Belfast Telegraph

Radio Ulster's Conor Bradford: The serious illness that kept me off air for a year

 

By Stephanie Bell

It is difficult to imagine veteran newsman Conor Bradford breaking down in tears but last week on returning to BBC NI after a year of sick leave the Radio Ulster Evening Extra presenter admits to being overcome with emotion by the warmth of the welcome he received.

And it wasn't just his colleagues at Broadcasting House on Belfast's Ormeau Avenue who had missed the news and current affairs stalwart - listeners too have been contacting him to express their joy at his return.

Conor's familiar cut-glass accent and formidable interview technique had been a noticeable absence from the airwaves over the past 12 months.

But now, in an exclusive interview, he reveals the reason for his departure from the limelight - unbeknown to his army of fans, he was battling a serious viral infection.

His weight plummeted as his liver came under severe attack from the Hepatitis C which doctors believe could have been in his body for as long as 20 years.

With typical brio, Conor says his gaunt appearance over the past year did make him look worse than he felt, although there is no denying the fact that he was very ill indeed.

And after a year of sitting at home "reading and watching hundreds of DVDs" he freely admits that he was glad to get back into the studio last Monday to host Radio Ulster's daily teatime news and current affairs programme.

In fact, he says he felt that he was away from work for so long that when driving past the BBC's HQ in the city he couldn't even imagine that he had ever worked there.

Conor (65) lives between Comber and Killinchy on the shores of Strangford Lough with his long-term partner Hilary Hanna, who is retired after many years running her own theatre agency.

Speaking for the first time about the illness, which knocked him off his feet for so many months, he says he has never felt better and is delighted to be back in the presenting hot seat on Mondays and Tuesdays.

It was this time last year when Conor first went to his GP. He had been concerned about swelling in his stomach and was sent directly to A&E at the Ulster Hospital where he was admitted for tests.

Despite his swollen stomach, he hadn't been feeling ill and was surprised by his GP and the hospital's reaction.

"The hospital thought it looked quite serious and wanted to keep me in overnight," he recalls. "I wasn't prepared at all; it all came out of the blue.

"I didn't feel unwell. But they discovered that I had contracted somewhere along the line hepatitis which is a virus that attacks the liver.

"I could have had it for many years apparently without knowing about it and it suddenly turned nasty and had damaged my liver quite badly. I was kept in hospital while they did tests. I lost a great deal of weight.

"I didn't look very well, although I didn't feel unwell, but I could see the way people were looking at me - my friends and family - that they thought I didn't look great.

"Eventually they put me on a course of anti-viral pills, the latest course of medicine from America, very cutting-edge. It was a three-month course and it knocked this virus completely on the head, which was good. In the old days tackling these hepatitis viruses was much more difficult."

His recovery, however, wasn't an overnight one.

Conor explains: "They said it depended on how badly my liver was damaged as to how much I would bounce back and thank God me and my liver, we did bounce back but it took a long time.

"I was very lacking in energy, however, and there was no way I could return to work for a while. The BBC was very understanding. Overall, it took the best part of a year."

For Conor, who joined the BBC over 30 years ago, it was the most time he has ever had off work. Unsurprisingly, as someone who clearly thrives on his high-pressured job interviewing politicians and dealing with breaking news stories, he found it a struggle just to sit at home and concentrate on his recuperation.

"I just had to sit back and not fret," he reflects. "It was very frustrating but I had to wait for Mother Nature to pull me back. Initially, I was thinking I would be back to work after a month but the consultant told me 'You are much more ill than you realise'. I don't think he thought I was taking it seriously enough."

Conor still has no idea how he contracted the virus and until his diagnosis he had been in the fortunate position of never having had to go to hospital before. He says he wasn't in any pain but the swelling was a sign that his liver had gone into crisis.

He lost over two stone in weight, dropping to just nine stone but is now a healthy 11 stone and says he has never felt better.

Conor also admits that his health crisis has, in some ways, put life into perspective and forced him to reflect and take stock of what really matters.

"I had no choice but to tough it out," he says. "I am in my 60s and had never been to hospital in my life and was fortunately extremely healthy, so all this came as a bit of a shock.

"When it happens to you individually it is quite something and you really stop and think about stuff which normally on a day-to-day basis you don't really think about. It is quite a profound experience. I am just so happy I am well again.

"I haven't made any mind-shattering decisions, but it gets you thinking a bit about life and I'm a better person for it, if that doesn't sound too pompous a thing to say.

"When I drove past the BBC on my way to the hospital which I did many times, I sort of looked at the BBC and it was hard to imagine at some stage I actually had worked there for 30 years.

"It didn't take long, after six months of not going into work there for me to feel very detached."

Conor says he was more than ready to come back to work but admits that he wasn't quite prepared for just how much he had been missed. Colleagues literally welcomed him back with open arms and many of his listeners sent messages expressing their delight that he was back to liven up their listening.

Reflecting on the warmth of his reception from colleagues and the public alike, Conor says: "I had a tremendous welcome. I didn't make a big thing of coming back. I was a bit self-conscious actually when I first walked in the door because I had been away for so long and people had heard I was unwell and weren't quite sure what the situation was.

"I had people coming up and hugging me and they seemed to be very happy I was back and it was quite tearful on occasions and quite emotional, which was lovely. It was very heartwarming. I have had tremendous texts and tweets welcoming me back. I thought people would have forgotten about me but they hadn't, which was nice."

Conor's late father, Roy Bradford, was, of course, the well-known Ulster Unionist politician and a former Minister of Commerce in the old Stormont parliament. Before entering politics, he was a well-known journalist for the BBC in London and he also penned two novels, Excelsior and The Last Ditch, as well as being co-author of the standard biography of Blair Mayne, co-founder of the SAS. Conor's father was brought up in Belfast but had moved to London for a while with wife Hazel, who was also from Northern Ireland. Conor and his younger brother Toby were born in London but the family moved back home when Conor was seven after his father decided to enter politics.

Growing up with a politician for a father during the Troubles made, he says, for an interesting childhood. "My father had a round-the-clock guard, a police driver, all that sort of stuff. When you are a child you don't really think profoundly about these sorts of things," he says. "You just think these guys were always around with their uniforms and their guns and stuff and I could ask them about their rifles. To a boy of that age it was quite interesting.

"People might have assumed that because my father was a unionist politician that I held his views, but I don't really have any profound political views and I never wanted to go into politics myself. You just have to hope that people judge you on your performance and see that you are a neutral party."

Conor studied history at Oxford and left with no idea what career he wanted and was surprised when he ended up following in his father's footsteps by joining the BBC.

Initially on graduating he worked in a variety of jobs and lived in Italy for a year where he taught at the British Institute in Florence. He returned to London where he worked as an insurance broker for Lloyds, also sold antiques and even worked for a period on the oil rigs in Scotland.

He said it was a chance meeting on a flight to Belfast with former BBC journalist and author Martin Dillon which led him to apply for the BBC.

Conor says: "I didn't know Martin and he didn't know me. We got chatting and he asked me what I was doing at the moment and I said 'not an awful lot' as I was between jobs at the time.

"He said 'Have you ever thought about the BBC?' and I had thought about it but had no idea how I would get in. He said during the summer there were always some gaps with people off on holidays.

"I contacted the BBC and they gave me a tape recorder and told me to do interviews with people and find stories and if they used them they would pay me. It was on that basis I started working in the BBC."

He worked on Good Morning Ulster for many years and is now part of the team on Evening Extra every Monday and Tuesday. Outside of work he enjoys the quiet life at home with his partner Hilary.

He adds: "I am trying to keep fit. I was out on my bike this morning and biked down to Magee Island and walked around it and biked back. I do that if the weather is nice.

"I try and walk or bike and play a bit of golf in Royal County Down. When I'm not working I am not a very busy person but I quite like it like that."

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