I really believe my little job is to educate the viewers
Dr Chris Steele, This Morning’s resident GP, has been helping, and teaching, millions of viewers about vital health issues for over 20 years. Now retired as a GP, he’s as busy as ever – with an unusual hobby to boot. Features editor, Jo Willacy, chats to the TV doc about work, life and health
Doddery and ancient. Two words Dr Chris Steele uses to describe his 65-year-old self. But as he does so he laughs heartily – a distinctive laugh millions of TV viewers of ITV1’s flagship daytime show This Morning would recognise. That’s because Dr Chris Steele has been sharing his medical knowledge with viewers for 21 years – since the very first show, in fact. He’s certainly got the qualifications to justify such a long-standing role: he practised as a GP in Manchester for 37 years and has had to deal with more than his fair share of his own health issues. He’s most definitely a case of been there, done that – and worn the T-shirt.
The list is impressive. Skin cancer. Tick. Depression. Tick. High cholesterol. Tick. High blood pressure. Tick. Heart disease. Tick. And, most recently, in 2009, coeliac disease (an intolerance of gluten, found in wheat, barley and rye). And it’s this latest condition that Dr Chris, as he is affectionately known, finds troubling to live with. ‘It’s not easy. I have to read the labels on every item of food. Gluten is hidden in all sorts of food – sausage rolls, fish fingers, obvious foods like pasta, pizza, bread, cakes and biscuits. It’s everywhere, especially when you have to look out and try to avoid it. It’s been a steep learning curve but I’ve got better at it. When I avoid gluten, my symptoms clear up, so it’s worth working hard at.
‘I know the consequences of these illnesses and therefore I have to address them and get them treated. That way, you’re more optimistic about the future. Sometimes, when I’ve been out for a meal – and eating out is what I find most problematic with coeliac disease – I’ve said, “Oh to hell with it,” but the next day I’ll have abdominal pains, extreme fatigue and I’ll be on the loo with diarrhoea.’
His coeliac disease has also caused him to have early onset osteoporosis, known as osteopenia, in his spine. ‘The consequence of having coeliac means the lining of your intestines is very narrowed down and damaged. This means you don’t absorb certain vitamins and minerals, such as calcium, from your diet. Women with coeliac are particularly prone to osteoporosis. I have to take calcium and vitamin tablets every day to strengthen my skeleton.’
Teaching the nation
Over the years, what has endeared Dr Chris to so many people is his honesty and openness. Indeed, his heart disease was discovered live on air when he volunteered to undergo tests from a scanner which produces 3D images of the heart. How did he feel about such a public diagnosis? ‘I did get a bit of a shock! My arteries were narrowed down by 50%. But I remember saying, “Yes, but they’re 50% open as well, which is a good sign!”
‘The reason my arteries were narrowed and hardened was because I had high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Both of those conditions are common, but you don’t have symptoms. You don’t feel high cholesterol and you don’t normally feel high blood pressure. So my diagnosis made the viewers aware and because of that, I didn’t mind the very public diagnosis. I told viewers, “Know your numbers,” meaning your cholesterol and your blood pressure. My cholesterol was high – it was 8.4, when it should be under 5. I made dietary changes and it came down, but now I take medication, called statins, for it. ‘The beauty of my little job on This Morning is to educate the viewers. The word doctor comes from Greek and Latin words meaning ‘to teach’. My job is to teach the viewers about their symptoms, treatment and course of action.’
When it comes to skin cancer Dr Chris certainly knows what not to do. He made a few mistakes as a teenager. ‘I used to have terrible acne when I was about 16. My mother bought a little sun lamp which was just like a bulb. I read the instructions and it said, “On first use, sit in front of it for two minutes.” I sat in front of it for 20 minutes thinking it would be better! I burnt my face and was covered in blisters the next morning. I also used to have a sunbed and we’d have holidays where I’d lie in the sun all day long – all before we knew sun exposure caused skin cancer. I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong. But children and teenagers should never burn, because burning at that age puts you at high risk of skin cancer 40 years on.’ And so it was, 40 years later, when Dr Chris was 56, that he sat in the This Morning studio, again live on air, and had his skin cancer removed from his face. ‘I had a great chunk cut out of my cheek – like a crater!’
A rewarding role
It’s these brave acts, and the unusual tips that Dr Chris imparts, that make the difference to the show’s viewers – and in some cases, save lives. Yet, he remains modest. ‘I remember doing a particular story on cholesterol. I showed the viewers a picture of the eye of someone who had high cholesterol – there was a white rim around the coloured part of the eye. I explained that if you can see a white rim, this could mean you have high cholesterol and are in danger of a heart attack. God knows how many people wrote in and said, “Thanks for showing that picture, Chris. My husband came home that night, I looked in his eyes, saw a white rim, and his cholesterol was up in the sky, blah, blah, blah”. It’s a great buzz to hear back from viewers. That’s what it’s all about.’
Dr Chris has also been very open on television about his depression, something from which he’s suffered for many years. ‘I’ve had depression for around 10 to 15 years, on and off, but when you’ve had two or three bad bouts, which I’ve had, the specialists usually say, “You need to take antidepressants long-term.” I’m on antidepressants for the rest of my life – it’s not a problem. If I was diabetic I’d be taking insulin every day. With the calcium and multivitamin tablets I take, as well as the statins and antidepressants, I’m like a walking pill box! ‘There is still a great stigma surrounding depression. When people get the label of depression thrust upon them, they feel they should pull themselves together, that they’re weak-willed and can’t cope with life. But I explained depression is when your brain gets drained of certain chemicals that keep it in a normal mood.
Antidepressants simply boost levels back up. This helped lots of viewers who weren’t happy taking antidepressants.’ There are two other medical issues for which Dr Chris is renowned – his work on nicotine addiction and those ground-breaking breast and testicular checks on This Morning. ‘When we did the breast check, it was the first time ever on television, globally. No-one had ever done it. Before we ran it, I’d been saying, “We need to do this. Women are not examining their breasts; they don’t know how to.” The bosses wouldn’t do it at first; it took me a few years to get them to accept it. And then when we did… woah! We got a huge response. Viewers wrote in saying, “Thank you Dr Chris, you saved my life”.
‘I then pestered the bosses to do testicular. Initially they said, “No way!” But I told them testicular cancer is curable, it attacks young men, but if they catch it early, their lives are saved. Eventually they agreed, but said, “You can do it, as long as it’s done in the best possible way. The man must not reveal his penis.” So the model we used had to hold his penis to one side while I taught viewers how to examine the testicles. I said to the guy, “If you don’t hold that penis, we’ll get fined £30,000. Make sure you hang on to it! Don’t forget, I’ve got you by the balls!”’ Since then, Dr Chris has demonstrated breast and testicular checks every series.
Despite never having smoked, Dr Chris is regarded as an international expert on nicotine addiction. His interest in trying to help patients stop smoking began 30 years ago. ‘A patient who’d had a heart attack and was recovering came to see me one day. I asked, “Have you quit the cigs yet?” He said, “No, it’s not easy.” And I replied, “You’ll have to, you know, because you’re very high risk for another heart attack and other diseases.” He asked me: “Well, can’t you help me?” And I will remember that moment forever because I couldn’t help him. I said “I’m sorry, I can’t. But come back next week because I’ll find out if I can.” ‘In that week I rang various people – some high-flying scientists in research institutions – and found the treatment for smokers. I helped that guy to quit and he’s never smoked since. I then ran Stop Smoking clinics in my local teaching hospitals. I had a group of 200 patients in the lecture theatre and they went through group therapy.
I met them once a week for 12 weeks – and got them off the cigarettes. I’ve since lectured all over the world on the subject, all because a patient asked, “Can you help me?” ‘Nicotine addiction is a disease. Milligram for milligram, nicotine is more addictive than cocaine and heroin. When teenagers start to learn how to smoke, by the time they’ve smoked their fifth cigarette, 95% are addicted for life. ‘Patients often ask me if I have ever smoked and I say, “No”. I know what they’re thinking when I tell them that – “Well, how the hell do you know?” – and I say, “Yes, but hold on, I’ve never pushed a baby out, I’ve never had stomach cancer, but I know how to deliver a baby and treat cancer. In other words, you’ve got to trust in my training and my experience that I will be able to help you.’
A straight talker
It’s his years of experience that have taught Dr Chris to get information across without using medical jargon. ‘I’ve always been an advocate of “Keep It Simple, Stupid” [KISS]. Years ago on the programme we had some expert in and he started talking in jargon, something like, “When the arteries are arterial scerotic…” I had to stop him and say, “That means when the arteries are hard”. I kept interrupting him and explaining the terms to the viewers. Does Dr Chris find it harder to keep on top of health news and advances now that he’s not a practising GP? ‘No, I keep bang up-to-date. I get all the journals and access the internet. I think I know more than I would as a full-time GP. A full-time GP doesn’t usually have time.’
And what does Dr Chris do when he’s not on the This Morning sofa? Does he practice what he preaches and live a healthy lifestyle? ‘I follow a very healthy diet and I don’t drink alcohol. I walk a bit and should do more, but there’s so many darn things to do! I tell people they should do a 30 minute walk every day – but I say to them, you should do a 15 minute walk out but then you’ve got to come back so there’s your half hour. Each day, stick to the 30 minutes and you’ll walk further and faster and then you might start to jog a little. It doesn’t have to be down the gym in your Lycra gear.’
There’s one member of Dr Chris’ family who does far more than 30 minutes’ exercise a week. His youngest son, Andrew, is a 400m Olympic athlete, and hopes to compete at London 2012. ‘I don’t know where he gets his genes from. I’m not athletic and neither is my wife. Andrew ran at the Beijing Olympics and missed a bronze medal by six tenths of a second. But, my goodness, we were proud.’ I ask Dr Chris how he likes to relax. ‘I’m learning to play the electric organ – and I’m not too bad!’ And what does the future hold for our lovable doctor? ‘Well, some seats at the 2012 Olympics will be in the timetable. Otherwise, I just take life as it comes. My wife, Monica, and I have two granddaughters, Anna, six, and Emily, three, who keep us feeling fit and young!’
Will we see him, perhaps in a This Morning Christmas show, performing on his electric organ? ‘I doubt it! Whatever they pay me, I doubt it! I know what I can do and I know what I can’t! I love my job on This Morning and they keep asking me back so I must be doing something right!’ Our interview comes to an end and two words to describe Dr Chris spring to mind: replace ‘doddery and ancient’ with all-round ‘good bloke.’ We could even go as far as to say ‘national treasure.’
Pictures: Neil Cooper