Daily Telegraph 25th August 2020
It has been business as usual on Channel 5 News during lockdown. Sian Williams, polished and professional, delivering the teatime bulletin from her studio. Except, unbeknown to viewers, that studio was the back bedroom of her Kent home. She did her make-up in the bathroom, enlisted her husband to point the camera, propped a mattress against the door to block the sound of her 11-year-old practising gymnastics downstairs, and kept her fingers crossed that the WiFi wouldn’t drop out.
The situation was born of the surreal times in which we’re living, but it chimes perfectly with Williams’s style: an air of calm and capability, despite what may be going on behind the scenes. During a 30-year career with the BBC she reported on some of the biggest news stories, from Hillsborough to the Paddington rail crash and the Asian tsunami, and spent more than a decade on the Breakfast sofa before moving to Channel 5, where she has now been for four-and-a-half years.
But alongside this, Williams has also been quietly training as a trauma counsellor. And in September, she takes up a new job as a psychological therapist with the NHS.
Her motivation is two-fold. First, she comes from a medical family: her late mother and grandmother were nurses, her brother is in hospital management and one of her sons is an A&E doctor.
“I look at my family and think. ‘They’re doing it, time for you to step up,’” she says. And then there are her own experiences of hospital care. “I owe an enormous debt to the NHS for helping me, for helping my family. I’m just so profoundly grateful for it.”
The most recent time was in February, when Williams was undergoing a final reconstructive surgery, following her 2014 breast cancer diagnosis. She had a double mastectomy then and required a complex, 10-hour operation this year. As she came round, staff spotted that her oxygen levels were worryingly low.
“I otherwise appeared to be recovering quite well. They put me on oxygen and kept monitoring me. I felt like I was in the best possible hands,” she says. Her suspicion is that it may have been Covid-related, but she wasn’t tested. Williams was clearly affected by this but is keen to underplay its seriousness, just as she is when, in passing, she mentions that her heart stopped on the operating table during earlier reconstructive surgery.
“Oh, now that’s going to sound like a ‘thing’, isn’t it?” she laughs, when I react with shock. “It was just quite weird when I woke up and said, ‘Did everything go ok?’ and they said, ‘Yeah, your heart stopped for a while but we got it back so it all went well’.”
When her youngest son was born in 2006, she suffered a postpartum haemorrhage and needed emergency surgery to save her life.
“I’ve been in hospital a few times over the years and on occasion it has been quite dramatic,” she concedes.
Williams, 55, is a mother of four – to Al and Joss, both in their 20s, from her first marriage to Neale Hunt, and Seth, 13, and Evie, 11, from her second marriage to TV producer Paul Woolwich. They live in an out-of-the-way Kent village with gorgeous views of fields and sky. Williams is warm and welcoming, proffering home-made banana bread when I arrive.
She is unusually modest for someone who spends so much of their time on television. She kept her cancer secret from the public until 2016, when she released a book, Rise: A First-Aid Kit for Getting Through Tough Times, in which she wrote honestly about her treatment and emotional recovery. It was not her first experience of cancer: her mother, Kathy, died from the disease in 2009.
Williams will help patients with cancer and other illnesses in her new role, while continuing with her Channel 5 work and a position counselling students at a London university. She is studying for a doctorate that requires her to clock up “flying hours” and during lockdown has been conducting appointments via Zoom. She thinks her work will be more necessary than ever post-pandemic.
“Lockdown has made it so much worse because there has been no means of escape – adolescents finding life really hard but they’re not able to see their friends, students who have had to go back and live with their parents when sometimes those relationships aren’t great,” she explains.
“Getting out of lockdown can be really quite frightening, more frightening than being in it. And I think it’s my job, along with all the other counsellors, therapists and psychologists, to say, ‘You know what, what you’re feeling is absolutely normal. I’m here and I might not be able to cure everything for you but I can be with you in a dark place and I can make you feel safe’. I feel so passionately about it that when I start talking about it I get emotional.”
In her book, Williams writes of how indignant she felt when she, “a regular runner and green tea drinker”, was diagnosed with cancer a week after celebrating her 50th birthday. Has the experience changed her?
“I just think it becomes embedded as part of your experience in the same ways as lots of things. I’m in my mid-50s – I think most people my age will have experienced something, if not a handful of traumas. It’ll always be part of who I am.”
She still runs for her mental health, although it’s been a while since her last marathon. “I talked to my best friend the other day and said, ‘If I manage to do 5k at the moment it’s a triumph. I don’t know if it’s because I had the operation in February or because I’m not training hard enough,’ and she said, ‘Sian, you’re just getting on. I can’t do the stuff I used to do either. We’re just older!’”
Patients almost never recognise her, she says, because “I don’t look like a television person when I’m delivering therapy. My hair’s scraped back, I’m wearing no make-up. It has only happened twice, and both times I said, ‘I’m not the only therapist here, if you’re seeing me as a TV presenter and not a psychologist then we need to change.’”
Williams almost took up a placement at another hospital before discovering that her son was about to start there. “I just thought, you don’t want your mum turning up at work, do you? ‘Hi, darling, have you got your packed lunch?’ So we’re not working in the same hospital but I’m really proud of him. At the beginning I was really worried about the PPE and whether there was enough. He’s 26 and he’s a doctor, but he’s still my boy.”
This time next year, she will be Dr Sian Williams. It’s a long way from the BBC Breakfast sofa. When she walks through the hospital doors on her first day, will she allow herself a little ‘I did it’ moment?
“My mum would have liked me to have gone into the NHS,” she says. “It’s a shame she’s not around because I could just say, ‘It’s taken me 40 years but…’.”
Williams believes some positives have come out of lockdown. “Although there have been really difficult mental health problems there are also sparks of resilience and hope and optimism,” she adds. “I’d like to think people will be able to look at themselves and think, do you know, I did that. We did it.”