BBC journalist who experienced hypo live on air discusses his “nightmare”

BBC journalist Alex Ritson has long been a household name among Radio 4 listeners, but his career and life as he knew it changed when he experienced a hypo live on air.

Ritson was introducing The Newsroom show earlier this month when he became confused, unable to read the script in front of him. Ritson, who has type 1 diabetes, was experiencing a hypo, which occurs when blood sugar levels fall too low. It can be caused by too much insulin or not enough food.

He retained enough awareness to withdraw from air and proceeded to consume a dozen sachets of sugar. Six minutes later, he was back on air, apologising for his lapse, and was widely commended by listeners for his speedy recovery.

Ritson has since been sharing his story, which he describes as a “nightmare”, and while Ritson’s story is alarming, it is heartening to see diabetes awareness raised in the mainstream media, particularly regarding the causes and treatments of hypos.

This extract is taken from an interview Ritson did with BBC News:

“Most newsreaders I know have one thing in common: a recurring dream where everything starts going wrong a few minutes before the top of the hour and they only just make it into the studio on time.

When the pips finally sound, they look down and realise all their scripts are blank, and they end up spouting seemingly endless gibberish before finally waking up in a cold sweat, only to find they are safely in bed.

On 1 December, it happened to me, live on the BBC World Service and Radio 4 at 05:00. But it wasn’t a dream. This time, it was real.

The reason – as you’ll know if you listened to the whole tape – was medical. I have type 1 diabetes and my on-air nightmare was caused by a severe hypoglycemic attack.

And it was terrifying. As I was trying to read the script, my eyes started operating independently of each other, creating two swirling pages of words, neither of which would stay still.

Fortunately, I work with a great team. Producer Neil Nunes steadied the ship by reading a perfect news bulletin after my cringe-worthy opening sequence, as my colleagues helped me wolf down more than a dozen sachets of sugar.

I returned to the airwaves, at six minutes past the hour, and before long was pretty much back to normal. I explained what had happened to the listeners, and had some really lovely messages from all over the world.

People who witness your symptoms generally assume you are drunk or rude. There have been terrible cases of people being arrested for their disorderly behaviour and thrown in the cells – only to be found dead the following morning.

I spend my life trying to do as much as possible. I play football three or four times a week, I do lots of DIY with power tools. I have strategies for making sure I’m fine at these and other key moments – such as when I’m presenting radio programmes. In a pretty long career, they’ve been very effective.

If someone you know has type 1 diabetes and you see them sweating, yawning or looking incredibly tired – or being uncharacteristically drunk or moody – ask them to check their sugar level.”

If you or someone you know has type 1 diabetes and struggles to recognise hypos, consider signing up to our Hypo Training Program, an education course designed to improve your knowledge of hypo symptoms and learn more about how hypos develop.

Picture: Press Gazette

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About the author

Jack Woodfield

Jack is Editorial Manager of Diabetes.co.uk. He works hard, plays fair and sleeps whenever possible. He has type 1 diabetes, doesn't mind being called a "diabetic", and once won a talent show for dancing to Dario G’s 1997 hit “Sunchyme”.

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