Belfast Telegraph

Mike Nesbitt: The last thing the UUP needs is a leader who isn't physically up to the challenge

Mike Nesbitt has said he won't seek a second term as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party on health grounds. Here he explains how a routine medical appointment led to the cardiac unit of the City Hospital

UUP MLA and former party leader Mike Nesbitt
UUP MLA and former party leader Mike Nesbitt
Mike Nesbitt with wife Lynda Bryans

Some readers will remember Peter Robinson's heart issues in 2015. The fact is, he wasn't the only unionist leader under the care of Belfast's cardiac consultants at that time, but, as I wasn't an emergency admission, I got away without the publicity.

What happened was this. I was driving on the Knock dual carriageway towards Parliament Buildings, unusually with time in hand, when I detoured to my GP surgery. I had a small growth, probably a lymph nodule, on my neck, so, I called to book an appointment.

"I'd like to see Dr X, please," I said, only to be greeted with a surprising, "I'm sorry, but that's not going to be possible."

"But I'm his patient!" I protested. "No, you're not," was the reply. "He retired three years ago."

I saw his successor, who turned out to be something of a Dr Nosey Parker. And thank God he was. He wanted to get to know me and my medical notes, which recorded a history of heart disease in my family. I left minus my nodule and a commitment to a 24-hour blood pressure test, using a portable machine.

The equipment is pretty tidy. You attach the inflatable cuff around your upper arm under your shirt, run a connecting tube down your shirt sleeve and plug it into a metal box that sits just above your hips, attached by a lanyard around your neck. Every half-hour, the box whirs into action, the cuff expands and a reading is taken.

Somewhat awkwardly, my day coincided with a plenary session of the Stormont House Talks - five parties and two governments squeezed around that famous dining room table. I deliberately missed the 10am start, sitting in my car as the test completed. I was hoping the plenary session would last less than half-an-hour, so I could dodge the next one. I was not to be so lucky.

At 10.30, the box whirred again. My right upper arm started expanding, into the left upper arm of the Sinn Fein delegate beside me. This man's background was, shall we say, from their "military wing". He twitched at what he clearly thought was highly inappropriate contact.

The box ramped up, the cuff expanded a bit more and, in a desperate effort to reassure him, I opened my suit jacket to expose the box. There was one serious flaw in my strategy. I knew what the equipment was, but he didn't. As it turned out, one man's blood pressure tube is another man's command wire.

My results weren't bad, but not good enough to avoid the next phase: a treadmill test. Who knew there is a treadmill in the cardiology unit of the City Hospital? The only difference from a gymnasium treadmill is that you do it "wired to the moon", with a dozen or more ECG cables stuck to your body and hooked up to a wall of monitors.

Two nurses explained the objective was to find my exercise limit, but to do it sensibly; they warned, in rare circumstances, the stress test could even provoke a heart attack. At the most extreme, I could die.

The Devil on my left scoffed: "Oh, please. Don't listen to them. You're an international athlete." The Angel on the other said: "I think you'll find that schools international is a long, long time ago. Don't muck about with this."

You start at walking pace. Every three minutes, the machine speeds up in search of your natural limit. My ego was obviously operating much better than my heart valves, because when I passed the average for people my age, I declined the nurses' invitation to call it a day. I was going to set a Hospital Best for my age bracket.

Suddenly, the nurse monitoring the screens pushed the emergency shutdown button, the other one grabbed my arm and asked just how dizzy I was feeling. I was about to say I wasn't when I realised I was. Very much so.

They got me on to some sort of cot, as the door burst open and the first of what felt like half-a-dozen medics came running. They all did the same three things, in the same order: they looked at me, looked at the monitors and then looked at their colleagues. I really wanted to request they cut out the last look, because it was ... well, it didn't feel exactly the most comforting signal ever.

A doctor encouraged me to describe my chest pains. I know you should never answer a question with a question, but given there seemed to be a chance I was checking out, I decided to defy convention and ask if I was having a heart attack.

I was definitely feeling some chest pressure. But my attention was distracted by one of the original nurses, who appeared in my peripheral vision, carrying a pair of those boxing gloves they use in sparring - big pads.

"What the hell," I thought, "I'm lying here suffering a possible heart attack and you want a boxing match. What's the matter with you?"

Then I realised: they were not sparring pads; they were defibrillator pads. The Devil voice screamed: "No! If it ever gets out you had to be defibrillated, your career is finished." Yes, fair point, I thought. Then the Angel voice on the other shoulder chipped in: "Sure, but then again, death is not traditionally considered career-enhancing, is it?"

The pads were not used and it is a moot question whether I had a heart attack, or whether the monitors diagnosed something with the same pattern as a heart attack. My consultant decided we should fast-track to an angiogram, which we did and I ended up with two stents and a lifetime commitment to drugs.

I was highly flattered by the number of people encouraging me to attempt a comeback as Ulster Unionist leader. But by coincidence, I had a coronary review in the last few days and while I feel fine and capable of performing the duties of an MLA, leading the Ulster Unionist Party may be a step too far.

The last thing it needs is a leader who isn't physically up to the challenge, because, believe me, it has its moments. I need to put the party's needs above any egotistical temptation to make a return.

I just wanted to explain all this to those hoping I might put my name forward for the leadership.

It's important to me they understand my refusal wasn't because I couldn't be bothered.

I had been looking forward to opening the next conference speech with, "I hadn't gone away, you know!"

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