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BBCNI presenter Roisin McAuley on how she almost died during her dream holiday from the condition which killed five children here

For the veteran broadcaster it was a round-the-world trip of a lifetime but, as she tells Leona O'Neill, it almost ended in tragedy. She recalls covering wars in the Balkans and Lebanon and how an accident led to her current job

Roisin McAuley after her health scare
Roisin McAuley after her health scare
The early days of Roisin McAuley's career at BBC NI, from 1968
The early days of Roisin McAuley's career at BBC NI, from 1968
The early days of Roisin McAuley's career at BBC NI, from 1968
Roisin McAuley with husband Richard
Roisin McAuley, husband Richard and with family in Donegal
Leona O'Neill

By Leona O'Neill

She's the voice that soothes us into an easy Sunday morning on BBC Radio Ulster. But for veteran broadcaster Roisin McAuley, a recent holiday of a lifetime was far from stress-free due to a terrifying medical emergency.

Cookstown-born Roisin, who lives in Belfast with her husband Richard Lee and is stepmum to two children and a granny to one, took seriously ill on a world tour in March.

The much-loved and respected former news reporter, who returned to Northern Ireland five years ago after spending three decades in England, was rushed to hospital in Queensland after falling ill while visiting the Great Barrier Reef.

"We were doing a six-week, I suppose you could call it, world tour," she says. "We wanted to go and visit our friends and relations in Australia and in New Zealand. We decided to go via our nieces in New York and our nephew in California. Our friends also flew down to join us. We went then to Tahiti, to New Zealand and then on to Australia.

"We were in north Queensland beside the rainforest at a lovely resort called Port Douglas. We were able to travel on the Skyrail over the rainforest and we went out to see the Great Barrier Reef.

"It was during the trip out to the Barrier Reef that I fell ill. I didn't know what was wrong with me, I just felt suddenly ill and was out of it. I felt funny and started vomiting. We were on a kind of platform on a reef so it wasn't exactly sea sickness.

"I have very little memory of it. I just remember that Richard was going out snorkelling on the reef and I was thinking to myself, do I want to go out there, too?

"I remember thinking that you had to wear a wetsuit at that time of the year on the reef, because there were little fish out there which could bite you horribly and some of them could be poisonous, and maybe even lethal," she says.

"I was thinking all this and thinking about putting on a wetsuit and how tight it was going to be and I started to feel very unwell. I thought, I don't know if I want to do this at all, and then I started to feel even worse.

"Richard had come back from snorkelling at this stage and all I can remember is being violently sick and staff running to help me. The staff were absolutely excellent.

"They must have been medically trained. One of them, Johan, saw that I really wasn't well at all and acted very quickly.

"He took my blood pressure and told me that they were going to get the Flying Doctor in. He took a list of the medication I was on. I think he must have guessed what was happening, or perhaps he had seen it happening before.

"The boat was at this stage making its way to shore and the Flying Doctor wasn't needed as there was an ambulance waiting there for me. Thankfully there were no helicopters involved, but I was whizzed off to the hospital in a nearby town, Mossman, which was a really small place.

"It was a lovely little hospital, almost like the cottage hospitals that used to exist in Ireland. It was a small, local, district hospital but it was very well staffed," she adds.

When Roisin arrived at the hospital, doctors quickly diagnosed her with hyponatraemia, a critical depletion of salt levels in the body. Signs and symptoms of the condition include nausea and vomiting, headache, short-term memory loss, confusion, lethargy, fatigue, loss of appetite, irritability, muscle weakness, spasms or cramps, seizures, and decreased consciousness or coma.

"The doctors quickly diagnosed me with hyponatraemia," she says. "It basically meant that my body was depleted of salt. It is a very serious condition. It is the illness that took the lives of the five children - Adam Strain, Claire Roberts, Raychel Ferguson, Lucy Crawford and Conor Mitchell - in hospital in Northern Ireland between 1995 and 2003.

"It can lead to all kinds of problems and if I hadn't have been lucky enough to have been on the boat and had it spotted by staff, things could have turned out very different.

"I originally thought that it was heat stroke, as someone I knew had suffered from that and they had been sick like I w as. They had gone to bed to sleep it off and felt fine when they got up again. If I, feeling unwell, had gone to bed and gone to sleep, it might have been curtains for me.

"They were absolutely wonderful at the hospital. They put me on a saline drip. I was very confused. I kept saying to my husband 'Where am I?' and he would say to me 'You're in Australia' and I'd keep asking him 'What am I doing in Australia?' I was totally confused and out of it. But after a few days I came around all right.

"They asked me the usual questions: What day of the week is it? Do you know where you are? What year is it? I was able to answer them all correctly and they were able to let me out when my salt levels returned to normal. They looked after me so well. I was very fortunate and very lucky."

Roisin says it was explained to her that her condition arose due to her medication.

"It all happened because I had taken medication for blood pressure," she says. "My medication is called bendroflumethiazide and because it acts like a diuretic it can deplete the salt in your body.

"I have been taking the same medication for a number of years. But sometimes, they explained to me in the hospital, something else can trigger the condition and cause a low salt crisis. And in my case it was probably the heat and the humidity.

"It was very, very hot in Queensland at the time. In fact, there was a cyclone when I was recovering in the hospital. There was torrential rain - it is the rainforest, after all - and that was spectacular. At least I got to see that, even if it was from my hospital bed.

"I'm just glad that my condition was spotted by wonderful people and treated by amazing people and it was dealt with. They took me off the medication and I'm still off. My blood pressure now seems fine."

Roisin says that she doesn't like to dwell too much on the life-threatening experience, but instead the fact that she is so lucky and blessed.

"I never like to make things too dramatic," she says. "I was very fortunate that I was around people who knew what they were doing. Had the symptoms not been spotted, who knows how serious it could have been? I don't particularly think of my own mortality when I think of this. It just makes me think I am very, very lucky. It was an extraordinary experience and an interesting one.

"I feel that I always appreciate life and I just feel that I was so fortunate that we were able to get help quickly.

"There is a really excellent health system in Australia as far as I could see. They were very prompt in dealing with me and their hospital was very well staffed. There is a Medicare system - a system of reciprocal medical treatment between the UK and Australia. So we didn't even have to pay for my hospital stay.

"We just had to go to an office and register with Medicare and the reciprocal arrangement stood. That was very good and very reassuring.

"I might not have been so lucky had I fallen ill in Tahiti. I don't know what the hospitals are like there. I feel that it is hugely important that when people are travelling to another country they have insurance and know all about these things."

Roisin says she wouldn't be qualified to give others a warning on her condition, as it was so unique to her situation and came on so suddenly, but advised that if anyone feels unwell when travelling they get themselves checked over by a doctor. "As far as symptoms go, mine was just severe vomiting," she says. "I just felt awfully unwell. I just remember thinking that there was something really not right.

"I'm sure there are other ways it presents but I am not medically qualified to advise others. I just know the reason it happened to me.

"It is an unusual condition and it had to do with the medication I was taking so I couldn't put out a general warning to others to watch out for it, except to say that if you feel unwell, go seek medical attention.

"I don't think that it's a common condition by any manner of means, but I would just implore everyone to make sure that they are aware of the health arrangements in the country they are going to."

"For me, I don't have to keep an eye on this. They just took me off the medication I was on and it was fine. And if it continues to be okay, that's fine.

"And it if goes up again they will put me on something different," she says.

Roisin spent four days and four nights in hospital while on holiday recovering from her ordeal.

She says she has one big regret over the whole experience - not getting to see a famous Sydney landmark.

"One of my biggest regrets about the whole thing was that we had booked to go to the Sydney Opera House," she says.

"Before I took ill we had planned to go and stay with friends of ours in Sydney, visit the city and attend the opera house.

"We were so looking forward to five days in the city. That obviously didn't happen. We missed what might have been a highlight of our holiday.

"But in any case we had a wonderful time away. We loved Australia. It was hot and cheerful and beautiful. We will certainly go back.

"Next time, though, we will definitely stay out of the hospital and go to the opera instead."

Roisin is no stranger to drama and stress, perhaps due to her four decades working in the newsrooms of Belfast and indeed England.

"I went to the BBC from a post-grad secretarial course," she says. "It was brilliant for typing like smoke and taking a note, but I was never cut out for keeping 'the boss's diary'.

"It was in the days when there were ads in the newspapers for 'Girl Fridays'. I answered a BBC advert for a newsreader but I suppose I went into journalism because I wanted to write the news rather than read it.

"I've had some rather memorable moments over the years.

"I met Yasser Arafat. I made a film in Sarajevo while under siege and bombardment. We had no electricity and had to depend on water from trucks. I remember racing down 'Sniper Alley' in a 'soft' car - which is one with no armour plating.

"I remember meeting the incredibly brave hospital staff who could only operate when they had to switch on the reserve generator to keep the blood supplies cooled."

She adds: "I remember being tear-gassed in a Lima riot and reporting on the revolution in the Philippines. I remember walking through the abandoned palace of President Marcos after he fled. I filmed in Beirut during the hostage crisis, being the only reporter in West Beirut.

"I recall there being armed guards in the hotel whose only other occupants seemed to be arms dealers but bizarrely, there was a wedding by the swimming pool with belly dancers and obligatory firing of rifles, all this while I lay with my ear to the BBC World Service hearing reports about the fall of the Berlin Wall.

"There are just too many other memories to list."

And Roisin's Australian medical emergency is not the first time the broadcaster has had her holiday interrupted by a hospital stay.

"My return to Belfast in 2014 was actually prompted by an accident in France while we were on holiday there in 2013," she says. "Both my Achilles tendons were ruptured when I fell down a flight of stairs.

"I spent two weeks in a hospital in Bordeaux and 18 weeks in a rehab clinic there learning to walk again.

"I had magnificent care throughout.

"Richard stayed in an apartment nearby and visited me every day.

"Every single member of the family came out to Bordeaux as well as friends from Ireland.

"It prompted Richard to suggest we should move to Belfast. He had retired from his job as chairman of a law firm and we'd been talking about moving from Reading, where we were living."

Roisin adds: "Just after we moved - in early 2014 - the BBC offered me the job presenting Sunday Sequence.

"So you could say my return to the BBC was because of my Achilles tendons. Life takes you in unexpected directions sometimes."

Roisin presents Sunday Sequence on BBC Radio Ulster at 8.30am every Sunday morning

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