Holby City actor's off-screen heart disease encounter

Actor Hari Dhillon Actor Hari Dhillon plays Dr Michael Spence in BBC medical drama Holby City.

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1980. A small farming village an hour outside Amritsar. 3am. I am a young boy. Too young to grasp the reality that will continue to haunt me for years to come. My father has had a heart attack. In India. In a small village.

I am 10 and when I last saw my father at dinner he looked like me - brown. At 3am, he now has a colour he has more or less retained since then - ash white.

My young self can't figure out what is happening around me but this much is immediately clear: it's bad. It's not going to get better by the morning. No one knows what to do. From this point, my life, my father's, and my family's will be shifted into a different paradigm.

So what happens next is my version of a story that is mirrored in too many Asian families.

Inherent risk

After resting in bed for a month until he was strong enough, we flew back to San Francisco, went straight to Stanford Medical Center and endured what was then a 12-hour procedure and not very common those days - a heart bypass operation. But we were fortunate. My father survived not just that bypass surgery but two more since.

Ethnic risk factors

  • British South Asians suffer heart attacks 10 to 20 years earlier than their European counterparts
  • People of South Asian descent carry three times the amount of body fat as those from a European background

Asian Health - The Asian Death Wish, BBC Asian Network report

My father is not a big drinker - and now a non drinker, a non-smoker, and leads a very "clean" life. One would think that a heart attack, angina, chronic high blood pressure, chronic high cholesterol, three quadruple bypass surgeries, countless stent and ballooning procedures, and a cornucopia of lifetime medication would be the furthest thing from his reality.

But, as I've discovered narrating the documentary Asian Health - The Asian Death Wish, Asians, through a combination of genetics and lifestyle choices, such as diet and exercise, are finding themselves the victims of heart attacks and diabetes in disproportionate numbers. Alarmingly so.

Life-changing

Two facts in particular still stun me. First, Asians suffer heart attacks 10 to 20 years earlier than our European counterparts. Second, Asians carry three times the amount of body fat as their European counterparts.

My father was in his late 40s when he suffered his heart attack, but I believed until recently that it was an anomaly - a freak occurrence suffered by an unlucky young-ish man who followed the rules of a good healthy lifestyle.

In retrospect the indicators were always present - the worst aspects of an Asian diet married to the least beneficial aspects of a Western diet, combined with a genetic disposition. Couple ghee with fast food and a tendency to carry weight around the belly and you get the proverbial ticking time bomb.

I was lucky - my father survived his heart attack, learned new types of behaviour, and is still alive and thriving today. But many others are not so fortunate.

The good news is that by making some small lifestyle changes, Asians can radically alter their health, live longer and more productive lives, and most importantly, live long enough to see their grandchildren. Now if that ain't an incentive for an Asian to make changes, I don't know what is.

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