Diabetes nightmare: A hypoglycemic attack on air

Media caption,
Alex Ritson in the radio studio

When BBC World Service presenter Alex Ritson's nightmare became a reality, he was glad his team recognised he was having a hypoglycemic attack as a result of his diabetes. Here he explains how you could help if one of your friends finds themselves in his position.

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.

To put that simply - it's "low batteries". A lack of sugar, or fuel for all the cells in the body, most notably key bits of the brain.

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.

And I had a strange sensation which I can only describe as my subconscious, for reasons of survival, independently trying to wrestle my life controls away from my failing conscious mind.

Abilities which are secondary to vital functions like the heartbeat - such as the power of speech and of reasoning - were being switched off.

Great team

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.

Image source, Getty Images

And I was lucky to be able to do this. Roughly one in 300 people has the condition - and many would agree with me that one of the worst parts is the embarrassment caused by such episodes.

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 know a few other people at the BBC who have this condition. We have all shared private horror stories with each other - near misses which we don't even dare tell our partners about. But that's life - that is the reality of living with type 1 diabetes.

Worst day at work

If it's well controlled, you will have occasional low sugar episodes. We don't want to be wrapped in cotton wool, or asked to work less, or do easy things.

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 it's less than four, get them a can of Coke - or some sachets of sugar from the tea bar. You could save them from - what was for me - my worst ever day at work.

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