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Heart surgeon who composed music for Hollywood

My Man
 Aga Khan University Hospital Consultant Interventional Cardiologist also Director of Cardiac Services, Dr Mohamed Jeilan.PHOTO DAVID NJAAGA/STANDARD}

This heart surgeon tugs at heart strings with his music compositions, one of which made it to the soundtrack of a Hollywood movie. P. KARIUKI caught up with DR MOHAMED JEILAN, Director of Cardiology at Nairobi's Aga Khan University Hospital

What is it like to be a heart doctor?

Being a doctor gives you a window into your patient’s world. Each patient has his or her own unique story. Each illness affects an individual in a different way and the relationship between a patient, his family, his spirituality and his illness provides millions of unique possibilities.

So when we look at patients this way, everyone is fascinating. In Africa more so than elsewhere, nothing is impossible and nothing is predictable! Sometimes an obese man has healthy arteries while a young and fit man has advanced heart disease.

And we meet everyone from the rich businessman to the politician and we have to put ourselves into the frame of mind of each person and understand how the illness they suffer impacts on their lives and on the lives of those that depend on them and also of those whom they depend on.

Cardiovascular diseases have become common in Kenya, could it be a curse?

Heart attacks happen because the heart loses some of its blood supply. Current projections suggest that heart attacks will be the biggest killer of Kenyans born in this millennium; bigger than any other illness. We have seen a huge rise in heart attacks in the last five years.

Yes, we have become better at detecting the condition, but for sure there are more Kenyans falling victim of heart attacks. Heart attacks became the major killer worldwide after the second world war with urbanisation and city living. This comes with stress, unhealthy habits (including smoking and poor diet) and lack of exercise. More Kenyans are adopting this urban western way of living and exposing themselves to the long term effects of this kind of lifestyle.

What we see in the movies is accurate? People clutching their chests, keeling over and dying?

The main symptoms of this kind of heart disease are discomfort in the chest, arms, jaws or upper abdomen, often mistaken as ‘gas’, and some discomfort with breathing. The commonest mistake is to assume that the ‘gas’ sensation is acidity and to ignore it. If you have diabetes or high blood pressure, or very high cholesterol, or if you are overweight or smoke, having these symptoms will often signify a blocked artery.

What is the most shocking case you have had so far in your practice?

There are so many astonishing cases we meet every day... When I had just returned to Kenya, a patient from Burundi was flown in by an air ambulance with the slowest heart rate that I had ever seen (four beats per minute). He had been unwell with complete heart block for three days and I was surprised that this could not be treated in the whole of Burundi at the time.

He arrived in hospital on all the drugs the doctors could find but as soon as he came in, we took him straight to the Cath Lab and he got a life saving pacemaker in 15 minutes. I was amazed that he had survived with such a slow heart rate and despite the fact that there was no treatment available in Burundi for it. It just goes to show you that a patient’s desire to survive can often keep them going.

You recently pioneered the first heart valve replacement procedure in the region, tell us about that?

The normal way to replace a heart valve involves an open operation. The chest is opened and the heart stopped. The heart surgeon cuts open the heart, removes the old diseased valve and a sews in a new valve. The heart is then restarted.

It is a big, big operation. Unfortunately many patients who need this are too unwell to undergo it safely. In the last ten years a technique to perform this operation without opening the chest using just three punctures in the groin and specialised X-ray equipment has been developed with amazing technology, which allows specialists to replace the valve without cutting open the chest and without using a knife or blade! The TAVI procedure uses just two or three punctures in the groin and can be performed under local anaesthetic on a patient who is awake. The unit in Leicester where I practised pioneered this in the first operation of its kind in the UK back in 2007. It was a moment of immense pride for me to be able to replicate this same operation on a Kenyan in 2015.

What do you do for fun after a long day in the operating room? I enjoy experimenting with music. I have a piano at home and find it an immense source of relaxation. I am enthusiastic about technology and have discovered that it can open up the music world to almost everyone and allow everyone the chance to be creative with music. I used to enjoy cooking but am a bit lost in our kitchen in Nairobi at the moment!

A little birdy told us that you like to compose music? Tell us about that? Music and surgery what is the relationship there?

I write music and yes, some of my songs have been played in the international charts. I suppose my most prominent experience was when I was asked to write a song on the movie soundtrack of Bridget Jones Diary. I won a newcomers award from The British Academy of Songwriters, which is one of my proudest achievements...Music has a long and enduring relationship with medicine and there is growing evidence of the therapeutic impact of music.

As a heart specialist, I am reminded of the following quote: “To send light into the darkness of men’s hearts such is the duty of the artist” and I am convinced that music like all forms of artistic communication can help patients and doctors better understand health and illness in a similar way to reading a textbook.


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