“Magdi Yacoub is clearly an extraordinary man. He did things his way.”

Q&A with Simon Pearson and Fiona Gorman, authors of A Surgeon and a Maverick: The Life and Pioneering Work of Magdi Yacoub

Simon Pearson and Fiona Gorman are a husband-and-wife team of author-editors who worked for The Times newspaper in London for more than thirty years. A former executive editor at The Times, Simon is the author of three books, including the bestselling biography The Great Escaper. Fiona has written on a range of subjects including mental health, and Simon contributes obituaries for The Times. They live in London.

They spoke to AUC Press about the process of writing A Surgeon and a Maverick, the first authorized biography of a living legendary surgeon and researcher, Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub.

This is the first complete biography that Sir Magdi Yacoub agreed to. How did this come about?

Fiona Gorman: Many people had asked if they could write a biography of Magdi Yacoub, but he’s always been a workaholic and too busy to be involved. Even now at 87, he is exhausting. Anybody who knows “Prof” knows that you have to chase him. It took a long time for him to realize that documenting his life could help his charity, The Magdi Yacoub Foundation, and that’s his motivation.

The pandemic helped to give us more uninterrupted time with him since he could not travel.

Dame Mary Archer writes in the foreword, after highlighting Sir Magdi Yacoub’s remarkable life and achievements: “Throw in orchid breeder and fast-car aficionado and you have the description of a complex and unique man.” What were some of the facets or aspects of the man that you discovered while working on the book?

Simon Pearson: As mentioned in the foreword, he loves fast cars. He used to have a blue Lamborghini that he once raced down Park Lane in London, though he wouldn’t want people to know that. There is a difference between the private man and his public face. Though he is serious about medicine and science and driving both forward, he is quite a raconteur. He has many jokes up his sleeve and laughs often. His warmth and affection is something I saw in private that perhaps is not always on display in public.

Fiona Gorman: He also loves classical music and always operated with music in the background, though there were a few occasions where he changed his choice of music in deference to the patient.

In order to gather all the necessary material to write this biography, you conducted numerous interviews. What was that like, keeping up with such a busy and active person?

Fiona Gorman: Challenging, definitely challenging! But as I said, Covid allowed us to meet regularly on Zoom and, after the pandemic, we met more in person.

Simon Pearson: We ended up spending a lot of time with Prof. We also conducted 40-odd additional interviews with patients, colleagues, key members of his team, friends and families he’d helped. It’s been very rewarding. People who received Prof’s care had a chance to tell their stories in a way they had never done before, even in cases where the outcome was not as one would have wished.

There was one mother whose son had died almost 50 years before, who told us about the relief she felt at being able to go back and revisit that time and said she would not have changed any of the decisions. It was incredibly moving. It was such a privilege to hear these stories and to have the opportunity to learn first-hand the impact Prof had had on people’s lives and on their children’s lives.

There was another woman, she was a refugee; she’d had cancer, which affected her heart and at the age of fourteen she had been given a heart transplant by Magdi. She survived, thrived, and became a barrister. She represented the international court in the Hague and she never told anyone about the heart transplant. She didn’t want anyone to judge her as a patient, she wanted to be judged as a barrister. Her story was only revealed last year when the British Heart Foundation asked her for an interview and she was, so to speak, “outed”.

Image caption: Yacoub assisting a child in Addis Ababa in 2009.
Credit: Julie Fisher.

In our interview with Sir Magdi Yacoub, he described himself as “an ordinary man.” How do you see him?

Simon Pearson: It’s typical of Magdi to say that he’s an ordinary man. I think he knows he’s not and none of us regard him as an ordinary man. He’s an extraordinary ordinary man, if he is. He likes listening to music, he likes gardening, he’s got a family whom he adores. He likes eating cheese even though he’s been told he shouldn’t. He has the same joys and weaknesses as all of us, but he’s clearly an extraordinary man. He paved the way for pioneering surgery at a time when the surgeon’s main instrument was still the scalpel. The thing is: it doesn’t end with being a surgeon. He achieved great things as a surgeon, but now he is driving forward biomedicine and the ability to re-create heart valves and new lungs. His work continues to be groundbreaking.

Fiona Gorman: His intellectual powers make him anything but ordinary. The way in which he studied and learned as a young man leaves the rest of us standing. You could arguably say he has achieved more since his retirement from the NHS. At that point, the scientific side came to the fore. Hundreds of thousands of people have had their lives improved or saved by his work over the decades. In the past 22 years, he has achieved as much as he did before his retirement. Very few people could ever have that said of them.

Yacoub teaching at the Aswan Heart Centre in 2014. Credit: Magdi Yacoub Heart Foundation.

Why do you think Sir Magdi Yacoub has had such an impact on the world? Is it just because he is “recognized as one of the great pioneers of heart transplant surgery” to use the words of BBC Radio?

Simon Pearson: As the title says he’s a maverick. He did things his way, he didn’t follow the book at all. He didn’t stay in Egypt even though he was one of the leading students here. He went to Britain because he felt at that time medicine there was more advanced. But he didn’t settle for what the British were doing, he challenged the establishment there and he made mistakes, but he broke new ground as a result. All the way along, he’s challenged orthodox thinking – whether it’s here in his homeland, in Britain, his adopted homeland, in the United States, where he’s still breaking new ground with research, or anywhere else in the world. It seems to us that he’s revered because he challenges people and he challenges the way things are done.

Fiona Gorman: And he can’t stop, he won’t stop, there’s always more for him to do and even now he’s in a hurry to achieve, to learn more, to help other people to learn more, to teach more, and to make heart treatment and heart surgery available to people who would otherwise not have it. He is indefatigable. I don’t think that will ever change.

Why was Russell Claude Brock, the leading British chest and heart surgeon and pioneer in modern open-heart surgery, one of the most influential people on Sir Magdi Yacoub’s career?

Simon Pearson: Prof was inspired to be a surgeon because a young aunt died because of mitral valve failure as a result of heart disease. When his father also died of heart disease, he was deeply troubled because although he was studying cardiac surgery, he couldn’t do anything to help him. What Russell Brock was doing in London was pioneering surgery that would probably have saved them both. Most of the pioneering work at that time was being done in Britain and the United States, at the great teaching hospitals like Guy’s in London, where the real progress was being made. Brock was writing a lot of papers, giving a lot of speeches, and he’d done an enormous amount of work that was well documented. I think Magdi had read those and was inspired by them and decided this was the man who was going to enable him to be a more accomplished and formidable surgeon.

Fiona Gorman: I think he really appreciated the two sides of Brock’s approach, the surgery and the science. Many people, particularly in Britain, thought you could be a fantastic surgeon or a fantastic scientist, but the idea that you could be both was not really encouraged. Prof has always embraced surgery and science. In the United States, when he was there in the 60s, that dual approach was encouraged and that’s something that he’s always held dear.

Simon Pearson: He didn’t universally admire Brock though. Brock had a bit of a temper which came out in the operating theatre – Magdi didn’t like this at all, and made sure he didn’t behave in this way. He also recalls with some mirth Brock rolling up to the Brompton Hospital in his Rolls Royce and the junior doctors lining up outside. It’s like a scene from the ‘Doctor in the House’ films — British films of the 1950s all about hierarchy in medicine. I think that Magdi laughs a lot when he recalls those days.

Yacoub with young patients in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1999, a year after they all underwent heart surgery. Credit: Lynn Hilton.

At what stage did charity work become such an important part of Sir Magdi Yacoub’s life?

Simon Pearson: He linked up in the mid-90s with the French charity, Chain of Hope, and established the British arm of that charity. He’d been involved with surgeries overseas in Jamaica, in Egypt and in many countries for some time. He’d gone on these trips where you set up a surgery, you take a dozen patients, you operate, then you go home. Magdi came to the conclusion that he needed something more permanent: to follow up with patients requires doctors, nurses, teams who could train locally and help to establish sustainable medicine throughout the developing world. That’s eventually what he set out to do. His mission was to help as many people as he could in the world. He could do that in two ways. One is by training local teams for the long term and the other, much more powerful in a way, is science. While surgeons can change the life of one person at a time, science can change the lives of millions. As a result of that, he’s built up the charities, the foundation and tried to draw in as many philanthropists as he possibly can to fund research.

Fiona Gorman: Never get on a plane or train with Prof because you’ll end up funding one of his endeavours. He just tackles people and the next thing you know they’re at his gala dinner and they’ve committed hundreds of thousands of pounds to his work. The heart centre in Aswan is a prime example of this. Within a couple of years, it was entirely staffed by local people trained locally and it’s now regarded as one of the leading centres in the world.

The authors are donating a percentage of their royalty earnings from the sale of “A Surgeon and a Maverick” to the Magdi Yacoub Heart Foundation, Egypt, www.myf-egypt.org

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