In mid-March, Dr Xand van Tulleken contracted Covid 19. The TV doctor was unwell for a week or so – with the classic symptoms, cough, fever and loss of smell – but didn’t see much cause for alarm. He and his brother, Chris – identical twins who have become familiar faces, fronting programmes like Operation Ouch! and How to Lose Weight Well – were among many at the time who saw coronavirus as little more than “a cold that could kill old people”.
Xand (Alexander) would never have predicted that, four months down the line, he would still be suffering debilitating symptoms from damaged heart tissue, nor that his brush with Covid-19 would provide a moment of (literally) heart-stopping TV.
The van Tulleken twins’ documentary, Surviving the Virus: My Brother and Me, to be shown on BBC on Wednesday, is a sobering reminder of how unpredictable Covid 19 can be. A few weeks after “recovering” from the virus, Xand’s pulse began to race. He was dizzy and disorientated and arrived at London’s University College Hospital, where his brother was filming, with a resting heart rate of 170; for a fit 41-year-old, that should be around 80. Doctors had no choice but to stop his heart and give it a huge electric shock with a defibrillator, in the hope that it would start again at a normal rate.
The whole thing was caught on camera, and to say it is a tense moment is an understatement. If you are watching, have a box of tissues to hand. One minute, the brothers are joking around, trying to reassure one another, then the camera focuses in on Chris’s face as he watches his brother being sedated and electrodes placed on his chest. In the seemingly endless seconds after the shock, waiting for Xand’s heart to restart, all doctorly distance vanishes, and terror gives way to tears.
“Normally, I’d just watch whatever we’ve done on the telly, but because this involved so many of Chris’s hospital colleagues – and me – we were keen to see a rough cut. Ben, our producer, warned us it would be hard to watch, but after the procedure I’d come round and I was fine, so we were quite light-hearted about it,” he says. “Chris and I thought it was funny that we’d been given a ‘trigger warning’.
“So we sat down with my mum and dad and watched… and it was awful. I didn’t like seeing Chris upset, I didn’t like seeing myself ill. Everyone was in tears. I’ve hardly ever seen my father cry. So I had to phone Ben and say: ‘Sorry we didn’t take you seriously.’
“I think it’s all been more difficult for Chris than for me as he’s borne the brunt of my irritability and frustration. While it was all going on, he was the one person I could speak to, by which I mean he was the person I could call up and yell at. If I was upset and tearful and he said ‘This is what you should do’, I’d say ‘Don’t boss me around!’ and be completely unfair and unreasonable.”
Surviving the Virus: My Brother and Me gives a glimpse of just that as, at home in north London, Chris’s wife prepares for the birth of a new baby mid-pandemic while juggling phone calls from Xand, who is isolating alone, having been struck by the virus and feeling abandoned and frustrated (a mood many people will recognise from lockdown).
Tall, handsome and sometimes difficult to tell apart, the van Tullekens (the family is of Dutch descent) attended King’s College School in Wimbledon and are both Oxford graduates: Chris has a PhD in molecular virology and specialises in infectious diseases; Xand has a masters in public health from Harvard and has worked for humanitarian organisations in disaster zones. Most of their TV career (conducted alongside frontline clinical work) has been essentially light-hearted. Like Dr Michael Mosley, who gave them an early TV break, they like to experiment on themselves. Their children’s series, Operation Ouch!, saw Xand make a sneeze painting and drink his own urine.
Xand says twins are useful on TV because they have an in-built relationship that can be very silly or antagonistic and still be comfortable. Identical twins hold a particular fascination for the viewer and make for fun experiments on the “same” person: while having their feet tattooed to demonstrate how effective different methods of natural pain control might be, Xand opted for swearing and Chris meditation.
The pandemic was natural territory for a documentary, showcasing their professional skills as well as their brotherly bond. Chris went to work on the Covid 19 unit at UCH, while Xand, who once worked in epidemic surveillance for the WHO, decided to volunteer in a care home. His time at Philia House in Peterborough, where seven residents died in the space of a fortnight, was profoundly shocking.
“What really, really astounded me,” he says, “was the impact on the staff. Most people would imagine care homes have a very high death rate but they said they usually lose maybe one person a year. They regarded the residents as family and hadn’t been able to go to the funerals. So they were sad, and terrified but they kept working. Some of them had moved into the home leaving their own children to try to keep the rest of the residents safe. The sacrifices they were making were unbelievable.”
What he saw made a mockery of the idea that the Government had thrown a “protective ring” around care homes. “I don’t know how to describe that other than a lie,” says Xand.
He is more generous in assessing the Government’s response in general, despite statistics published last week showing that England had the highest death rate in Europe. “With hindsight, it’s very easy to say we did a terrible job, but we are not the same as other countries in Europe,” he says. “We have a very dense population and truly global city: London is not like other European capitals, Heathrow is not like other European airports.
“But even while being prepared to giving them the benefit of the doubt, what strikes me now is that we know this is coming back: look at Israel, Spain, Portugal and Germany. The virus is on the move, and we have not yet built the things we need. That terrifies me.
“My antibodies may have gone, and I could get it again, but much worse. We still don’t have an effective track and trace system, we don’t have a way of isolating cases, we don’t have an adequate number of tests. It’s fair enough to give £1.57 billion to the arts – which I fully support – but why not make similar resources available to public health?”
He is trying to stay positive, not least to reassure his 11-year-old son Julian, whose mother is an aid worker that Xand met while working Myanmar. “Boys of that age are mostly interested in video games and YouTube anyway. I was concerned that he would be disguising some deep anxiety about me being ill, but he seems to be genuinely quite relaxed about it,” says Xand. “I told him I was feeling a bit poorly and went to hospital, but I’m fine, and his view is: ‘If you say it’s ok, it’s ok.’ As far as I can tell, he seems fine.”
Xand also seems fine, a least for the time being. Repeated arrhythmia has meant his heart has had to be restarted in the brutal way captured on film a total of four times. The condition is now controlled by medication, with doctors hoping his damaged heart tissue will recover of its own accord. If not, he must consider surgery. He looks and sounds as hale and hearty as ever, but he’s a living reminder that, when it comes to Covid-19, no one is safe.
Surviving the Virus: My Brother and Me is on BBC One on Wednesday, August 5, 9pm