CRY’s myheart cardiologist, Dr Michael Papadakis’ story

Michael Papadakis cannot remember a time that he did not want to be a doctor.

His mother, devoted to her husband and children, was a dynamic business woman who proved a tough taskmistress and, from the start of his early days at his primary school in Chania, Crete, emphasised that she expected an 80% pass rate for his schoolwork.

His father, Dr Papadakis, who oversaw Chania Hospital where he was a physician, had sacrificed the opportunity of an academic career in Athens to ensure he could spend time with his family. This was a decision his children did not fully appreciate until they had matured and not only proved of great significance to them, but also hugely benefited the people of Chania, especially after he set up a dialysis clinic at the hospital. Dr Papadakis took a close interest in his children’s education and stressed the importance of always working hard – no matter what it was that you were working at.

Michael enjoyed his primary school and from an early age took his father’s advice seriously. Michael also soon learnt that the best way to make friends was to be in a team. He was especially proud when chosen to play for his school volleyball team, recognising the unique satisfaction of the group celebration if they won.

He found the move to Athens for his A-level education difficult. Life suddenly became more serious. The simplicity of his childhood in Chania seemed a long time ago. He was an ambitious student whose goal was to achieve the A grades in his exams that would secure his place for medical training at one of the big London hospitals. Dr Papadakis had been concerned about the unimpressive medical training that was currently available in Greece which was struggling on every level. He greatly respected what was accessible in the UK and had cautiously discussed with Michael the opportunity to study there.

A deep-thinking, highly motivated young man, Michael planned his career conscientiously and covered potential risks when possible. However, there was one thing that startled him that he had not considered. He had not realised what a big jump it was to go from school-level English to using English in England, and the shock of suddenly finding that he had not reached the required standard to secure his place to study medicine at a top London hospital came as a jolt. English was a subject that all Greek students had an opportunity to study at school, but improving his English to what was required in England, and fast, was an uncomfortable challenge!

Michael spent his first two years in the UK at Charing Cross Hospital, and then moved on to Imperial to complete his training as a medical student, which he graduated from in 2001. He quickly realised that those who chose to specialise in cardiology were invariably amongst the very best students and that the standard required of them was exacting. Working within his comfort zone to do well was no longer an option.

Having tried and tested himself successfully in England he still found he was always questioning whether he should return home to Greece. A cautious young man, he was pleased to have achieved his long held ambition of the medical training he wanted and needed, but was acutely aware of how much he missed his family and homeland. Besides, he had the necessary commitment of his Greek Military Service to complete. So, at 25, he spent the following year as a Naval medical Officer – a period which gave him more time to think!

An interesting requirement if you were studying medicine that would also permit you to be able to work in Greece was that the student needed to complete a year as a GP in a rural environment. In 2004 Michael chose to do this in the barren setting of the Kampanos Mountains, which proved to be a very different experience from anything he had previously attempted. The “mountain clinic”, with its brutal winter weather, was mostly concerned with elderly citizens in an environment where nature did its worst with impunity. Consequently, their children left home at the earliest opportunity to seek jobs in the city. Parents (and grandparents) were left to manage on the mountain as best they could. As they aged, so did their equipment and facilities.

Michael’s patients proved enormously grateful for any help available, and the extraordinary experience – so different from his own upbringing – served to deeply influence his perspective on life. He learnt to value whatever facilities were available, and, where possible, adapted to fixing (or finding) what was missing. He learnt how to manage difficult situations alone without any support or colleague to consult in a crisis, and how to single-handedly prepare for and deal with emergencies. As facilities for the clinic deteriorated he learnt where to look for second-hand replacements for the medical items he required, take advantage of all offers from doctor friends, as well as scouring other clinics that might have something he could use in the ‘mountain clinic’ that was no longer required elsewhere. Ultimately, the courage and dignity with which his elderly patients attempted to manage their health problems inspired him to ask his family to finance four medical centres in the mountains, which included providing the luxury of basic heating and medical equipment, and found considerable satisfaction in knowing that he had been able to make a difference.

By the time he was 30 Michael had met the standard medical requirements for both Greece and England and was quite clear about the direction in which he wanted to go.

Then in 2007 – after two years working in the UK as a junior doctor doing his clinical training, followed by training as a registrar helping to set up the Acute Medicine unit at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital – two major things happened.

First, through friends, he met Elena Marinaki, a radiologist. Her family background was a complicated one that had been affected by the struggle her mother had wrestled with after the illness and subsequent death of her father at a young age. In spite of her difficult personal circumstances Elena had managed to qualify as a doctor in Italy and then move to specialise as a radiologist in Greece. For several years, because Michael was in the UK and she was in Greece, they were only able to see each other intermittently and according to the time allowed by their demanding personal schedules. Finally, Michael suggested they should commit to living together and have a six-month trial period which proved a successful decision, resulting in their marriage and becoming the proud parents of three beautiful, energetic children. They had an orderly life, working in their separate hospitals in England and spending holidays with their families in Chania.

Michael’s second “life changing” event was when he met CRY’s Consultant Cardiologist Professor Sanjay Sharma and, in October 2007, was delighted to be invited to start his training as a CRY Research Fellow at St George’s Hospital.

We have been lucky indeed that Michael chose to be interested in focusing on inherited cardiac conditions that affect fit and healthy young people. His impact has been significant. Since he joined CRY he has advanced education in the field of sports cardiology by building educational material for the European Society of Cardiology and launching a novel degree in sports cardiology – the first post graduate qualification of its kind. Michael has transformed CRY’s myheart group since he has taken over, now holding meetings twice a year in a central London location. The myheart group has thrived under his watch, expanding exponentially with 530 young members who have greatly benefited from the 65 videos he has created exclusively for them which cover all the issues they are likely to deal with.

Michael is an enormous asset for CRY and his self-discipline, commitment and ability sets the bar high for the fortunate medical recruits that are accepted onto CRY’s training programme and subsequently become a part of the ambitious research into young sudden cardiac death that he and his team aspire to.

Michael is a Reader in Cardiology and Honorary Consultant Cardiologist. His clinical interests are inherited cardiac diseases, sports cardiology, cardiac MRI and echocardiography. His research is focused on inherited cardiac disease, prevention of young sudden cardiac death, sports cardiology, and cardiac imaging. He is accredited with more than 60 publications in peer-reviewed journals.

He is chair of the section of Sports Cardiology of the European Association of Preventative Cardiology (EAPC), Fellow of the European Society of Cardiology, and a Member of the Royal College of Physicians.

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