Charles McCollum


Charles McCollum, University of Manchester, UK, became consultant and senior lecturer in Surgery at the Charing Cross Hospital, London, UK, in 1983, aged 32. At 38, he was appointed professor of Surgery in Manchester. In this interview with Vascular News, he spoke about his career, the area of vascular surgery that fascinates him most, the evolution of the field and the lessons he has learnt from two memorable cases. He also speaks of his intention to take up golf when he retires.

When did you decide you wanted a career in medicine? Why vascular surgery?

I probably decided on a career in medicine when aged only 12 or13 as my father was a general practitioner. I am dyslexic with a strong interest in the sciences, so my career choices were limited. I decided on a career in surgery at the age of 14 as I was good with my hands and liked to take things apart and put them back together. For example, I rebuilt a car engine at about that age. As a young teenager, I also thought surgeons more glamorous than physicians!

The decision to pursue vascular surgery as a career likely dates from my time as an undergraduate on the professorial unit in Birmingham, and subsequently from my time as a house officer working for Professors Frank Ashton and Geoffrey Slaney.

Prof Ashton was my hero as an undergraduate as there appeared to be nothing in vascular surgery that he would not tackle with quiet and humble expertise. I was fortunate that, as my career advanced, Prof Sir Geoffrey Slaney became my supporter and mentor. I have much to thank him for.

Who have been your greatest influences?

I have referred above to both Prof Ashton who was clearly my inspiration in choosing a career in vascular surgery and Prof Sir Geoffrey Slaney who guided me throughout my career. His wise words of advice (and influence!) were critical to my career. To these I need to add my late father, who was a superb general practitioner with a real interest in all his patients. He was also a demanding personal tutor who helped me overcome what was severe dyslexia. He had a short temper and I still remember his valiant attempts to teach me to spell.

In my later career, Roger Greenhalgh had a profound influence when I was senior lecturer and then reader at Charing Cross. We launched a number of major clinical trials together; he taught me more about the politics of academia and medicine than I managed to retain! 

What have your proudest moments been?

  • Graduating in medicine despite an overwhelming interest in sport and a prodigious beer consumption at that time.
  • Getting three papers accepted to my first ever learned society, with one of these in the opening Patey Prize session at the Surgical Research Society (I was very nervous!).
  • The day I married my ex-wife, Margie.
  • The day I won the Moynihan Prize at the Association of Surgeons as a registrar aged 26.
  • The day I was appointed as lecturer in Surgery in Birmingham to Sir Geoffrey.
  • Being appointed senior lecturer and honorary consultant surgeon at Charing Cross by Roger Greenhalgh at the age of 32.
  • Delivering my Hunterian Lecture in front of family, friends and colleagues at Charing Cross in 1986.
  • Winning the King Edward’s Hospital Fund for London in 1988.
  • Being appointed professor of surgery at the University of Manchester aged 38.
  • Hosting my youngest daughter’s wedding in June 2009.

How has vascular intervention evolved since you began your career?

Carotid surgery evolved from a crude operation where surgeons felt that speed was essential into a sophisticated and careful procedure with a stroke rate of under 3%. Perhaps my contribution was the introduction of sophisticated monitoring for cerebral perfusion which should be used more widely than it is.

Supporting patients through major surgery has transformed the experience for our patients undergoing complex aneurysm repair such as suprarenal and thoracoabdominal aneurysm repair including combined procedures with cardiac surgery colleagues. Our management of perioperative pain has also evolved to the extent that most of our patients with epidural diamorphine and Bupivacaine are pain-free for 3–4 days following aneurysm repair and fit for discharge on the fifth or sixth day. This is very real progress. I am proud of our contribution on the development of autologous transfusion strategies for such surgery.

I have watched the development of minimally invasive approaches to vascular surgery with increasing wonder. My concern has always been to ensure that after the initial development of each new technology it is then evaluated in appropriately designed multicentre clinical trials such as the UK Small Aneurysm Trial and the EVAR Trial. I am proud that Manchester was the single largest contributor to the former and has been a major contributor to most national trials in vascular surgery in the UK.

I suspect that the new multilayer stent technology (MARS) will lead to further research with innovations in multilayer stent design that ultimately results in perhaps the most important development in vascular surgery since the introduction of heparin allowing arterial reconstruction and prosthetic bypass materials. Watch this space!

The minimally invasive treatment of varicose veins is also a fascinating development.

What area of the vascular system fascinates you most and why?

I am fascinated by carotid surgery and cerebral perfusion and the challenges presented by the inflammatory response to major surgery. I am interested in the way microemboli affect the microcirculation and the perfusion of tissue. My MD thesis was on microemboli formation in surgical shock. I still believe that platelet microemboli formed in the ischaemic periphery during surgical shock are the main cause of pulmonary damage associated with major surgery and sepsis. We now know that cerebral emboli are associated with both Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. We suspect that the paradoxical embolisation of vasoactive substances or cellular aggregates is an important trigger for migraine with aura. We have researched the role of paradoxical embolism in the causation of stroke in young adults and are currently exploring the possibility that paradoxical embolism is the cause of dialysis dementia and the increased risk of stroke in patients on haemodialysis.

Two years ago, you told delegates at the CX Symposium that cerebral emboli are a potentially preventable or treatable cause of common dementias. How clear is the link between emboli and dementia?

Two years ago we presented the results of a study where we had hoped to show that patent foramen ovale was associated with dementia. What we showed was an extraordinary association between cerebral emboli and both Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.

The association with patent foramen ovale is less strong, but nevertheless probably real. We are about to publish the results of a dementia progression study showing that patients with cerebral emboli progress more rapidly than those who do not have cerebral emboli. We have completed research demonstrating that clopidogrel and statins inhibit cerebral emboli in dementia subjects. Regrettably a clinical trial is now impossible as most patients with dementia are already being treated with statins and platelet-inhibitory therapy.

As an enthusiast, I am convinced that cerebral emboli are an important, if not the most important, cause of both Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. In my view, very small emboli cause Alzheimer’s disease with larger emboli causing what we call vascular dementia.

Our research suggests that the only reason patients are classified into the diagnosis of vascular dementia is that they have a history of cardiovascular events. What we need to do to prove causation is a large-cohort study in patients at risk of developing dementia and ultimately a randomised clinical trial on the prevention of dementia. As I have a close collaboration with Prof Alistair Burns, Manchester’s expert in dementias, we are well placed to do this research.

What is the best minimally invasive technique for the treatment of varicose veins and why?

I had thought that microfoam scleropathy would be the technique that evolved into a painless outpatient procedure. However, home-made microfoam using polidicanol or STD deteriorates within seconds and in my opinion should not be used to treat truncal veins. The more durable product being developed by the British Technology Group (varisolve) has simply failed to get a product licence within a reasonable timescale: surgeons and their patients have lost interest.

Although microfoam is attractive for the treatment of varicose veins in patients undergoing truncal vein ablation by a catheter technique, phlebitis occasionally occurs, resulting in pigmentation. I have never been attracted to laser, even though this is considered by the public to be “sexy”. How do you control temperatures at the tip of a fibre approaching 1400°C? I currently favour fast VNUS as this is incredibly easy to use and almost entirely pain-free for patients. Most of my patients do not even take paracetamol after this procedure. However, I am confident that something even easier will come along within the next few years.


In venous disease, what are the three questions that you would like to see answered in the near future?

  • What pressures are required to treat varicose veins, chronic venous insufficiency and venous ulceration? This question could never be answered as we had no way to reliably deliver precise pressures by bandaging or elastic stocking. Now that engineered compression stockings delivering prescribable pressures exist, we are addressing this.
  • The big question is how we could reconstruct valves. Vein bypass remains a possibility, but valvuloplasties are difficult procedures with very uncertain results. I fear that creating and repairing valves in the deep veins remains a challenge that will not be addressed before I retire.
  • What is the role of clot suction and thrombolysis in the treatment of recent deep vein thrombosis? I am increasingly convinced that we should be undertaking thrombolysis in patients within one month of the diagnosis of significant ilio-femoral deep vein thrombosis. We need a major randomised clinical trial on this topic.

Tell us about one of your most memorable clinical cases…

Although I never remember patients’ names, I never forget a case! I will briefly describe two as the lessons learned in each are remarkable.

The first is a man in his late sixties who was transferred to me when I was reader at Charing Cross from the Royal Free Hospital so that we could place an inferior vena cava filter. He had suffered a deep vein thrombosis and then, despite adequate anticoagulation with warfarin, had a pulmonary embolism while still an inpatient. I placed a Greenfield inferior vena cava filter just below the renal veins and converted him from heparin to warfarin (as had been done at the Royal Free Hospital before his pulmonary embolism). I was already beginning to suspect that patients who suffered an extension of a deep vein thrombosis or a pulmonary embolism while on warfarin would inevitably have disseminated malignancy. I arranged detailed investigation of his gut, liver, lungs and bones; all investigations were negative. We sent him home on subcutaneous heparin only to admit him with severe generalised carcinomatosis with infiltration throughout the lung fields only seven weeks later.

He became increasingly breathless until one evening, after saying goodbye to his wife, he asked me to relieve him of his distress. An intravenous infusion of diamorphine was so effective that when I rang the ward at 23.00hrs to find out whether he was in a coma, the nurses told me that he had taken off his oxygen so that he could cheer the World Cup football on the television despite profound cyanosis. He died in the early hours of the morning, shortly after a nurse had changed the diamorphine syringe pump. There are times when I cannot praise our nurses enough. The lesson from this case has remained true throughout my clinical experience: any patient who has an extension or recurrence of deep vein thrombosis/pulmonary embolism despite adequate anticoagulation will have widely disseminated but usually undetected carcinomatosis.

The second case that I will mention is of a delightful lady in Cheshire, with a painful pulsatile mass in the left iliac fossa. Duplex imaging showed a dissecting aneurysm in the descending thoracic aorta. We performed open surgical repair on a Sunday morning, successfully reperfusing all the visceral vessels and with an excellent initial outcome. Unfortunately, she suddenly ruptured her spleen in the early hours of Monday morning causing substantial blood loss and a period of hypotension.

After 10–14 days on intensive care and 3–4 days in hospital, she was discharged and asked whether she could go and recuperate in the family chalet in a ski resort. When she came back, she wanted to know why she could ski better than she could walk. I remember watching her walk and realising that she had suffered a previously undiagnosed spinal stroke affecting proprioception in her feet. She still skis brilliantly in her late seventies. There were two lessons in this case:

  • Unexplained events will often have a history. This lady had stopped on a ski piste in the Alps when hit by two men who came over the brow of the hill. Almost unbelievably, both men had managed to get one ski between her legs so that she was propelled backwards (and still upright) at what she describes as 30mph until she struck a metal pylon supporting a chairlift. This was 24 years before I first met her. She remembers being very ill with severe back pain that could not be diagnosed within the French hospital where she was admitted for nearly two weeks. She had no bone injury. She clearly suffered an aortic dissection then which progressed to near-rupture when I saw her.
  • The second lesson was that the proximal part of this dissection was highly fibrotic with a strong aortic wall. I learnt that it was entirely safe to anastomose to a mature dissection and that a lesser procedure is often an option.

What is the most interesting paper you have come across recently?

The long-term results of the EVAR 1 trial recently published are fascinating. This paper’s importance lies in its demonstration that the current fashion for EVAR should not be extended to younger, healthier adults in whom the mortality for open repair is under 4%. Many of our younger colleagues are embracing EVAR with enthusiasm, but the unstable nature of the repair in patients whose aorta will continue to dilate over the next two decades will result in a substantial problem to be tackled in the future. We should be considering long-term survival, not 30-day mortality. In my opinion, patients who die of a cardiovascular event as a consequence of major surgery are likely to have suffered that myocardial infarction or stroke in any event during the course of the next year or so. Patients who survive major surgery are clearly survivors.

Outside of medicine, what other interests do you have?

I enjoy sport, food and good wine. I am an enthusiastic but not highly competent tennis player. I take two skiing holidays a year, always one with my two daughters who are far better skiers than I am. I love my home in the country and thoroughly enjoy country pursuits such as shooting, fishing and stalking. When I retire I intend to take up golf which I gave up aged 16 as I realised there was simply insufficient time in life to play golf as well!

Fact File

Academic and professional qualifications     

1972  MB ChB, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK

1976  FRCS, London, UK

1976  FRCS, Edinburgh, UK

1981  MD, University of Birmingham


Prizes, awards and honours

1979  Moynihan Prize, Association of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland

1983  Patey Prize, Surgical Research Society of Great Britain and Ireland

1983  Geoffrey Holt Award, British Medical Association

1985  Hunterian Professor, Royal College of Surgeons of England

1988  Hahn Prize, European Society of Cardiovascular Surgery

1988  Major grant award, King Edward’s Fund

1995  Patey Prize, Surgical Research Society of Great Britain and Ireland

Summary of positions held

1989–present Professor of surgery, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK

1989–present Honorary consultant surgeon, University Hospital of South Manchester

1988–1989 Reader in surgery, Charing Cross & Westminster, London

1983–1988 Senior lecturer in surgery, Charing Cross & Westminster Medical School

1983–1989 Honorary consultant surgeon, Charing Cross Hospital

1978–1983 Lecturer in surgery, University of Birmingham

Research interests

  • Arterial and venous thrombosis
  • Cerebral emboli and dementia
  • Stroke and cerebral perfusion
  • Migraine with aura       
  • Carotid and extracranial arteries
  • Venous disease            
  • Paradoxical embolism
  • Wound healing and leg ulceration
  • Risk prediction in surgery
  • Blood transfusion therapy