By Bonnie Estridge
14th February 2009
In control: Jimmy Osmond has re-evaluated his life after his stroke
Last week, at a West End performance of Grease, women in the front rows of the audience were screaming out his name - not for the lead actor playing Danny Zucko, but for the middle-aged former pop sensation Jimmy Osmond who appears briefly as the Teen Angel.
Even though he is now 45 years old, 'Little' Jimmy still lives with the legacy of growing up as the youngest member of The Osmonds, the wholesome boy band from Utah who took the UK by storm in the Seventies.
At eight years old, Jimmy had a No1 of his own - and remains the youngest performer to top the UK singles charts with his 1972 hit Long Haired Lover From Liverpool. He also headlined Las Vegas and counted Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams and Elvis among his friends.
As a family of nine, including heart-throb Donny and the beautiful only sister Marie, The Osmonds exuded good health, with their thick glossy hair and perfect white teeth. As Mormons, they abstained from the excesses of the rock star lifestyle, and Jimmy admits now that as he grew up he felt invincible.
But his health is something he no longer takes for granted after a terrifying ordeal that he has, until now, never spoken about publicly.
For five years ago, at the age of 40, Jimmy suffered a stroke, caused by a relatively common congenital condition which, it transpired, has also affected other members of his family, although none of them knew anything about it.
At the time, he was in Missouri recording his own TV show, Jimmy Osmond's American Jukebox, when he was suddenly overcome with a blinding headache.
'It came on so fast and I could hardly see - it was as if I had tunnel vision,' he recalls. 'Somehow, I managed to get to the end of the show. How I drove home I have no idea and I should not have done it because I couldn't even see the lines in the middle of the road, but I was desperate to get back to my family and go to bed.
'The following morning I tried to get up, but felt so dizzy that I fell over. My vision was still bad and this terrible headache was gnawing away right at the base of my skull.'
Jimmy, who has four children Sophia, 14, Zachary, 11, Wyatt, 9, and Bella, 6, with his wife, Michelle, also 45, thought it was a severe migraine. But Michelle drove him to the local hospital where doctors advised him to have a CT (brain) scan.
The tests revealed he had suffered a stroke. This happens when small clots or emboli break off into the blood stream, temporarily blocking the blood flow in small blood vessels, which leaves part of the brain without oxygen for a few minutes.
Fortunately, the stroke caused no permanent damage, although until recently he still suffered to some extent from headaches and found reading a strain.
'I had been working on 12 shows a week and other projects so I never really had time to relax,' Jimmy says. 'I'd been feeling pretty exhausted and assumed the stroke had been something to do with that.
'Yet I had never had high blood pressure, high cholesterol or any other problems that could have given any clues as to why I would have a stroke. The doctors decided to take a look at my heart.'
Jimmy was given a bubble echocardiogram - a procedure in which an ultrasound scan of the heart is followed by an injection of a bubble of saline (purified water) into the arm to make the heart functions more visible.
It revealed a Patent Foramen Ovale (PFO) - a hole the size of a pound coin in the septal wall that separates the right and upper left chambers of the heart. It was a birth defect that had gone undetected.
Jimmy had been through many insurance medicals but had never been given an echocardiogram as there had not appeared to be any need for one. No abnormal heart sounds had been detected, and his blood pressure and cholesterol were normal.
Jimmy as a child in The Osmonds
'My doctor explained that over time, tiny blood clots that he described as "particles" had traveled from my heart to my brain, forming a large clot. and this is what had caused the stroke,' says Jimmy.
'He warned me that unless I had emergency surgery to close the hole then I was at risk of having another stroke.'
June Davison, Cardiac Nurse Adviser for the British Heart Foundation, explains: 'People don't usually have symptoms, but one of the biggest risks associated with having a PFO is the risk of a stroke and those who have PFOs are more likely to have migraines. We do know that two in 100 babies are born with it.'
To close the hole, a tiny device made from polyester - known as an occluder - is inserted into a blood vessel in the groin and passed up into the heart.
The occluder opens on either side of the hole, like a two-sided umbrella, and is then pulled against the heart wall, encasing the hole and closing it. Tissue then grows over the implant and it becomes part of the heart.
'It was only as I was about to go into the operating theatre with the anaesthetist saying in a pitying way, "You're such a young guy and you're having heart surgery", that I realized I was just 40 and looking at my own mortality,' says Jimmy, 'even though I had been told that this condition was in no way age- or lifestyle-related.
'Apparently, the main risk of the operation was that the device could become dislodged before it had embedded well enough into the heart wall, and this was a frightening thought.
He adds: 'I started worrying that because I'd been away from home on tour all over the US so much, perhaps I hadn't seen enough of my kids.
'I remember being on the trolley saying goodbye to Michelle and the kids, then just before I went under the anaesthetic, a doctor came waving a liability form for me to sign, saying, "I have to tell you that this procedure could take your life," which didn't help matters at all.
'The operation, which lasted about an hour, was straightforward but the recovery was painful. Afterwards I spent a week in hospital until I was fit and able to go home.'
However, Jimmy is not the only one in his family to have suffered from heart problems. His mother Olive died in 2004 at the age of 79 from a massive stroke and his doctor now believes an undiagnosed hole in the heart could have caused this.
As the defect was likely to be genetic, his eight siblings, his children, nephews and nieces were tested.
It turned out that three of Jimmy's brothers - they prefer to keep their identity private - plus two of his nephews and his own daughter, Bella, were found to be suffering from the same condition.
All those affected went on to have the PFO closure operation except Bella, who was a baby at the time. Because she had such a tiny hole, Jimmy and Michelle were advised that it was best to let it close on its own, which it did.
'I still cannot believe that I never had any symptoms as a child,' says Jimmy. 'Doctors say there are few, if any at all.'
But now, he says, he feels fit and well and has been given a clean bill of health.
His only medication is Lipitor, a cholesterol-lowering drug that he now takes as a precautionary measure.
He certainly looks in good shape, and at just over 5ft 10in and 12 stone 4lb, he has a BMI within the 'healthy' range. However, he admits that there is, as he puts it, a 'real family propensity to putting on weight'.
And there is another health problem in the family far more common than PFO that could put Jimmy in danger of another stroke if he does not keep his weight in check - coronary heart disease.
Keeping it in the family: The Osmond brothers in 1971 with sister Marie. From left to right: Donny, Marie, Merrill, Jay, Alan, Wayne and Jimmy
Jimmy's father George suffered a heart attack in his late-50s, which led to a quadruple bypass, and he also had a succession of four pacemakers over the years to correct abnormal heart rhythm.
'Dad had coronary disease for many years, even during the time we were touring in the Seventies,' says Jimmy. We knew there was high blood pressure and high cholesterol on his side of the family.
'In fact, Dad lived until he was 90 - the pacemakers probably kept him going - but he loved working on his ranch in Utah so much that he managed to keep active and was still shoveling cow dung, baling hay and tending to his garden right into his late 80s.
'I know that I need to be more active, particularly when I am not performing because then I'm sitting behind a desk for hours on end. My life can be pretty sedentary and I'm a bit naughty in the eating department,' he says sheepishly.
'My nemesis is ice cream - I love it so much - and I do have the occasional McDonald's cheeseburger, but generally I avoid foods such as red meat and fry-ups. Actually, I try to stick to a vegetarian diet.'
The health of his children is something that worries Jimmy. 'The problem these days is that things are so different from 30 or so years ago, and we parents do our kids a real disservice by buying them video games and letting them watch TV all the time.
'Thankfully, at home in Utah, Michelle takes them after school and at weekends to basketball baseball, skiing, swimming and soccer to make sure that they keep active.'
And he adds: 'The Osmonds lived in a bubble - an extraordinary existence - and we were offered everything going, but our Mormon religion forbade drink and drugs. We didn't even smoke.'
As well as playing Teen Angel in Grease, Jimmy is also a successful TV and music video producer who has numerous business interests.
He is also an active patron of the Children's Miracle Network, which raises funds for children's hospitals across North America.
'As I head towards 50 I need to adopt a lifestyle that I can live with,' says Jimmy.
'I have a real aversion to the gym. So I do what I can. Over the past month that I've been appearing in Grease, I've been walking the couple of miles or so to the theatre, I climb stairs rather than take the lift whenever possible.
'I always ask for a hotel that has a pool and swim every day if I can. I'm also trying to cut right down on bread and other starchy foods such as pasta and rice.
'I'll also try to eat less ice cream,' he adds ruefully, 'but it's hopeless for me to completely cut out the things I love.
'Importantly, I need to relax more, which is something I have only recently started to do. I make a real effort to enjoy the moment rather than get stressed about things over which I have no control and, most importantly, really savour the time with my family.'
Once he finishes his run in Grease at the end of this month, Jimmy goes on the road with the UK tour of Chicago in which he plays Billy Flynn, and he says he's determined to keep up his good intentions wherever he may be.
'I am getting things under control,' Jimmy says firmly. 'I think that I have finally realized that I can have it all - just not all at once.'