to the exact same hospital ward the Prime Minister was being treated for coronavirus.
After a series of scans, a young doctor, barely aged 30, and covering the busy night shift in A&E came over. He calmly said to me, ‘Mr Opperman, I am so sorry. I have had a look at the scan of your head. You have a tumour on the inside of your skull pushing down on the brain. You will need an operation to remove it’.
I was numb with fear and shock. I quite literally had nothing to say. Thinking back to that moment now still sends a shiver down my spine. I was shown the scan, and above my left ear was a 2-inch white lump. There was something alive inside my head.
Thankfully, the doctors told me it was treatable, but would require emergency surgery. I was told there was a 1% chance of death, a 1% chance of paralysis, a 1% chance of loss of sight, and a 1% chance of disability. I added these up and didn’t fancy my chances, but surgery was the only option – without it, I would die.
My surgeon was the quite incredible Dr Neil Kitchen. Under his care, I had a variety of scans which showed I had a meningioma, a type of tumour that grows from the meninges, the layer of tissue that lies above the brain. Neil advised me that I needed both a cerebral angiogram, and an embolisation first before they removed the tumour by craniotomy.
An embolization requires the femoral artery in your thigh to be opened and then a wire passed up through your body into your head, where they burn off the base of the tumour to prevent future bleeding. After being told the details, I thought it best not to think about the process.
Over the next two weeks, I received visits from friends, family and colleagues every day. When in hospital, you have a lot of time to think, and I had a lot of questions. What if the tumour is cancerous? What if the surgery goes wrong? What about my constituents who need my help? Would I have to call a by-election?
On Thursday 5th May I was operated on – I had been an MP for exactly one year. It was the day of the referendum on AV, and local elections across the United Kingdom. After the anaesthetist began his work, my last words were apparently ‘It’s the AV vote today – don’t forget to vote against it.’
A craniotomy is performed by shaving the hair, then cutting the skin with a scalpel to reveal the skull, which is then opened with the medical equivalent of a tiny circular saw. The surgeon then removes the tumour with an even smaller circular saw. Neil managed to remove my tumour without damaging the brain or causing any bleeding. I was very, very lucky.
As I came round that afternoon, Neil came to see me beaming ‘We got all of it out, Guy’. I was beaming too, and said ‘And I can talk, and move my arms and legs!’
Two days later came more good news. The test results came back showing my tumour was benign. Neil advised me that the tumour would not recur. In fact, he told me I would be even better than before.
I was then discharged and went home to my parents. It was odd to be back at home again in my 40’s, but my parents cared for me in a way that only parents can.
I slowly began to read the hundreds of amazing cards and letters I had received from colleagues, friends, constituents and even the Prime Minister. As a new MP, I was still getting used to Westminster. As an outsider, it is easy to think of the Commons as a permanently tribal place, but I received cards from right across the political spectrum. I even received the biggest bouquet of flowers I can genuinely say I have ever seen from a Labour MP.
These messages of support helped sustain me through the long months on the road to recovery that followed. I needed extensive tests and lots of physiotherapy to get my limbs back into action.
I was able to return to work in August, less than four months after my diagnosis.
That summer, I decided to walk Hadrian’s Wall to raise money for the Tynedale Hospice in Hexham, and the National Neurological Hospital that saved my life, which helped fund a new Neuroimaging Analysis Centre for clinical research.
In August of 2011, my Labour colleague Paul Bloomfield was also diagnosed with a brain tumour, one extremely similar to mine. Thankfully, he also made a full recovery, and in 2012 we walked the first section of the Pennine Way together to help raise money for Headway UK, a charity helping both adults and children recover from brain injuries, including tumours.
More recently, I took part in the 100-mile Prudential charity bike ride through London and Surrey. Research is vital to improving life chances for those diagnosed, so I will never stop fundraising. Once Britain gets through this coronavirus pandemic, I am planning to take part in another sponsored walk along Hadrian’s Wall.
I have regular scans, and nine years on, I am still tumour free and still often return to the National Neurological and Neurosurgery Hospital to say hello and take a box of chocolates to the team.
Whilst Britain faces this Coronavirus pandemic, there is a serious point I want to get across – the NHS is still there for us all. If you are concerned about a health problem, please make sure you contact your GP. Other illnesses do not stop because of coronavirus and people will continue to get sick. Please make sure you seek medical attention if you need to.
I will never be able to repay the debt of gratitude to our amazing NHS. It literally saved my life. So let’s all make sure we work to protect the NHS front line staff helping to fight coronavirus by making sure we stay at home.
Marvellous – thank you for sharing
Thank Guy Opperman for sharing!
I too owe my life to very many NHS staff, and of course the marvellous institution itself, who at one stage had to bore a hole through my skull whilst I was in a bed on the neuro ward for emergency relief of pressure on my brain. For most neurosurgical operations – including a nine-hour one to remove a large tumour pressing on my brain stem – the anaesthetists ensured I slept soundly through them and it was far far worse for my loved ones waiting anxiously through it than it ever was for me. But all the lumbar punctures – done routinely whilst in bed on the ward – were excruciatingly and terrifyingly painful. It was both a salutary and a humbling experience: thank you Henry for reminding me of it and helping me put present events into better / proper perspective.