Cool FM's breakfast show presenter Rebecca McKinney (33) tells Claire O'Boyle about her terrifying health scare, working from home and why lockdown has proved a blessing
Isolating at home through the coronavirus outbreak, radio presenter Rebecca McKinney is taking lockdown as a blessing. Because even before the extraordinary impact of the pandemic began to take its toll on the rest of us, her life had already been turned on its head.
Diagnosed with life-threatening sepsis back in February, the 33-year-old was rushed to hospital where medics battled to save her, even ruling out coronavirus as a cause of her worrying symptoms.
"I had just come back from a weekend away in Manchester," recalls Rebecca, who presents Cool FM's breakfast show alongside Pete Snodden and Paolo Ross.
"I'd not been feeling well for a while, although I kept putting it down to being a bit stressed out or under the weather.
"So, when I went to England to see my friend, I hoped it would be a bit of a pick-me-up, and we'd planned a really busy schedule for the weekend. But when I got there I just felt really run down and not up for doing that much. It wasn't like me at all."
And as she got ready to board her flight from Manchester to travel back to Belfast that Sunday evening, she felt petrified of getting on the plane.
"That had never happened to me before," she says. "I've always flown a lot, and I honestly wasn't sure I'd be able to get myself on the flight. I thought I could be having a panic attack because I was really struggling to take a deep breath.
"I'd had this feeling for a while, like someone was standing on my chest, but at this point it got really bad. I called a friend in Belfast to take my mind off it and calmed down, and I managed to get myself on the plane. I was desperate to get home."
However, Rebecca's symptoms carried on and the following day her younger brother James (29), a professional rugby player, convinced her to go to her GP.
"I have asthma, and I put it down to that and maybe feeling a bit anxious as well," she recalls. "But James had been staying with me, and when he saw me on the Monday he said I had to see the doctor."
With James at her side, Rebecca saw her GP that day.
"I told the doctor I might have just been overdoing things, and the GP said perhaps I should just take it a bit more slowly for a while," she remembers. "But luckily, while I was there, they took a blood test."
Returning home, Rebecca went straight to bed.
"I couldn't get up for two days," she says. "I couldn't form a sentence. I wanted to do the show but I must have sounded absolutely horrendous because I couldn't catch a breath.
"I told work I couldn't come in for a couple of days so I could sleep off whatever was happening."
However, by Wednesday, the gravity of Rebecca's situation started to become clear when her tests results came back.
"It's such a relief now that they did those," she says. "And that my brother talked me into going to the doctor, because when I got a phone call on the Wednesday I was told the infection markers were nearly up to 300, when they should be five.
"The doctor said I needed to get in an ambulance straight away and get to the hospital."
But the law graduate was adamant she'd make her own way there.
"I guess now looking back it was just typical me, not wanting to make a fuss," she says. "I told them, 'No, don't worry, you don't need to send an ambulance, I'll just head to the Ulster myself', so I got my brother to take me.
"We went straight to A&E and I think by that point my temperature was so high I was pretty much delirious."
And with a combination of respiratory problems and a high temperature, as worrying news about coronavirus was getting closer to Northern Ireland, Rebecca says medics were taking no chances.
"I think they were worried I might have coronavirus," she recalls. "It hadn't occurred to me, but I guess with me having travelled just a few days earlier, even just to Manchester, as well as the chesty thing and the temperature, they were checking every base.
"At that point I knew there were no cases in Northern Ireland yet and I thought, wouldn't it just be horrendous if I had it? I'd have felt so bad.
"With that as even a possibility, it meant they couldn't take me to normal A&E and they wheeled me down a corridor into a side room where I was isolated.
"A lot of it feels like a blur to me, but I remember I was wearing gym gear at the time and they were wringing out my clothes because my temperature had spiked so much I was completely soaked.
"At the time, I don't think I realised just how scary it was, but my family really lived through it all. The doctors completely saved my life."
Thankfully, Rebecca's test for coronavirus came back negative - but the broadcaster was soon diagnosed with sepsis, a serious infection that causes the immune system to damage the body's own tissues and organs.
"It was really frightening, and at the beginning I didn't really understand what sepsis was," says Rebecca. "It was just such a shock for something like that to happen, but the doctors believe that I'd had a lung infection, which then led to the sepsis.
"When you're young and fit, even if you do feel a bit under the weather you don't imagine it will be something so potentially serious, and because of all the commitments I had with work and friends and family, I'd sort of talked it all down to myself.
"But I hadn't felt right for weeks. My temperature was up and down, my chest felt like someone was standing on it, and I put this nervous feeling down to anxiety. It was very physical, and that's obviously because something was very wrong physically.
"I think a lot of people have lived like that for a long time, so caught up with being busy that we didn't have time to stop. If my brother hadn't pushed me to go to the doctor, I might have kept going the way I was. I'm so glad he did."
After a week in hospital, Rebecca was advised it would do her good to take another six weeks at home to recuperate before starting back at work. But with commitments lined up, the ambitious broadcaster and stylist was back on the airwaves just a week later.
"I stayed with my parents for a little while when I got out of hospital, and I don't think they were thrilled at how quickly I was back at work, but they know I know my own mind," she says.
However, with coronavirus edging ever closer to the UK, she was back in the studio just a matter of days when bosses at Cool FM offered to set her up with all the equipment she needed to be able to work from home.
"I wanted so badly to get back to normality," says Rebecca, who made the leap into radio after working as a stylist at Belfast's Victoria Square. "What happened was a really huge experience for me, and my initial instinct was to snap back to where I'd been before.
"But with me having been so sick so recently and big worries obviously on the way with coronavirus, Cool FM were brilliant and wanted me to be in the safest place I could, which was at home. I felt a bit like the naughty schoolgirl coming back in only to be sent away again, but I knew they were doing it for the best reasons.
"It meant I basically started lockdown a few weeks before everyone else. At the start it was hard, and I felt I was missing out, but I wised up and realised home was the best place. I'm grateful to have it, and I've realised lockdown, for me, has been a blessing."
Because, says Rebecca, taking time at home has given her the space to come to terms with what happened earlier in the year, and to get herself into the right head space to move forward.
"When you're in the broadcasting world, everything can feel quite fleeting," she says. "You take every opportunity that comes your way.
"I feel so grateful for every chance and I've had a fabulous platform to do the work I love. Honestly, work keeps me sane, and having a busy diary is how I've always loved to live my life.
"But I'm up at 4.30am every day for the breakfast show and for me the days can sometimes feel very long, especially because I do a lot of events as well.
"I could be working six or seven days a week because you feel like you should make hay while the sun shines, and say yes to everything. The lockdown has meant I've lost out on so much work with all the events that are cancelled and the fashion stuff that has gone.
"But it's given me a lot of time to think, too, and I've figured out that when things work their way back to some sort of normal, I don't necessarily have to go at the speed I was.
"I think when I'm looking at the diary moving forward, I'll consciously scale it back and pick and choose the things I'm really passionate about."
As well as keeping in daily contact with friends and her close-knit family - parents John and Valerie, who are both teachers, as well as brother James, who moved to Sydney, Australia for work shortly after Rebecca got out of hospital - the fashion-mad presenter is focusing on building up her strength, physically and emotionally, after everything she's been through this year.
"Like a lot of people through all of this, I've had up and down days," says Rebecca, who grew up in the grounds of Campbell College in east Belfast where her father works.
"Some have been really tough, but I have to count my blessings. I know I'm lucky because I still get to work and earn a living.
"And not only that but I'm working on the breakfast show every day with Pete and Paolo who, honestly, are like my brothers.
“They’re a very big part of my life because we’ve been through so many ups and down together and we’re incredibly close. When something happens to one of us, it happens to all three of us, and when I was in hospital, they were there to see me and they’ve popped over to say hi through the window at the house.
“They’ve been so brilliant helping me have the confidence to get back on air, and getting to have laughs with them has given me a sense of routine and normality I’ve really needed.”
The boost that came last month when Cool FM overtook BBC Radio Ulster for the first time in its 30-year history was a huge one too, says Rebecca.
Building up her strength hasn’t been easy. However, slowly but surely Rebecca, who lost almost 2st in weight due to her illness, is getting there.
“I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve been able to take my walks in the grounds of Campbell during lockdown,” she says. “Starting off I struggled even getting around the rugby pitches, but now I’m able to go on big walks and my dad and I are able to meet up and walk two metres apart.
“It’s brilliant to see my parents outside again, and not just through the window when they were dropping food off for me, like feeding time at the zoo.
“I’ve been doing a lot of Pilates at home too, which has been so brilliant for building my strength back up, as well as for my head.
“Before all this happened I always just did exercise because I felt like I had to, whereas finally I’ve got it. I’m finally getting what people have always said about how helpful it can be for your headspace and now I’ll notice a shift in my mood if I don’t do something physical.
“It’s been a real breakthrough. With Pilates I’m doing a lot of mat-based work, and within the space of this lockdown period I’ve started to notice this extra strength and a change in my body shape. But most importantly, really, is how I’m feeling too.”
As well as focusing on decent sleep and eating well, and along with her regular exercise, Rebecca is limiting her activity on social media.
“Well obviously I work on the radio, so I hear a lot of news,” she says. “But I’m trying to unglue myself from everything that surrounds it as much as I can.
“At the start I was watching the daily briefings religiously, but I had to step back a bit. It was a conscious decision to do that on the one side, but also to take myself away from places like Twitter where you’re just hit constantly with all these opinions and negativity. It’s just not good for the head.
“For work, I’ve been lucky enough to do quite a bit of stuff through Instagram, which is such a brilliant platform. But like a lot of other people, I feel like it can shrink you down at the same time it builds you up. Taking a step back from it can be really helpful when you want to take a bit of a breather.”
And after everything that she’s experienced already in 2020, putting her health and wellbeing first has got to be a priority.
“I felt so lost after all of this happened,” says Rebecca. “It was such a lot to come to terms with because it was so sudden and unexpected. My initial instinct was to jump feet first back into my life, but the way things have worked out I’m sure has been for the best.
“I’m self-isolating at home, something I’d never have consciously opted to do, but it’s just amazing what you can do and get used to.
“Pete and Paolo are in the studio, I’m here at home and we’re doing the show as always. I’m getting a bit more of a lie-in than I did. Initially it was strange, but it’s been a couple of months now so it’s almost as if we’re getting used to it.
“I’m so grateful that I can still work, I can still broadcast and shield at home and continue to earn a living.
“I know not everyone can have that luxury, so I’m really grateful.
“Three months in the house is not something I’d have chosen to do, but I know now it’s been a good thing for me.
“Lockdown has forced me to stay at home. It’s forced me to rest up and reflect rather than throw myself straight back into my schedule, which is absolutely what I would have done otherwise.
“I’d never have allowed myself this time to recover, and slowly but surely I’m feeling stronger again. I’m starting to feel well, which is amazing.”
The Cool FM Breakfast Show is on every weekday morning from 6am