Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2008, the veteran TV news anchor and father of three shares his 15-year journey and how living with the disease has made him “a much more empathetic person”
CNN’s John King still remembers the life-changing moment in 2008 when he first learned that he might have MS. He was covering the Republican convention in St. Paul when he suddenly began feeling sluggish.
“I had a lack of sensation that started in my lower legs, and it went up to my thighs,” recalls King, who boasts a prestigious 26-year career at CNN as chief national correspondent and former host of Inside Politics. “Then all of a sudden, it came past my waist and up my torso, and I was having a hard time moving.”
He went to the medical tent at the convention center, where a paramedic suspected he might have MS and advised King to see his doctor for an MRI. “I just looked at him and said, ‘What? ’”
Not long after, following an MRI, King was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS), the most common form of the disease, where symptomatic flare-ups, or attacks, are followed by periods of partial or complete remission.
“I was petrified,” admits the 60-year-old father of three, who lives outside of Bethesda, Md. “I immediately thought, ‘Am I not going to be able to walk or do my job? Am I not going to be able to play baseball or hike with my kids?’”
King was prescribed medication that, along with a healthy diet and regular exercise, has effectively helped him manage the disease in the 15 years since then. “I have my challenges,” he admits, “but if you look at the spectrum of what MS can do — for a lot of people it’s incredibly aggressive and horribly cruel — I’m very, very lucky.”
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A chronic autoimmune disease that affects an estimated 1 million Americans, MS attacks the central nervous system, producing lesions on the brain and spinal cord and damaging the protective layer surrounding the nerve fibers, called myelin. As a result, signals to and from the brain are disrupted, causing a range of symptoms, including tingling, numbness, blurred vision and fatigue, among others.
“MS can affect any part of your brain or your spinal cord, so it can cause all sorts of trouble,” says Dr. Peter Calabresi, professor of neurology and director of the MS Center at Johns Hopkins University and King’s physician. “[Which is why] there are so many different types, and everyone experiences something different.”
While there’s still no cure, Calabresi says research has been promising. “We have newer drugs that can dramatically reduce MS activity and, for some people, completely put the disease in remission.”
King was born and raised in Dorchester, a blue-collar section of Boston, where he was the third oldest of seven kids. “We had no money growing up,” says King, recalling how his dad, Richard King (who died in 1987 at age 55), was a jail guard who worked overnight shifts, while his mother, Joan (who died in 1992 at age 59), was a stay-at- home mom. (“She was a saint on earth,” says King.) He attended the University of Rhode Island, where his knack for writing led to journalism classes and an internship with the Associated Press in Providence.
“It was a tiny bureau,” remembers King, who covered everything from the state legislature to Claus von Bülow’s infamous murder retrial. “I literally was like, ‘They pay people to do this? I think I like this.’”
He applied for a full-time job with the AP his senior year, then transferred to their Boston bureau in 1987, where he was assigned Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis’s run for President. “They didn’t think he was going anywhere,” says King. “So they said, ‘Well, let the kid cover Dukakis.’ And of course, he became the Democratic nominee.”
In 1988 King headed to Washington, D.C., with the AP and became their chief political correspondent before joining CNN in 1997. “I said I would stay five years,” jokes King. “I lied.”
He experienced his first MS symptoms during the summer of 1998 while covering the White House and Bill Clinton’s vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.
“I went for a jog one day,” he says. “And when I came back, I had pins and needles, first in my feet, and then it went up to my knees—and I just thought it was weird.”
He consulted the White House doctor, who was traveling with the President. She suggested he get X-rays, and not long after, he also had an MRI; both proved inconclusive. King had been in a car accident in college that left him with damaged discs at the base of his spine — so his doctor chalked up his symptoms to a pinched nerve that couldn’t be seen on the MRI.
Over the next few years King continued to experience “episodic” bouts of tingling, numbness and “violent pain in my legs, like sciatica,” he says, all of which were attributed to his disc issues. That is, until King began experiencing the loss of feeling in his arms and upper torso during the summer of 2008 — which alarmed his doctor, who prescribed another round of MRIs.
“And lo and behold, there are the lesions,” recalls King. “They looked like little dried flowers running up the spinal cord and nerves. It scared the hell out of me.”
Worried about the fallout to his career, King decided to keep his disease a secret. “It was plainly stupid on my part, but I thought it would hurt me professionally,” says King, who confided in a handful of close CNN colleagues and his family, including the network’s chief political correspondent Dana Bash, whom he had married that same year. (They divorced in 2012. “She’s one of my best friends,” says King.) “I was afraid they would think they needed to protect me. ‘So, you want to go to Iraq? No, we can’t let you do that.’ ”
It wasn’t until Oct. 19, 2021, during an unplanned moment on his live show
Inside Politics, that King finally revealed his struggles with MS, while making a point about the importance of COVID-19 vaccines and mask mandates to help protect the immunocompromised.
“I had obviously been thinking about that a lot because of my own personal experience,” he recalls. “I could see that it was a shock to the people at the table. But the reaction internally and from perfect strangers was overwhelmingly positive, mind-blowing.”
Over the years he’s learned that “heat and stress are my worst triggers,” while sudden loud noises and bright flashing lights can sometimes cause him to “either lose my balance, or my vision gets blurry,” adds King, who’s been on the same medication, which he injects every other day, since he was first diagnosed.
“My legs can feel like telephone poles. They’re so heavy, I just can’t move them.” The long hours on-set can be challenging. “Almost every time I’m at the Magic Wall [touchscreen], it manifests itself in one way or another,” admits King, who sometimes struggles to guide his hand to the right spot on the screen.
“On my worst days I can’t feel my legs or my hands. But when you’re on live television, you just get through it,” adds King, who has only missed one day of work since his diagnosis.
In addition to his medication, King follows an exercise regimen that includes a couple of hours a day (when he has time) walking on an inclined treadmill and a mix of squats, stretches, light weights and the rowing machine.
“You learn what works and what doesn’t,” says King, who also loves tossing a baseball with his son Jonah, 12, whom he shares with Bash, and downtime with his two older kids from his first marriage — Noah, 30, who’s a biochemist in the Boston area, and Hannah, 26, who works in finance in New York. “It was scary for [all of] them at first,” says King, “And then they realized, ‘Okay, Dad seems to be doing okay.’”
Indeed — and King shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. In his latest role at CNN, he’ll be traveling the country, talking to voters in swing states and elsewhere in the run-up to next year’s presidential election.
“I’m like a kid in a candy store,” says King, who also takes time to share his story with others — including patients at the Boston Home (thebostonhome.org), a facility for people with advanced neurological disorders, including MS.
“They’re dealing with the horrifically cruel parts of MS, and yet they’re full of smiles and support,” says King, whose own prognosis is not likely to change. “My doctors are convinced that, after 15 years, this is probably my path. I’m way more in touch with my body and my brain than I ever was—and I’m a much more empathetic person now. I feel like the luckiest man on earth.”
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