If you’re in the least bit squeamish you’d better stop reading now. What follows is not for those who blanch at Casualty and come over all faint at the sight of blood. I’m told it’s a first for radio — following an operation in real time and going right inside the experience.
It began at breakfast time on Tuesday on Radio Five Live as we listened to Stephen, a patient at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. He’d woken up at 3 a.m. to hear one of the nurses clip-clopping down the corridor towards him. She’d come to tell him that at last they’d found a heart which they hoped would be a good match, and the operation which he had been waiting for to save his life would take place in just a few hours. How did he feel about it?
Heart Transplant Day then proceeded to give us brief updates throughout the day as Stephen underwent the massive eight-hour operation. Not that this was ‘live’ radio. That would have been too risky. But knowing it was recorded did not take away from the impact of hearing just exactly what Stephen (or rather his inert body) was going through, tube by tube, suture by suture.
‘The heart has just been taken out,’ said Chris Warburton, the news reporter with a cast-iron stomach. ‘Here it is on a table in a plastic bowl. It’s quite a size,’ he added, ‘bigger than I would have thought …and it’s just made a movement. Right there. Completely independently from Stephen’s body.’ I’m feeling nauseous just writing about it.
‘Let me describe the colours of it,’ he carried on, relentlessly. ‘It’s not red, it’s yellowing, with purple veins running through it … It’s much cleaner than you might imagine.’
Meanwhile Stephen was lying on the operating table with all the machines attached to him registering a flat line. No heartbeat. No vital signs. He was a body without a heart, kept alive by technology — and the skill of the operating team.
Later on, after the new heart had been inserted, the anaesthetist told us she wanted to make sure Stephen had ‘a smooth landing’ as he came off all the machines and began relying on his new organ. She was closest to the patient, right by his head, but told us, ‘I have to say I don’t think of it as this person. I think about getting the numbers right.’
Husain Husaini, the producer, told Radio Times, ‘You couldn’t do that kind of programming on TV.’ It was too real, too immediate, too insightful. ‘Stephen’s heart transplant was progressing while most people were having a normal working day.’
Over on the World Service later in the day, Soccer Nuns introduced us to the ‘Snow Lionesses’, the women’s football team of Tibet. Their idea of the beautiful game is rather different from Fifa’s (which has yet to recognise the Tibetan team because Tibet is a non-sovereign country). Most of the young women players are living in exile in India, because of China’s oppression of the Tibetan people. Ivan Broadhead went to meet them in soccer camp in Dehradun, in the foothills of the Himalayas, as they prepared to turn themselves into an international team. They’ve been described as ‘modern-day nuns’ because of the sacrifices they have made and their total dedication to the sport.
A 16-year-old player last saw her parents ten years ago. They sent her away from Tibet when she was six so that she could grow up in a free society. The vice-captain of the team was only 12 when she escaped from her home country ten years ago, walking across the Himalayan mountains in freezing, icy conditions. The soles of her shoes were destroyed. A young male refugee who was with her on their journey into exile suffered from frostbite and had to have all his toes and fingers amputated. ‘When I wear the Tibetan football kit I feel so proud,’ she told us. Another team member plays for her brother, who was imprisoned by the Nepalese after going on a peace march.
It was so refreshing to hear a story about football that was not riddled with corruption; that talked about sport as a means of bringing people together (the organiser of the soccer camp was from New Jersey). Such programmes, with their alternative take on the news, make it no surprise that the World Service is a hugely successful podcast factory. It has just been announced that since July 2007 (when the first podcasts were released by the World Service, available to anyone, anywhere in the world, via the internet), there have been one billion downloads of its programmes — that’s 28 million each month.
Let’s hope there are no more cuts to the funding for this jewel in the BBC’s empire (which has already seen virtually all of its budget for drama disappear), and that even if the licence fee is eventually abandoned some other form of subsidy will ensure the World Service survives not just as an impartial source of news but also as a gateway to other stories, other lives.