Alan Titchmarsh: ‘I feared I would die before QA Hospital airlift’

Alan Titchmarsh
Picture : Ian West/PA Photos.
Alan Titchmarsh Picture : Ian West/PA Photos.
Picture: Jon Rowley

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TV gardener Alan Titchmarsh has revealed the terrifying moment he thought he would die before being airlifted to Portsmouth’s Queen Alexandra Hospital.

It was the medical emergency in which Britain’s favourite gardener, best known for his calm and unflappable manner, admits he felt ‘very frightened.’

He said: ‘I hoped I wasn’t going to die, and I was hanging on in there but the pain was so acute at one point I thought it might be a blessed relief.’

The TV presenter, who’s enjoyed enduring popularity over decades, appearing on shows from Gardeners’ World and Ground Force to the Chelsea Flower Show, is talking frankly for the first time about the dramatic day in April when he had to be airlifted to hospital and underwent surgery.

With a family history of heart disease - his father died suddenly in 1986 from a heart attack at the age of 62 - there was obvious concern for the 67-year-old when he started suffering pains in his chest.

‘The pain lasted and was absolute agony and every bit as agonising as a heart attack,’ he recalls. ‘At first I thought it was indigestion as I know that can give you chest pains - but it didn’t wear off. I didn’t know what was wrong and although I didn’t think it was a heart attack, because the pain wasn’t going down my arm (a common symptom), it was frightening.

‘Actually I think it frightened my wife more, because of my family history, of course. The men in my family have a tendency to die from heart disease at a relatively young age.’

After his wife, Alison, called the emergency services, Titchmarsh was taken to the nearest hospital to his Isle of Wight home, St Mary’s and then airlifted to Portsmouth’s Queen Alexandra Hospital, where he was diagnosed with gallstones and had surgery to remove his gall bladder.

Gallstones, one of the most common medical and surgical conditions, are believed to occur because of chemical imbalances in bile stored in the gallbladder. This can lead to tiny crystals developing, which can grow into gallstones, ranging in size from the equivalent of grains of sand, to the size of a pebble. The latter can cause extreme pain, often described as being worse than childbirth.

Although a diet high in saturated fat and pre-formed cholesterol increases the amount of the substance being pumped by the liver into bile, making gallstones more likely, Titchmarsh, who takes statins on the advice of his doctor to help lower cholesterol, says: ‘I watch my weight and am careful with my diet, and it was a rare treat that day to have home-made fish and chips followed by an Easter egg. It was just one of those things and quite unglamorous, but it pulled me up short I can tell you. Thankfully, after a straightforward operation, I haven’t had any more trouble.’

Yorkshire-born Titchmarsh, who this year appeared on ITV’s Love Your Garden and hosted game show, Masterpiece, has clearly recovered his equilibrium and would rather focus on his latest novel, Mr Gandy’s Grand Tour.

The book’s hero isn’t dissimilar to the author - a middle-aged man who enjoys painting, travelling and boats, and finds himself a magnet for attractive women.

Titchmarsh is modest about his own legion of female fans. ‘I never see myself as having some sort of attraction to the opposite sex. I don’t really think about the secret of my appeal. At the end of the day, all you can do is be yourself and be genuine.’

Inspiration for his plot, he says, came from a desire to explore the scenario of a man who’d remained in a long, unsatisfying marriage, but on becoming a widower, suddenly takes off on an adventure on his own.

‘My wife always reads my books first and when she read this one she asked me, ‘It’s not about us, is it?’ I said, ‘No, of course not.’ After all, P.D. James never murdered anyone, but she wrote brilliant crime mysteries. I just wanted to show men can be as sensitive as women and tell a good tale,’ he said with a smile.

:: Mr Gandy’s Grand Tour by Alan Titchmarsh is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £18.99. Available now