Ken Reid: If it hadn’t been for the appointment with the podiatrist to look at my feet, I don’t think I’d have had any clue that I had leukaemia
UTV Political Editor Ken Reid, who has type 2 diabetes, went for a simple check-up — and was given a devastating health diagnosis. He tells Claire O’Boyle why he backs the Diabetic Foot Care Pathway which will improve services for people with the condition
It's been a busy couple of weeks for Ken Reid. As a heavyweight in the world of political broadcasting, he has been right in the thick of it as Northern Ireland's parties battled their way through one of the most tightly fought elections in years.
"It's been fascinating, as always," says Ken, UTV's political editor.
But for the first time in his career, he says, the stress of the job and the political madness he's seeped in at work hasn't got too far under his skin.
"I've been through quite a bit with my health over the last few years," says Ken.
"It puts it all in perspective for you. Stress is part of life, and it definitely has been in this job.
"But since getting sick I don't find the stress levels are what they were.
"It is what it is, and I find it much easier to get on with now than I used to."
Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.
Ken, who has type 2 diabetes, was diagnosed with leukaemia in November 2017.
Remarkably it was a simple check-up with a podiatrist that led doctors to identify his cancer.
Now, speaking out in support of a new Foot Care Pathway launched by the Diabetes Network to improve services for people in Northern Ireland living with the condition, Ken opens up about the huge and unexpected role foot health has had in his life.
"One of the problems is there are so many people here with diabetes who aren't aware that their feet are one of the most sensitive and at risk parts of your body when you have diabetes," says Ken.
"It's not something you'd instantly realise, and it was something I was guilty of myself - but once I understood just how serious it could be I've been vigilant about it ever since."
In fact, so serious was the situation with the father-of-three's foot health that, when he was in his mid-50s, he feared he could lose part of his leg.
"I had diabetes by then," recalls Ken. "It was late onset, but there was a genetic element to it. Then, like most men can be guilty of, I ignored my health a bit.
"I had a pain on one of my feet, but I kept ignoring it.
"I thought it was just a nick so I wasn't worried and thought it would get better by itself.
"But in the end, it developed into an ulcer. We thought I might have to lose my leg from the knee down, and of course I was really frightened at the prospect of it.
"But the medical staff at the Royal were exceptional and in the end they were able to amputate just one of my toes, and put a bypass in my leg to keep the circulation going. It meant I got to keep my foot which was a huge relief."
Speed is of the essence when it comes to spotting problems with the feet, adds Ken.
He says: "I should have been quicker. It's hard to judge exactly how long I waited after first noticing a problem, but it was too long.
"By the time I reached the hospital it was in a pretty bad condition and I needed major surgery. In fact, I went to a conference in Birmingham to talk about the condition a couple of years later and they showed a picture of my foot as it was when I went in, and one of the doctors fainted.
"It was that serious. I should have had it seen sooner."
And after his experience, foot health became a priority for the Ballymena man.
In 2017 when an infection developed after a holiday to Ibiza, he was quickly back with his podiatrist to make sure everything was okay. Sadly though, it wasn't.
"After an initial examination the podiatrist sent me to the Antrim Area Hospital for blood tests," says Ken. "The first test flagged up some abnormality which meant I needed a second one - and an hour after that, they told me I had leukaemia."
Stunned by the unexpected news, Ken feared the worst.
He adds: "It was a bolt out of the blue, and of course you hear those words and it's devastating. The thing was I didn't feel I'd experienced any other symptoms that I was particularly worried about. I was tired, but that goes with my job and I've been that way for years. If it hadn't been for the appointment for my feet, I don't know that I'd have had any clue."
And while another blow was to come when doctors told him his condition couldn't be cured, they did tell them it could be managed.
More than two years on, Ken has got to grips with his cancer and is living with it, along with diabetes.
"The start was difficult," he says. "For one thing, tests to see if it had mutated into the bones didn't come back for two or three weeks, so that in itself was a long wait.
"Thankfully, though, it hadn't. I spent time at the Bridgewater suite, the haematology unit at the City Hospital, and then I had six heavy sessions of chemotherapy, which was hard.
"But one great thing I've been involved in is that I'm part of a clinical trial, and I'm continuing to take medication which seems to be working for me.
"I'm fine, other than tiredness - but given we've been in the middle of an election, that's okay. I'd be the only person in my line of work not tired if I wasn't!"
Ken hopes his experience will offer some hope to other people facing a cancer diagnosis.
"The science is at such a level now that it's not a death sentence," he says. "I understand that perhaps people feel that way when they're first told.
"But there really is a very good chance of survival, and you can live a good life. The NHS is coming under a lot of pressure and scrutiny at the minute, but from my experience the people doing this work are really remarkable.
"They work in such pressured environments, and they manage to cope and do such wonderful things in that atmosphere which is really very humbling."
And with three grown-up children - Gareth, Sarah and Sophie - as well as wife Liz and his first grandchild on the way, Ken is determined to keep on top of his health.
"My diet's pretty good," he says. "I'm fairly careful about what I eat and I'm interested in cooking. I eat lots of fish, and I try to do some walking so I stay active but it's a lot about your frame of mind.
"I've tried working on mindfulness, but I really try to keep up with my personal interests outside work, too. I'm a big music fan so I listen to a lot of Van Morrison and blues music, and I follow sport intensively.
"I'm a fan of Everton and Cliftonville in the football, and Ballymena and Ulster for the rugby. You've got to have things to care about outside work."
In saying that, while he's heading for 65, Ken is clear too that he isn't ready yet to step away from the world of TV politics.
"Not yet," he laughs. "There's far too much going on to stop now. Stormont could be up and running soon, if the political will was there, and Brexit is one of the most fascinating things to have happened in the whole course of my career. I wouldn't like to stop right in the middle of the story, and that one is far from over.
"Maybe some day when I wake up on a Monday morning I'll realise I can't do it anymore, but definitely not just yet.
"I'll keep going as long as I can.
"I'm not worried about the future of journalism though.
"I look around and see enormous talent coming up in UTV, and in newsrooms right across Northern Ireland.
"I've had such a huge amount of support from my colleagues through all of my difficulties, too, and that's been a really humbling experience.
"My only advice to people starting out in journalism is to look after themselves and to remember there's life outside work.
"People sometimes knock the younger generation but I think they're wonderful, and they're not having it easy.
"They just need to keep up their hobbies and remember to enjoy the best bits of what they're doing. That's what I've always tried to do, and it's why I've loved this job so much."
For further information on the diabetes foot care pathway visit: www.hscboard.hscni.net/diabetes-network
New funding will bring in foot check service next year for those living with diabetes
Dr Hamish Courtney - clinical director of the diabetes network in Northern Ireland, says:
"Diabetes is increasing in prevalence in Northern Ireland with 100,000 now diagnosed (both type 1 and type 2).
While this perhaps isn't widely known, one of the longer-term problems associated with diabetes is foot disease, with high sugar levels damaging both the nerves and circulation over the long term, which in turn leads to poor healing.
Some people will feel no pain because of damaged nerves, meaning damage that's there won't be detected and foot ulcers and infections could develop.
Alternatively, damaged nerves could mean people with the condition suffering additional pain and discomfort.
In serious cases, ulcers may become infected requiring surgery, which in the most extreme situations, may be amputation.
There are up to 5,000 foot ulcers detected in Northern Ireland every year, and serious health risks and even fatalities are associated with this.
And while the problems affect older people in the main, there are others in their 30s and 40s who experience ulcers on their feet.
However, in better news, the complications linked to diabetes can be preventable to some degree. We understand it's not easy, but good sugar control over the years helps the prevention of foot complications.
We know it's a challenge, and that's why diabetes healthcare professionals are here to help.
What's more, good care of the feet can detect problems early, and early detection and then attention can often prevent a minor foot problem from becoming a serious one. We want people with diabetes to understand self-care. People with diabetes should make checking their feet part of their daily routine. They should also check their feet daily for any abnormalities, breaks in the skin, or discolouration.
From the beginning of 2020 we're developing a foot check service for everyone with diabetes living in Northern Ireland, meaning everyone with diabetes will get a call for a check with a health professional through new funding that has come through the Diabetic Framework. It will take a while to get around everyone, but over the course of the next few months foot checks will be rolled out across Northern Ireland.
In the meantime, people with diabetes should cover the basics themselves, like good foot hygiene and making sure they've got properly fitting shoes.
If they have any concerns, they should seek medical help.
The government has recently invested more than £2million in the Diabetic Foot Care Pathway so people with diabetes who have foot problems will have rapid access to the appropriate specialist. For more simple concerns, patients will be referred quickly to a local podiatrist. For developing issues, they will go to the local hospital to see a podiatrist and a diabetes doctor or nurse, while complex problems will come to the Royal for more advanced care from specialist surgeons.
This is huge progress for Northern Ireland and will lead to fewer amputations and healthier feet for all.
We want people out there with diabetes to understand what's available."
For further information on the Diabetes Foot Care Pathway visit: www.hscboard.hscni.net/diabetes-network