It is a very different glimpse of a DUP politician whose public persona has always been that of the blunt, stoical Ulsterman — Edwin Poots sitting in a hospital bed weeping down the phone to his wife following a cancer diagnosis.
n Northern Ireland we like to forget that elected representatives are people too, but this was the very human side of a man in turmoil. Not an Agriculture Minister in the Stormont Executive but a frightened husband and father desperate for the reassuring presence of his loved ones.
Of course, he couldn’t get that longed for hug from his wife because visitors are currently banned from our hospitals due to Covid-19 restrictions.
And the pandemic also means that at a time of absolute crisis, having received the sort of news we all dread ever hearing, Mr Poots now finds himself engulfed by uncertainty and facing very difficult choices.
Fortuitously, his cancer was detected early — the first sign something might be wrong was when he had surgery for a perforated appendix and the surgeon spotted something suspicious on his kidney. A subsequent scan revealed a tumour.
Encouragingly his consultant has described the tumour as slow-growing and said his prognosis for a complete recovery is good if he has further surgery to remove the tumour within six to eight weeks. If that happens, he shouldn’t even need chemotherapy.
Crucially, though, that surgery won’t be available within that timeframe on an NHS which is overwhelmed by Covid-19 patients and has had to cancel most cancer surgeries.
The Lagan Valley MLA said that he is now considering paying for the operation to be done privately, which he estimates could cost between £10,000-£15,000. With a typical flash of “Pootsy” bluntness, he explained that he was not prepared to lose his life for a political ideology.
Despite what one suspects was Mr Poots’ earnest intention to remain composed on air, his lengthy and often moving interview with Radio Ulster’s Stephen Nolan often strayed into deeply emotional territory — and the current plight of the NHS was one of those topics where his anxiety was plain to hear.
A former Health Minister, Mr Poots (55) had only good things to say about the under pressure staff who are working within the system. He pointed out that these stresses were something he understood well, as many of his family, including his wife Glynis, had worked for the institution over the years and took great pride in its achievements.
But who among us, hand on heart, could blame this man in the middle of his own health crisis for trying to quite literally save his own life? Who among us in his situation wouldn’t be thinking along exactly the same lines? Who wouldn’t want the fastest possible treatment?
True, facing this emergency, Mr Poots may be able to find that money more easily than most, but many of us know of people who have chosen to take out loans or benefitted from readily offered cash donations from family to take a similar course of action when their health was at stake. Even just for a quick scan to provide peace of mind.
Indeed as the Covid crisis has deepened you hear of many people investing in private health policies not as a criticism of the NHS but as a pragmatic way of keeping all their options open. People know the heroes of the health service are under almost unbearable strain and that resources are limited.
No-one should take flak for deciding to go private. Any harsh judgment should be reserved for the many decades of under-investment in the NHS by a series of governments. It’s desperately unfair that patients needed cancer and other surgeries can’t get treatment, that some of their outcomes could be disastrously, even fatally, impacted.
Being human is to be multi-faceted. Many of us just see Edwin Poots MLA. The long serving DUP man, one of the old guard, the straight-talking, no-holds-barred politician.
But radio listeners also heard from Edwin Poots, the proud new grandfather. He revealed that last year he had good news from two grown-up children involved in missionary work overseas. First, his son rang from Brazil to say a little one was on the way — a healthy baby girl arrived earlier this month. His daughter in South Africa announced similar news.
The man who had put on weight when Stormont was mothballed swiftly went on a health kick and shed one and half stone so he could be fit and healthy for when the little ones arrived. The same man who said that consequently he had felt very well during 2020 and had no idea he had a tumour growing inside him.
And in homes across Northern Ireland people will have heard Mr Poots’ story and seen the same hopes and ambitions reflected in their own lives and families — and sometimes, sadly, the same ironic bad fortune turning up as well.
Just in the same way some will have been astonished to learn that, given what he’s going through, Mr Poots has had the resolve and focus to be back at work at Stormont, where he kept the news of his diagnosis last month a secret from most until now. Others, though, will understand only too well how he is finding work a welcome distraction when coping with a personal trial.
Edwin Poots, a Free Presbyterian, also spoke of how his faith was sustaining him at this time. He said some people only turned to religion at a time of crisis, but he drew comfort from having had a long relationship with God.
Others, as Mr Poots said, might be sceptical of his beliefs but everyone, regardless of their views, will have empathy with a man drawing sustenance from all that he holds dear in what is clearly a frightening and bewildering time.
It was courageous of the minister to talk so candidly about his illness and the choices he must make. One imagines baring the stuff of his soul was not an easy experience but he is to be commended for doing so. Some facing a similar predicament will have taken solace from hearing him speak openly and honestly about his feelings, his family and his faith.
Let’s wish Mr Poots — and all those seeking urgent treatment in these difficult days — all the very best.