John Simpson is no stranger to danger. As he says: ‘I have been blown up, bombed and injured in the course of my work.’ Most famously, the BBC world affairs editor was hit by shrapnel in a bombing raid in Iraq in 2003.
Tragically, his translator died during the attack, and John’s hearing was permanently damaged. Two years earlier, in 2001 he’d risked his life by sneaking into Afghanistan disguised in a burka.
But 72-year-old John says none of his hair-raising experiences was as frightening as what happened to him earlier this month, when he nearly died after suffering food poisoning.
Feeling lucky to be alive: John Simpson with his wife Dee, a 53-year-old TV producer, and son Rafe, ten
On the morning of September 8, he collapsed unconscious on the floor of his bedroom at home in Oxford, in front of his wife Dee, a 53-year-old TV producer.
As he lapsed in and out of consciousness, the family GP called an ambulance, which rushed him to the nearby John Radcliffe Hospital.
With his blood pressure dangerously low and his kidneys starting to fail, John was put on a ventilator. In intense pain, he had to be heavily sedated, only vaguely aware of what was going on around him.
He learned later, that by midnight ‘the doctors were thinking that I was a complete goner — my kidneys were giving up’, he says.
‘My blood had a very high proportion of toxins, and they told my wife they’d never seen someone with such profoundly deranged blood test results who was still breathing.
‘But they couldn’t work out what was wrong.
‘They were asking Dee all sorts of questions. It crossed their minds that, because of my job, it might have something to do with the Russians, and they asked if it was possible that I’d been exposed to cyanide or radiation.’
As Dee, his sister-in-law and children — Rafe, ten, and his grown-up daughters Julia and Eleanor — gathered at his bedside, they were warned that John, in all probability, would not pull through.
Foreign reporting: The BBC journalist was hit by shrapnel in a bombing raid in Iraq in 2003
At one point there were 20 people standing around his bed. His wife Dee said: ‘And one of the main guys was saying they were reaching the limits of what they could do for him.’
John says: ‘It was like a Victorian deathbed scene, and I was desperate to say sorry for putting them through such worry. But with a whopping great [breathing] tube down my throat, I could not speak.
‘I couldn’t move, I couldn’t talk, I was in pain. It was worse than anything I have ever been through — and I’ve been through some pretty horrendous experiences in my time.
‘But the amazing thing was how marvellously everyone coped. My wife especially — she dealt with it all superbly.’
A day later, doctors were at last able to identify the cause of his near-fatal illness: bacteria in a bowl of kedgeree he’d eaten at a local restaurant two days before had caused severe food poisoning.
John had eaten the kedgeree when he’d gone out for breakfast on September 5.
‘It was a Monday, and in retrospect, if I had had half a brain, I would not have ordered kedgeree because I suspect that it had been sitting around all weekend,’ he says.
John is pictured talking on BBC News 24 about how he was nearly killed in the bombing
‘I thought it tasted slightly weird, but Dee and I were chatting so I carried on shovelling it in. But towards the end of the meal, I thought: “No, something’s wrong” and I stopped eating.’
Sure enough, within hours he was repeatedly sick, but the next day he felt better, although not fantastic. The day after that, the Wednesday, he went to play cricket for his team, the Chelsea Society, in London.
‘I was really looking forward to it,’ he says. ‘I adore playing cricket.
‘Anyone with sense would have said: “You’re not right, you can’t play.” But I’m the president of the club and I thought I had to play. And it was a lovely, hot, sunny day.’
Mid-match, John started feeling unwell. ‘I felt light-headed but thought I was simply dehydrated, so I got someone to take my place fielding and I lay down on the grass by the club house.’
At home the following morning, he felt too ill to get up.
‘I said to Dee: “Darling, I think I might have to stay in bed.”
‘I’d developed a pain in my back — I knew it was kidney pain as I’ve had four kidney stones over the past 30 years. It was quite a savage, stabbing pain.
‘I tottered around a bit and asked my wife to drive me to the GP. But then she came back into the bedroom to find me unconscious on the floor.’
John (pictured reporting for the BBC in 2001) had been taking blood pressure medication for the past 20 years, and this prevented his blood pressure recovering normally
John’s next memory is of being in the ambulance.
‘I remember saying to one of the crew: “I don’t think you realise how much pain I am in.” It was like having all of my four previous kidney stones at once.
‘But when they asked me where the pain was, I kept pointing at my stomach and below the rib cage, which is what confused them in making the diagnosis.’
In fact, what had happened was that the food poisoning and sickness had left John severely dehydrated and reduced his kidney function. As a result, he had a potentially fatal cocktail of toxins in his blood.
Neil Turner, professor of nephrology at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and a spokesman for Kidney Research UK, explains: ‘The kidneys close down as a protective mechanism.
‘If you have sustained sickness and diarrhoea, your blood pressure drops (as the amount of fluid in the body drops), and so the kidneys slow their normal function — removing the waste products of metabolism — and stop producing urine. Normally, after the sickness is over, blood pressure will start to rise and kidney function will be restored.’
However, John had been taking blood pressure medication for the past 20 years, and this prevented his blood pressure recovering normally. It, therefore, remained dangerously low, leading to loss of consciousness and his kidney function deteriorating even further.
‘That’s why doctors should advise patients taking blood pressure medication to lay off them for a few days if they have an episode of vomiting and diarrohea or any illness that leaves them dehydrated,’ says Professor Turner.
Once the cause of his symptoms was identified, John was put onto a dialysis machine to ‘wash out’ the toxins from his blood.
‘That started to help very quickly,’ says John. ‘By the Saturday morning I was sitting up in bed, but then I started having visions.
‘I thought that one nurse was deliberately making me ill, and it looked to me as if another nurse had turned the intensive care unit into some sort of Middle Eastern banqueting hall.
As he lapsed in and out of consciousness after collapsing, his family GP called an ambulance, which rushed him to the nearby John Radcliffe Hospital (pictured) in Oxford
‘I didn’t say anything about this to anyone — but at the time it seemed very real.
‘It was not until the next day, when I felt better, that I realised the nurse was a sweet girl from County Kerry who bore me no malice at all.’
Hallucinations are very common after kidney problems, says Professor Turner. ‘We think it is a mixture of toxins, dehydration and, sometimes, drugs used as a treatment affecting the brain. It can be very frightening for the patient.’
As his condition improved, John’s breathing tube was removed.
‘The first thing I said was “I’m so sorry” to my family,’ he recalls. ‘They coped so well. Even my little son was brilliant. They were fantastic.’
John spent another week in hospital while staff made sure his kidney function returned to normal. He was then discharged with instructions to drink plenty of fluids. He has stopped taking the blood pressure pills that caused the problems (his doctor has asked him not to name them for fear that others could stop taking them).
‘The funny thing is, I have taken those pills every day for the past 20 years, since I was diagnosed with high blood pressure in my 50s. I’m now not taking any blood pressure medication and yet my blood pressure is fine,’ he laughs.
He is very much determined to ensure it’s business as usual after this, with work trips planned to China, Iraq and Russia.
‘I’ve been told that had I not been lucky enough to live so close to a major hospital, there is every chance I would now be dead,’ says John.
‘And yes, of course something like this makes you think differently.
‘I have been hugely careless with my health all my life — I have eaten what I wanted and, although I walk everywhere I can, I have never taken any formal exercise.
‘But having had so many people help to save my life, it would be stupid to not change anything.
‘It was an NHS hospital and I cannot commend the staff enough.
‘After news of my illness broke, there were comments online saying: “I bet I wouldn’t get 20 medical staff round me if I was ill in hospital”.
‘Well, they weren’t giving me that care because of who I was. I was just another patient in the line.
‘When I was first admitted, Dee said there was one person who had been in a serious crash and another character who had tried to jump through a glass window — and they cared for us all brilliantly.
‘So having benefited from that care, I will be looking after myself better in future.’