Burst appendix, Covid-19 and cancer — that’s what Edwin Poots got for Christmas.
They say all bad things come in threes and the 55-year-old can certainly testify to that.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t give back these unwanted ‘gifts’, but the DUP man is not sitting around in his slippers moping about it.
A proud new grandfather, he is back at Stormont, back to his straight-talking self, back delighting some and infuriating others — a self-proclaimed “Marmite politician”.
But friend and foe alike welcomed a slimmer, longer-haired, sharp-suited and fitter-looking Poots back to the chamber last Wednesday — just three weeks after he underwent his second major surgery in as many months.
“I feel good,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
“I went through the cancer operation with flying colours, entering hospital on a Wednesday morning and back home on the Friday. I stopped taking pain killers the following week and haven’t looked back.”
Two grandchildren have just come into my life... thankfully I'm going to be around to see them
Ironically, the former Northern Ireland health minister’s triple-whammy began at a time when he had never felt better.
Then, in early December, he was rushed to hospital after wife Glynis, a nurse, correctly diagnosed that the severe abdominal pains he was suddenly experiencing were symptomatic of a perforated appendix.
Remarkably, Mr Poots spoke of his agony to this newspaper while waiting for the ambulance to transport him to hospital for emergency surgery; we had called him about his views on the newly-introduced Covid-19 vaccination programme, unaware of the unfolding, potentially life-threatening drama.
The operation, on December 7, went smoothly enough — but the nightmare was only just beginning for the father of four.
“Early the next morning, I was drinking a cup of tea when the surgeon came round to see me,” he recalled.
“He told me that the scan had revealed a suspicious growth in my kidney, and that I’d be referred to the urology team.”
He added: “When I was told I needed cancer surgery it was such a huge shock.
“Before being taken ill with the appendix I’d actually been feeling extremely well. I’d proactively sought to lose weight and had shifted a stone and a half over the previous nine months.
“I was feeling fit and strong and very active; there were no obvious indications that anything was wrong.”
He admitted there were tears when he told Glynis about the devastating diagnosis, which followed on from the revelation that the agriculture minister had become the first Stormont Executive member to test positive for Covid-19.
With urgent NHS cancer surgery also cancelled because of the pandemic, Mr Poots contemplated eschewing his own political ideology and opting for private healthcare — “I wasn’t going to give up my life for my political beliefs”.
In the end, he didn’t have to get out his cheque book.
“It was done on the National Health Service,” he revealed, adding: “I didn’t make any enquiries, I didn’t push it, I didn’t press it. I got a call one day to say that there would be slots available in the Ulster Hospital, and would I be happy to take one — of course I was.”
Well aware that there may be raised eyebrows over how quickly his operation came around — especially during these days of traumatically long waiting lists — Mr Poots later made enquiries about it.
“The waiting list that I was on was reasonably well down by the time they started the consultation process,” he said.
“From early December to the middle of January they’d already got through a reasonable number of surgeries, and they then got a number of additional slots at the Ulster.”
Mr Poots said he still doesn’t believe anyone should have to pay for cancer treatment, even though Northern Ireland’s current waiting list figures are alarming.
“When I left the health minister’s office six years ago, there were about 135,000 people on the waiting list; it’s well over 300,000 now,” he said.
“When Covid-19 is behind us, Robin Swann [the current health minister] will still have a really tough job ahead of him.”
Mr Poots said he is relieved that he doesn’t require further cancer treatment such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy, and “never ceases to be amazed by the ability of our health care staff.
The father of Luke (31), Samuel (28), Anna (26) and Lydia (20) revealed how he has become a grandfather twice since the start of 2021.
Missionary son Samuel’s daughter Isabella was born on January 2 in Rio Branco, Brazil.
And two weeks ago, on Valentine’s Day, little Judah was born in George, South Africa, where daughter Anna Scott, a mental health nurse, is currently based.
“We’re getting photographs and videos of the little ones every day,” he said, adding that he doesn’t know when he’ll get to cuddle his new grandchildren.
“There’s no prospect any time soon because those countries are on the red list,” he said.
“We can’t travel there, and they can’t come to us any time soon.
“I can’t see anything happening for at least six months — it could be over a year — so we’ll just have to tolerate it.”
Mr Poots admitted it has been a worrying time for Glynis, his wife of 32 years, with his trio of health scares and their son and daughter both expecting their first children so far away from the family home just outside Lisburn.
“She’s happier now,” he said.
“She’s glad the children are born and healthy, and glad I’m over my surgery.
“She’s hoping that the vaccination roll-out continues to progress here and in other countries so that we will be able to travel at some point.”
Mr Poots stepped down from his role as agriculture minister at the start of February, with DUP colleague Gordon Lyons filling in on an interim basis. So when does he hope to be back in the saddle?
“I’ll have the conversation with the party leader and we’ll make a decision on that,” he said.
“I’m feeling well and strong but obviously I still went through major surgery twice in two months, and a period of recuperation is a necessary thing.”
He added: “I actually find it a bit boring. I’m doing paperwork and constituency work and meetings etc but I’m not going at the pace I’m used to; I prefer to be a lot busier.”
The veteran unionist was inundated with messages of support, both from the other ‘folk on the hill’ and the general public, despite contentious remarks such as coronavirus being more prevalent in nationalist areas of Northern Ireland.
When asked if he was taken aback by his popularity, he described himself as “a wee bit of a Marmite politician”.
“I don’t go out of my way to make myself popular with everybody,” Mr Poots said.
“I much prefer people to have views — even those contrary to mine — and to stand up and fight for what they believe in. I’m very direct, and I find that a lot of my political adversaries appreciate that.
“They like the frankness but they know where they stand. I have no back doors. At the same time, there’s nothing personal about it.”
Mr Poots likened the Assembly chamber to a boxing ring.
“If somebody gives me a dig, they better be prepared to get a bigger dig back,” he said
“You go in there and you have a good old battle, and after it’s over the boxers put their arms around each other.”
Before his life was suddenly turned upside down, Mr Poots was being mooted as a possible future leader of the DUP, replacing Arlene Foster, so what have these turbulent last few months done to that speculation?
“It is something that I didn’t have an interest in before this, so nothing has changed,” he insisted.
“If you were doing Arlene’s job, you would never get peace.
“I know the kind of stress and pressure I was under as a minister, so being the leader of the largest party in the country would be hugely stressful, hugely problematic and not particularly desirable.”
He added: “I wish Arlene every success in the job that she does because that’s good for the country and I want to support her in doing that.”
Unlike many of us, the new, slimline Edwin Poots said his lifestyle had actually helped him lose weight during the first lockdown, whereas he had been piling on the pounds when the Assembly wasn’t functioning between January 2017 and 2020.
“My self-esteem was low back then because the public had a fairly poor view of politicians,” he said.
“It was mentally frustrating because I wanted to be working and I was being prevented from doing that by the actions of others.
“The public viewed us in a very dim light, and there was nothing we could do to alter it. I suppose I was comfort-eating a bit.”
Asked if he believes the perforated appendix — a serious medical condition in its own right — had, ironically, ended up saving his life, Mr Poots said: “Some people would think it’s good luck. For me, God was looking after me and has things for me to do.
“There’s a purpose for me being around, and the cancer was found for that reason.”