Matt Bishop: 'Hundreds of racers owe their health to nurses. Now I do too'


The Atkinson Morley Hospital treated Stirling Moss for career-ending injuries six decades ago. Earlier this year, in modern form, it admitted Matt Bishop who reflects upon racing, living, and the gratitude that so many have for nurses

Stirling Moss watches motor racing from his bed at Atkinson Morleys hospital in 1962

Moss spent nine weeks at Atkinson Morley Hospital after his 1962 Goodwood crash

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May I invite you to cast your mind back a little more than three months to Saturday January 27, 2024? I am writing my weekly Motor Sport column, which is due to be published in three days’ time, and the subject matter is Jean-Pierre Jabouille. I have chosen Jabouille because he died on February 2, 2023, and I want to pay tribute to a woefully underrated Formula 1 driver on the one-year anniversary of his sad passing. Woefully underrated? Oh yes. A brilliant old-school driver-engineer who in the late 1970s spearheaded the development of the then-revolutionary turbocharged Renault F1 cars, he started 49 F1 grands prix. He finished only 10 of them, for those early turbo Renaults were notoriously unreliable; he scored points in only three; but of those three points finishes, two were wins.

It is proving to be a difficult column to write, but the reason for that has nothing to do with Jabouille. No, it is because I am writing it in the Coronary Care Unit of the Atkinson Morley Wing of St George’s Hospital, Tooting, south London, where I have been an in-patient since January 16 – in other words for 11 days and 11 nights so far – and just a few metres in front of me a group of nurses are giving an old man emergency CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation), for he has just had a cardiac arrest. We fellow patients can see nothing – the curtains have been drawn around his bed – but we can hear everything. It is not a quiet process, for a LUCAS (Lund University Cardiopulmonary Assist System) CPR chest compression machine is being used rather than the traditional hands-on approach; it takes quite a while; and, although I am trying to mind my own business, you will not be surprised to hear that I am finding it difficult to concentrate on Dijon 1979, Osterreichring 1980, etc. After a while the nurses stop. They are whispering. The quiet is unnerving. Finally, they draw back the curtains. I fear the worst – but, no, the patient is alive. They have saved his life.

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If you are a regular reader of my weekly Motor Sport column, you may be wondering why I was where I was when I was writing about Jabouille, and indeed why I had already been there for 11 days and 11 nights. Well, I would remain there for another 18 days and another 18 nights, making 29 days and 29 nights in total. I had not had a heart attack, but on Monday January 15, while training in my home gym with my PT (personal trainer) as I had done three times a week for the previous nine years, I found that, although I could and did bench-press heavy weights that day – 107.5kg to be precise, which is not too shabby for a man in late middle age – I was suddenly unable to do anything like what I had grown used to being able to do on my rowing machine. Instead of powering through my usual 4 x 500m warm-up, I could not complete even half of it. We finished the session – I did my regular strength and core routines as well as ever – but any cardio exercise made my chest feel like it was going to burst. Martin, my PT, said: “Matt, mate, listen. You did a 4 x 500m warm-up no problem just last week, and now you suddenly can’t do it at all. That’s a cardio exercise. Cardio means heart. If you’d been crap at everything today, because you were feeling ill, I wouldn’t be concerned. But you’re not feeling ill, and you did your strength and core work as well as ever. You need to get yourself checked out straight away.”

I said I was WFH. I meant hospital, not home, but — hey! — same difference.

The next morning I took the 77 bus from Earlsfield, where I live, to St George’s Hospital, Tooting, and walked into the A&E (accident and emergency) department. I explained what I have outlined in the paragraph above. The A&E medics hooked me up to a heart monitor and told me that my resting heartbeat was dangerously low, ranging from 32 beats per minute to just 28 beats per minute. “But you also have AF [atrial fibrillation],” the attending doctor told me, “which means that your heart also suddenly beats very fast every now and then. We’ll therefore have to admit you to our Coronary Care Unit here at St George’s, which is world-class. We’ll have to give you some tests and scans and so on, and I’m afraid it may take a few days.” I was astonished – because, apart from when I had been doing strenuous cardio exercise on my rowing machine the day before, I had been feeling entirely normal ever since.

In the end I was hospitalised for 29 days and 29 nights, as I say, and during that time I had the following tests and scans: an angiogram, an ultrasound echocardiogram, a transoesophageal echocardiogram, a cardiac stress test, a cardiac magnetic resonance imaging test, a myocardial perfusion imaging test, a single-photon emission computed tomography scan, a positron emission tomography and computed tomography scan, and a heart biopsy. Then, once my doctors had crunched all the data that those invasive tests and scans had generated, which must have amounted to several gigabytes, I had three heart procedures/operations: a cardioversion, a coronary angioplasty/stent insertion, and the fitting of an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (basically an ultra-modern hi-tech all-singin’ all-dancin’ pacemaker), which is paired to an app on my iPhone so that I can see what it’s up to if the whim takes me.

From the archive

I never felt ill, faint, or weak throughout any of the above – although, because none of it involved general anaesthetic, some of it was painful and caused extensive bruising; but needs must. The good news is that I feel absolutely fine now. I never stopped working, although I switched my laptop camera off when I was doing Teams/Zoom calls, since I figured that the sight of me in lime-green NHS pyjamas, with wires and sensors tacked all over me, and a beeping heart monitor behind my head, might have been disconcerting for my interlocutors; I filed a Motor Sport column every week without fail; and I continued to run my comms agency. Indeed, I filed two extra Motor Sport columns during that time – one about Lewis Hamilton’s move to Ferrari and the other about F1’s refusal to approve Andretti Global’s application – and I did not tell anyone except my husband Angel, my closest colleagues, and a few intimate friends that any of the above was happening to me. If people asked where I was, I said I was WFH. I meant working from hospital, not working from home, but – hey! – same difference.

So why am I telling you now? Well, the motor sport industry is full of lovely people, but it also attracts a small number of less charitable souls. It has reached my ears that some of them have been spreading inaccurate and sensationalist rumours about my health – so, in much the same way as I came out as a gay man when I was 18, so as to be able to tell my story on my terms rather than allow hostile muck-rakers to do it for me, I am now coming out as a 61-year-old man who has had heart problems, but one who intends to continue to live, work, and love with undiminished elan. I can still do all those things — live, work, and love — I am delighted and relieved to say. Indeed, before I sat down to write this column, I spent an hour with Martin, my PT, in my gym, including a lively and trouble-free stint on my rowing machine; I went for a 10,000-step walk, since spring appears finally to have sprung in London; and I am looking forward to having dinner with friends in a very nice restaurant in Holland Park this evening. I will even have a couple of glasses of good red wine to wash it down, although I drink abstemiously now, I never touch spirits, and I avoid red meat entirely. All is well.

Stirling Moss is pushed by a nurse in wheelchair at Atkinson Morley Hospital in 1962

Moss recuperates at Atkinson Morley Hospital in 1962

Cyril Maitland/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Besides, I now have a new claim to fame, of which I am inordinately proud. The Coronary Care Unit in which I spent 29 days and 29 nights is in the Atkinson Morley Wing of St George’s Hospital, Tooting, as I wrote at the top of this column. It was named after, and took over the work of, a hospital that no longer exists – the Atkinson Morley Hospital in nearby Wimbledon, which opened in 1869 and closed in 2003 – and it was there that Stirling Moss spent nine weeks after his career-ending accident at Goodwood on Easter Monday in 1962. So I finally have something in common with one of the greatest racing drivers in the history of our sport. However, during Moss’s time at the Atkinson Morley he repeatedly drifted in and out of consciousness, occasionally talking dreamily in three languages about racing cars and beautiful women, which I did not.

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This week many of us will be thinking about Moss even more than we do usually, because at 11.00am tomorrow, Wednesday May 8, not only the great and the good from the world of motor sport but also hundreds of racing fans who have registered to attend, will flock to Westminster Abbey, to pay tribute to the great man. The fact that one of the most famous and historic buildings in the world will host the event is an eloquent testament to the extent of the respect, the admiration, and indeed the love that is still felt for him. He was, and remains, a national treasure; no, more than that, an international treasure.

Moss never raced seriously after his Goodwood shunt. Perhaps he should have done, for he made a full recovery, and he became not only grateful to but also fond of the nurses who had tended him so well during his long hospital stay. Indeed, after he had been discharged, but still walking on crutches, as a thank you he took them all out to the Criterion Theatre, on London’s Piccadilly Circus, to see the revue Four to the Bar. The only time I ever become at all teary when thinking about my lengthy hospitalisation is when I remember my nurses – who quietly, diligently, and chummily recalibrated in my mind what the phrase ‘salt of the earth’ really means. They were absolutely wonderful, all of them. This coming Sunday — in other words May 12 — is International Nurses Day, the date chosen because Florence Nightingale, the lady with the lamp, the heroine of the Crimean War who went on to become the founder of modern nursing, was born on May 12, 1820. Please take time to do something, even if it is only to post something on social media on the day, to show your appreciation for nurses everywhere.

Stirling Moss leaves Atkinson Morley hospital on crutches in 1962

Moss leaves hospital in June 1962, two months after the crash that ended his career

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I saw all of life during those 29 days and 29 nights – and death, too, because, despite their best efforts, which were always herculean, the St George’s doctors and nurses were not able to resuscitate everyone who suffered cardiac arrests in our midst, although, from the vantage point of my bed, it appeared that they managed to save most of them.

Sometimes, despite the tribulation and even tragedy all around, I laughed like a drain – we all did. For example, one morning an 87-year-old fellow patient – let’s call him Bob (not his real name) – was becoming increasingly irate because the press-studs on his NHS lime-green pyjama bottoms were not fastening properly, causing them to hang loose on his skinny hips. The nurses assured him that they would fetch him new ones just as soon as they had finished dispensing that morning’s meds – which, by any measure, was the more pressing task. But Bob continued to complain, then to holler, until, unable to contain his impatience any longer, he heaved himself out of his bed, tottered to the middle of the ward, and, with a little wiggle, deliberately allowed his pyjama bottoms to slide all the way down. He was wearing no underpants.

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“There, that’s what you’ve made me do, so get a good look, and it’s all your fault,” he shouted at the nurses on duty.

“Pull your pyjama bottoms up at once, Bob,” one of them demanded. But, at his old age, Bob was no longer able to stoop low enough to do as he had been bidden – so, instead, now inhibited by pyjama bottoms rucked tight around his ankles, and unable to take more than pigeon steps therefore, he inched his way slowly back to his bed. It took him a couple of minutes to do so. I was halfway through a Motor Sport column at the time. I feel fairly confident that I am the only person in the world who has ever found himself writing about Carlos Pace while also attempting to avert his eyes from an 87-year-old penis.

Doctors, nurses, and all who serve in hospitals everywhere have saved hundreds of racing drivers’ lives over the years, and they continue to do so, so we motor sport devotees should be eternally thankful to them. Equally, as one gets on in life, and I am now 61, heart conditions and other such ailments become more common than when we were younger. They can come at you out of the blue, as mine did, for I had no warning whatsoever, and I had never been hospitalised in my life before. I have been, and I remain, a very lucky man therefore. I enjoy my life, and I work as hard as ever. If you have had a similar experience, be encouraged by the indefatigable nature of your human spirit. If you know someone who has had a similar experience, offer him, her, or them not only sympathy but also encouragement.

Matt Bishop portrait in ZECU top

ZECU: Bishop’s new motto for life

One busy night at St George’s, when there were too many emergencies to provide conditions quiet enough to permit sleep, lying wide-awake in my bed, I invented an acronym: ZECU. It stands for zestful, energetic, cheerful, and unafraid. It is how I propose to live the rest of my life. A good friend of mine has designed a ZECU logo, I have had a very small number of ZECU-branded items made – a T-shirt, a hoodie, and a drinks bottle – and, if there is interest, in the not-too-distant future, I may even look to sell ZECU merchandise, with a proportion of profits going to a heart disease-related charity. After all, you do not have to be recovering from a medical incident to want to live your life in a zestful, energetic, cheerful, and unafraid way, do you? And the wonderful, talented, and much missed Stirling Moss continued to entertain us, in one way or another, for 58 more years after his nine-week stay at the Atkinson Morley Hospital, didn’t he?