How two BBC stars took different paths in dealing with MS

Two brilliant BBC stars both struck with MS… How one award-winning correspondent gambled on life while the other lost so much dignity and independence she went to Dignitas

  • Both Caroline Wyatt and Nyta Mann were diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 
  • Ms Mann, who was confined to a wheelchair, decided to end her life at Dignitas
  • Ms Wyatt went to Mexico where she underwent pioneering stem cell therapy  
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Caroline Wyatt, pictured, was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis at the end of 2015 and has undergone pioneering stem cell therapy in Mexico to alleviate her symptoms 

As a veteran BBC correspondent who has spent three decades reporting from around the globe, one of the most vital tools at Caroline Wyatt’s disposal is her voice.

Imagine then the shattering mixture of embarrassment and dread when a couple of years ago she found herself reading from a script in a video editing suite only to find that very tool had failed her.

‘I was reading out something I had written when the editor stopped me and said, “You are missing out every other word.”

‘So I did it again and the same thing happened. “You are still skipping words, just different ones,” he said.

‘I was reading out what I thought were the words, but my brain was like a broken DVD.

‘The only way I can describe how I felt is a sense of sheer disbelief. I knew what it was, deep down, but it didn’t stop it feeling like I was beginning to break down, bit by bit.’

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That moment in late 2015 was the culmination of a series of ‘moments’ — from loss of mobility to inexplicable falls, endless fatigue and the erosion of functions we all take for granted (from being able to pick up a cup to control of the bladder). They were all signs the multiple sclerosis she’d been diagnosed with a month earlier was suddenly getting worse.

BBC journalist Nyta Mann, who was confined to a wheelchair as a result of her MS decided to end her own life earlier this year in a Dignitas clinic in Switzerland

MS occurs when the immune system attacks the sufferer’s own fragile nervous system, damaging the protective covering around the nerves themselves, disrupting the transfer of messages between the brain and the body.

It’s an unpredictable condition and every sufferer’s symptoms vary. For some, it’s a progressive disease, for others, like Caroline, it is relapsing and remitting.

There is no cure: until recently treatment revolved around ‘disease-modifying drugs’ and non-drug therapies (diet, exercise), but for some, these offer little respite. And in extreme cases, some have chosen to end their lives rather than endure the ever more debilitating decline. It’s with sadness that Caroline speaks of former BBC colleague, Nyta Mann, a political journalist, who also had MS. Earlier this year, aged 51, Nyta made the decision to end her life at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland.

Caroline says: ‘She was in a wheelchair, not able to work any more, she didn’t have children, wasn’t married and I think in the end just gave up hope of living a life that for her was worthwhile.

‘I think she felt the MS had taken so much of her dignity and independence that she could no longer see a light at the end of the tunnel.’

It’s clear her colleague’s experience weighs heavily on Caroline, who remains determined not to lose sight of the light.

It’s why, nearly two years ago, she opted to try an experimental treatment that even her own doctors warned against. On New Year’s Eve 2016, Caroline, now 51, boarded a flight from London’s Heathrow to Mexico to undergo a radical stem cell transplant in the hope that it would spark the growth of a new immune system, offering some respite from the march of MS.

Before her journey, Caroline spent a happy Christmas with her close family in North London.

‘We all ate too much, drank too much, exchanged presents, but the stem cell transplant was there on my shoulder the whole time,’ she says. ‘It was a surreal concept: New Year, new immune system.’

Her brother Simon accompanied her, with the siblings raising a glass of champagne at midnight in mid-air. When Simon left, a nurse named Joy took over to support Caroline through the 15-day immediate recovery period when infection risk soars.

Caroline, whose short grey-blonde hair is a reminder of the chemotherapy, says: ‘The transplant I had is known as HSCT, a haematopoietic stem cell transplant. It involved four rounds of chemotherapy to wipe out my faulty immune system.

‘Then came the reboot: an infusion of my own haematopoietic stem cells, the cells within the bone marrow that give rise to new blood cells, to help hasten the building of a new immune system.’

She was given a two-year window to assess the impact of the stem cell treatment and its close is fast approaching. Results in other patients range from the near miraculous to disappointing. There is not a shred of self-pity as Caroline admits that, for her, ‘the jury’s out’.

Sitting in the bright living room of her second-floor flat (stairs, no lift: a problem she resists confronting) Caroline recalls how in 1992, plagued by numb hands and heavy limbs, she was diagnosed with repetitive strain injury. Now, of course, she knows these can be neurological symptoms. Back then, she shrugged it off and embarked on becoming a foreign correspondent.

Ms Wyatt said she probably had symptoms of MS dating back to 1992 when she was plagued by numb hands and heavy limbs – which is often a pre-cursor for the disease

In 2001 — after a fruitless trip to the far east of Russia in search of Siberian tigers — she inexplicably collapsed at the feet of a puzzled British ambassador. ‘He was lovely, very sympathetic, but it was hugely embarrassing because everyone must have assumed I was drunk.’

It was feared she had a brain tumour so she returned to the flat she shared with her boyfriend, Peter. She was relieved when it turned out to be damage to the nerve coverings in the brain, which can be a pre-cursor to MS.

‘I saw a neurologist who said: “We can’t say if it’s MS or not [testing for MS is lengthy, the early symptoms can have other causes], but if you find you can’t walk do come back,” ’ Caroline says dryly.

She admits: ‘I had my suspicions . . . I kind of ignored it.’

She never lost the ability to walk (although she uses a sparkly silver-topped cane now), so simply kept going. ‘In the end I just thought I will get through every day as best I can and actually for years it worked,’ she says. There was a cost, however. Anxiety about ill health weighed heavily on Caroline and her partner, who had been trying for children.

‘Peter and I subsequently broke up — in part because I stubbornly refused to scale back my work, despite my sometimes poor health.’

Chronic fatigue and ME were mooted as possible explanations and a better work-life balance was recommended.


Multiple sclerosis, known as MS, is a condition in which the immune system attacks the body and causes nerve damage to the brain and spinal cord.

It is an incurable, lifelong condition which ranges from producing fairly mild symptoms to causing severe disability.

Around 100,000 people are thought to be diagnosed with MS in the UK, and around 2.3 million worldwide.

It is more than twice as common in women as it is in men and is usually diagnosed in their 20s and 30s.

Symptoms include fatigue, difficulty walking, vision problems, bladder problems, numbness or tingling, muscle stiffness and spasms, problems with balance and co-ordination, and problems with thinking, learning and planning.

The majority of sufferers will have episodes of symptoms which go away and come back, while some have ones which get gradually worse over time.

Symptoms can be managed with medication and therapy, but the condition shortens the average life expectancy by around five to 10 years.

Source: NHS Choices 

In 2014 the opportunity to move from defence to religious affairs seemed the perfect opportunity to redress the balance.

But Caroline chuckles as she says: ‘I do not know how the Pope does it; his energy is incredible. I would come back from covering a papal trip absolutely wiped out.’

Then, after a year of tests, came the diagnosis in November 2015: relapsing-remitting MS, the most common form. ‘I had a horrible sense I knew what the doctor was going to say before he said it,’ says Caroline. ‘It was one of those heart-sinking moments where you just think: “Oh bugger, this is serious.” It was a shock, but one I was prepared for.’

Now she knew what she was fighting, Caroline began research, overhauled her diet, prioritised sleep, and practised yoga and meditation.

Until, suddenly, everything escalated. First came the moment when she stumbled over her script in the editing suite, then, in early 2016, she fell on a pedestrian crossing, near Parliament, ‘flat on my face in front of all the cars’.

With two scraped knees and tears running down her cheeks, she was scooped up by a former colleague who happened to be behind her.

The next morning she woke up seeing double. ‘There is only one lampshade in my bedroom ceiling, but when I woke up, I could see two, and from some angles three and it was the first time the MS had ever made me feel so devastatingly unable to cope on my own.’

She admits she ‘howled with grief’.

‘It was the first time I had really taken time off work for MS, but after years of almost total denial, I realised the regime of work and sleep was no longer sustainable.’

She stood down as religious affairs correspondent, although she continues to work full-time for the corporation, for radio and TV, and says her employer has been ‘very supportive’.

Shortly afterwards she watched a Panorama programme about developments in stem cell transplants — more commonly associated with treatment of blood cancers — for MS patients.

Some have seen ‘life-changing’ results, but it doesn’t work for everyone. It can be very gruelling and renders the patient vulnerable to infection. There is also a small risk of death.

Caroline had a brain scan to see if she was eligible to take part in the British end of a global medical trial. Sadly it did not show the necessary results.

That’s when, undeterred, Caroline learned of the clinic in Mexico reporting promising results in MS patients. After anxious hours of research and deliberation she decided she simply had to try.

She says: ‘For me, the small chance of death following chemotherapy was infinitely preferable to the certainty of further silent decline.’

She is under no illusion that it’s a choice for everyone. ‘When I told a new GP, he said: “You might die.” I don’t think my neurologist was too delighted at the idea either. He pointed out the treatment was still relatively experimental.

‘It’s such an individual decision. I just felt: “Things are getting worse quickly, if there is anything I can do to halt the progression, I’ll do it,” because I didn’t want to look back in the future and say “if only”. In the end I chose the place that felt right to me, that sounded trustworthy, which isn’t to say I wasn’t petrified or that my family didn’t worry I was going off to some shack in the desert.’

Clinica Ruiz, a private haematology clinic in Puebla, was in fact a centre of excellence. Caroline had to raise £60,000 for flights, accommodation, private nursing and treatment, but thankfully she had savings and a supportive family.

Despite debilitating sickness post treatment, the early signs were positive.

‘Temporarily I responded incredibly well for several months,’ she says. ‘Straight after the second round of chemo I felt the brain fog lift and my legs got lighter. It did feel remarkable.’

When the reporter returned to the UK (a surgical mask as a germ-barrier and a sombrero covering her hair loss) she was delighted to discover she had regained abilities lost: suddenly she could thread a needle, so she sewed on buttons and took up hems.

‘On one day, I managed to walk more than ten miles, on legs so light that I almost felt I was dancing up the hill. I hadn’t been able to do that for years, thanks to the devastating fatigue of MS. The joy I felt when I reached home that day lit me from inside.’

But slowly and insidiously, like smoke seeping through the crack beneath a door as a fire takes hold, the MS crept back. At six months her walking began to get worse: ‘I started to wake up and the brain fog would be back. It was a mixture of good and bad, simultaneously.’

One of the side-effects of treatment was that it hastened menopause. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) has been a revelation, says Caroline.

Today her right foot drops, meaning she regularly stumbles; she tires easily (a short break is factored into her brief walk to the Tube). But she is thrilled she is no longer so forgetful that she can’t enjoy a book.

She’s also thrilled she’s still working and has a future to look forward to. After all, she knows others aren’t so lucky, including her former colleague Nyta Mann.

‘She got in touch with me not long after I got back from Mexico and said: “Has it worked for you?” By then she was in a wheelchair, not able to work at all any more.

‘Had I been in her position I don’t know what I would have done.

‘Of course it has run through my mind, what would I do if I couldn’t eat, couldn’t swallow, couldn’t speak? I would certainly think about Dignitas because I wouldn’t want to be a burden — but equally I would have to be in a pretty extreme situation, mainly because the impact of that on your family and your friends is devastating.’

She cherishes the fact she’s ‘not in that position, certainly not yet’.

In a way, she says decisions have been easier as a single woman — ‘MS and age aren’t a good advertisement,’ she jokes — but really she’s funny, warm and doesn’t look her age. Regarding the future, ‘my goal is to stay healthy enough to be there for my wonderful parents as they age — and for my brothers, sister, nieces, nephews, great-nieces and friends. I’d love to be able to continue both to work and enjoy life, rather than sleep-walking though it in a haze of crushing fatigue.’

And as for the all-important two-year point post-treatment, there isn’t a magic test that gives all the answers. She won’t have the results of her latest brain scan until March. In the meantime she is only taking drugs for symptoms (she’s tried disease-modifying medication with little success).

‘I have at last accepted living with uncertainty,’ says Caroline. ‘I plan less and make more time for family and friends. Nyta took the path that felt right for her. I want to take a different path: to carry on, wherever it may lead.’

And there’s always the hope that a yet more effective new treatment will soon hover on the horizon.


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