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30th May 2017
Written by Jo O
Russell Kesley, a 46 year old physiotherapist, from East Dulwich, London, almost died two years ago from a pheochromocytoma tumour while on holiday with his daughter. The holiday was a last chance attempt to save his relationship with his daughter due to his irrational behaviour.
Pheochromocytoma are widely regarded as a very rare condition, but actually contributes to the death of thousands of people every year. Between 1 in 1 – 3 million are only ever diagnosed with it, although some evidence suggests the adrenal tumour, may be found in 50% of the post mortems of people dying from cerebral strokes or cardiac events.
The tumour sits on the adrenal gland and causes the body to pump out adrenaline constantly, raising blood pressure and resting heart rate.
Russell has always been fit and has enjoyed playing rugby and cycling. However over a period of 10 years, he had increasingly frequent episodes of exertional headaches and was sick without any explanation. The last time he played rugby for Barnes RFC vets, he collapsed on the pitch and spent three days in Charing Cross Hospital. He had an extremely high resting heart rate and blood pressure but the experts couldn’t explain why. He was put on a series of Beta Blockers which alleviated the symptoms without ever fully knowing the cause of the problems.
Russell went undiagnosed for between 5-10 years. With hindsight, he describes this period of his life, with a body constantly full of adrenaline, as difficult. His behaviour was erratic and he was difficult to live with as he was not fully in control of his emotions which were fuel-injected with adrenaline. As a result he lost his marriage, many friendships and almost his relationship with his daughter. The tumour did however give him significant energy and a will to get things done.
It was preceding the last episode that Russell was building a successful physiotherapy business. Due to the constant adrenaline in his blood, he was managing on 3-4 hours sleep a night. Subsequently he describes it as being addicted to work, but having the feeling of relief and shaky legs you get when you have a near miss in a car, except that you are having that 24 hours a day without knowing it.
It was while he was building his business that Russell rediscovered cycling in the summer of 2015. A friend said on Facebook that he was riding with Strava. It was after pressing that friend to agree to ride with him and Strava (who Russell thought was his friend’s girlfriend!), that Russell discovered the App. His first challenge was the Strava Tour de France, which he “smashed” cycling a total of over 1,680 km in 3 weeks; 73km a day while working 12-14 hours a day. His heart was in such good shape due to his physical fitness that he was able to survive the oncoming cataclysmic onslaught to his body without a major cerebral or cardiac event. However, Russell also says that although it was cycling that in all probability saved him, in all honesty, it also probably precipitated the collapse as it put his body under further pressure, on top of his condition.
Russell refusing to walk on the Hardknott Pass, Lake District
After finishing the challenge, and in a last ditch attempt to save his relationship with his 13 year old daughter, Russell went on a surfing holiday with her to Cornwall. It was there, two days into the holiday, that Russell had his last “pheo” episode and collapsed. Paramedics were called but had no idea what was wrong and thought he was just being a “silly drunken tourist” (although Russell rarely drinks). Russell was in constant agony and felt like his stomach, veins and arteries were about to explode.
After 45 minutes, as the paramedic was about to leave, she mentioned, “oh, and I almost forgot to take your blood pressure”. She took it and her face went white. That’s when Russell knew he was in a spot of trouble, the worst kind. The paramedic called for an ambulance. When asked why she couldn’t just take him to hospital in her car, she said, “because if you ‘go-off’ in the car, I can’t help you”. At that point, Russell started to realise that something was very wrong.
In A&E at Truro Hospital, doctors told Russell they couldn’t understand why he was still alive given his heart rate and blood pressure were so high. His resting heart rate was 160 bpm (should be 60-100bpm) and his blood pressure was off the chart (literally) at 250/120 (normal blood pressure 120/80 – 140/90). Doctors and nurses were puzzled and tried some pain relief and sedatory medicines without any success.
It was only an anaesthetist, Dr Baglow, who recognised the symptoms. Once CT scans and urine samples had helped to confirm his suspicions, the whole of Truro A&E staff, 30-40 people crowded into Russell’s cubicle. Dr Baglow stated “you will probably never see this condition again” to the onlookers. It was then that Russell understood how lucky he was that a doctor had the intuition and expertise to recognise a pheochromocytoma endocrine tumour. On further tests, cardiac consultants found Troponin markers, which a normal person would have between 11-17, were elevated in Russell to 300. They kept testing Russell’s heart as they remained convinced he had suffered a cardiac event. However, ECGs, Ultrasounds and angiograms showed his heart was strong.
Russell strongly believes that the only reason he is still alive is due to the fact that he fell into endurance cycling, which put him in peak fitness, immediately prior to his main pheo episode.
Russell riding the Mallorca 312
Russell spent six weeks in and out of hospital and only fully left Churchill hospital in the second week in October 2015. After leaving Truro hospital one week following the episode, he was put on Tramadol, BetaBlockers and Phenoxybenzamine in increasing doses to suppress the adrenaline so that the chemical levels would permit a safe removal of his adrenal gland and the sizeable tumour attached to it. If the tumour went active during the operation, that could be potentially lethal.
While waiting for surgery, Russell, an avid rugby fan, was banned from watching any rugby matches in the run up to his operation, as this would raise his blood pressure too much. As the World Cup was looming large, he managed on a diet of back-to-back “Friends” episodes, (there are 236 episodes!). He says life in hospital was mind-numbingly boring, but the fact that half the people in beds around him didn’t make it through, steeled him and bought his life into clear clarity helping him to realise how lucky he was.
As a result of the episode, Russell’s eyesight has been affected immediately after his collapse and he is now very longsighted, though this may be an age thing as well. He also now has issues with his memory and word-recall. He is quick to point out however that his organisational skills, ever questionable have not improved either! The impact of these changes are most likely the result of small TIAs (Transient Ischemic Attacks or “mini-strokes”) being caused by temporary disruption in the blood supply to part of the brain. During the years preceding the episode, Russell’s mental health also suffered. He says there is an element of grief from the “lost” decade, during which he “wasn’t himself”, and ruined friendships, his marriage and almost his relationship with his daughter due to his behaviour.
Since the episode, he has rediscovered a “wonderfully close” bond with his daughter, who now understand why her Dad acted so bizarrely. Russell is back to his normal self and also enjoys a close friendship with his ex-wife although many of his friends still keep their distance.
Russell has been very lucky also in finding a new partner, Sandra, who really found and rescued him. Sandra has been incredibly supportive and loving, she still has reservations about Russell going on long rides. With Sandra being a GP, and Russell being a physiotherapist, health is always at the front of their minds and so Russell is very mindful of his nutrition and hydration strategy and knows what symptoms to look out for.
Russell at the top of Newlands, Fred Whitton Challenge
This year Russell is riding Revolve24 – the 24 hour cycling endurance challenge on the world-class Brands Hatch motor circuit in Kent this September. He’s hoping to ride non-stop for 350 miles. This is after having nearly died in July 2015 and subsequently, he has only been on a bike for the last 18 months.
Russell says riding 24 hours non-stop with little sleep does not concern him, as he only slept for about 3 hours each night towards the end of the 10 years during which he suffered unknowingly under the duress of the pheo.
In preparation for Revolve24, Russell has taken on a challenge to ride 10,000 miles this year. Previously he rode from London to Gibraltar as part of Ride of the Lions, Clock to Rock, just five months after having returned to sit on a bike following his pheochromocytoma episode.
Revolve24 is an incredible event which will test everyone and Russell to the limit. Given his history, it is incredible he is able to contemplate it. He hopes to manage the 350 miles though he understands this will be at the mercy of the elements. Having completed the Mallorca312 and Fred Whitton in a reasonable time, he remains hopeful of securing a spot in the 2018 Race Across America, in 2018 and to raising a significant amount of money for a condition which is not widely known about and has lethal consequences.
Russell is riding Revolve24 this year as a Race Across America qualifying event, which he hopes to take on in 2018. He’s also riding to raise funds for three charities, two of which helped him in his recovery;
- OUH (The Oxford University Hospitals – UGI Ward, Churchill Hospital, Headcorn,
- NET Foundation (Neuro Endocrine Tumours)
- Prospect Hospice
The third charity, based in Swindon, is for a cause which looked after his friend’s wife who sadly passed away as a result of cancer. His page for donations is
Many thanks to Russell for sharing this personal story with us.Back to R24 CC
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