Life

Broadcaster Ken Reid talks about challenges of leukaemia and working in lockdown

Living with blood cancer was challenging enough for journalist Ken Reid but then came the coronavirus lockdown. He talks about broadcasting form home and raising leukaemia awareness

UTV's political editor Ken Reid has been able to work from his home near Ballymena
Maureen Coleman

FOR a journalist who spends much of his busy working life reporting from Stormont or Westminster, shielding during lockdown hasn't been without its challenges for UTV's political editor Ken Reid.

A type 2 diabetic who was diagnosed with an incurable form of blood cancer – chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) – in 2017, the 64-year-old Co Antrim man was advised to cocoon when lockdown restrictions were introduced here.

Fortunately the broadcasting stalwart has still been able to work from his home near Ballymena, with the support of his employers who provided him with the necessary equipment to continue his commentary and analysis.

And while he admits that 'life has been easier', the father-of-three, who lives with his wife and son, has used the time and space to reconnect with nature, spend time in his garden and indulge his lifelong passion for music.

“My last year was basically spent in Westminster covering Brexit; I was there most weeks for three or four days at a time,” says Ken. “At one stage, I was even there for a fortnight, so it does feel strange being here in my home all the time.

“Although I can't physically be there, at either Stormont or Westminster, I can still carry on working. I take part in the morning meetings every day and can advise those who are out there, covering the stories.

“I can still play a part, even broadcasting from my garden. With the way things are at the moment, there is no real politics. There's only one story really and that's health and Covid-19.”

Ken was diagnosed with leukaemia following a check-up with a podiatrist about a foot infection. He was sent to Antrim Area Hospital for a blood test which revealed he had cancer. The diagnosis came as a huge shock and Ken spent an anxious night in hospital, fearing the worst.

Ken Reid (64) with his wife Liz

A consultant, who has since become a friend, told Ken that although CLL was incurable, he could offer him treatment that would ensure a good quality of life and normal life expectancy. Ken decided to take part in a clinical trial called FLAIR, run from the world-class Leeds University's cancer centre and supervised in Belfast's City Hospital at the Bridgewater Suite. The treatment involved six months of chemotherapy and daily doses of a drug called Ibrutinib, for five years.

During the six-month chemo treatment, Ken was advised to stay at home due to a weakened immune system. The risk of infection was too great and potentially fatal. For a man who was used to being at the heart of every major political story, this enforced lockdown proved tough, albeit necessary.

When the treatment produced encouraging results, he was delighted to return to the UTV newsroom and to get back into the thick of it, reporting on Brexit. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit the north and Ken was advised to isolate again.

“There's no doubt about it, it's been a challenging few years,” he says. “When I was diagnosed with cancer and had to take those months off work, it was a stressful time.

“I wanted to prove I could do it. It was an exciting period to be a political journalist and to be at the centre of Brexit. To be stuck in the house again; well, that has taken some getting used to.”

Since lockdown began Ken has only left his immediate surroundings four times – to attend medical appointments at the Mater Hospital's macular clinic and at the Cancer Centre at Belfast City Hospital. These recent hospital appointments have been entirely different experiences from previous visits; with his temperature taken before entering the building and interacting with medical staff whose faces are covered by masks. But he says the level of care he continues to receive hasn't changed.

While he tunes into the news every morning and the daily press briefings from Stormont, he has made a point of not letting it all swamp him too much. Instead, when he has down time, he likes to listen to music, get out into his garden or take the dogs for a walk in the fields behind his house.

“I know I'm lucky because I've got a big garden and fields and I can't imagine how excruciating it must be for someone who is having to shield in a flat with no outside space,” he says.

“I've been rediscovering nature as well. We have two buzzards near us and I was able to get close to one of them. It was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. I'm listening to birdsong too; I never really did that before.”

He has words of praise for the executive, which he says has worked well during the pandemic and believes Health Minister Robin Swann has been 'outstanding' in his role. He also thinks the public has shown discipline and restraint in hugely challenging times and that eventually the time will come when those who are shielding will have to take a calculated risk to leave their homes, based on their own individual circumstances and while honouring social distancing and safety.

Being all too aware of the value of research, Ken has recently joined forces with Leukaemia & Lymphoma NI as its new patron. The charity is dedicated to funding research to fight blood cancer and Ken believes research is the key to improving the lives of those local people who are diagnosed each day with blood cancer.

“I'm delighted to be helping Leukaemia & Lymphoma NI as it will make a difference in the future,” he says. “These troubled times are not making life easy and those with blood cancer are at high level risk. It's reassuring to know there are people fighting our cause.”

During his shielding, Ken has kept in touch with family, friends and colleagues via Zoom and while he says it's been a great way of maintaining contact, it doesn't quite compare to seeing loved ones face to face. He's looking forward to the day he can return to Stormont and Westminster but there is one person in particular he can't wait to see again.

“I have a new grand-daughter called Summer, who lives in Yorkshire,” he says. “She's five months old and I've seen her twice. The last time was in March, just before lockdown happened. It will be lovely to see her again and give her a big hug.”

Joanne Badger from Leukaemia & Lymphoma NI, says: "We are proud to announce that Ken Reid has agreed to be our patron. Ken is a familiar face to most of us across Northern Ireland through his expert political analysis of events in Stormont, Westminster and beyond.

"Ken is one of 100 people every month who are diagnosed with some form of blood cancer in Northern Ireland. Our charity is on a mission to raise awareness about the impact of blood cancer and the need to fund life-changing research. The research carried out at Queen’s University in Belfast will help improve survival rates and the quality of life for the thousands of local people that will be diagnosed with blood cancers such as leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma over the next 10 years.

“Whilst fundraising is definitely more challenging with coronavirus we are determined to raise the funds our researchers need to beat blood cancer through research and it is great to have Ken lend his support to our cause.”

For more information about Leukaemia & Lymphoma NI visit llni.co.uk

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