BT Belfast Technology Hub - 27 October 2017

(I visited BT colleagues on Friday before chemo in Belfast this coming week, recovery during November and then a donor stem cell transplant in St James’ Hospital, Dublin.

BT Hub

Colleagues asked for access to my notes, and specifically various resources mentioned. My crib notes, fleshed out for this post, follow.)

Health Update
Since I got sick in April and the haematology doctors’ confirmation in May that we were dealing with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma for the fifth time in 33 years – unlucky! – you, my work colleagues, have been very supportive.

Through a summer of chemo I’ve had excellent medical support with five stays totalling thirty-five days in Belfast City Hospital. These stays would have been longer without care of the excellent Holywood District Nursing team and the medical technology that enables me to get home with a syringe driver.

One day in July, my Google feed queried:

"Belfast City hospital - is this your new workplace?”

Er, NO, definitely not!!

After two cycles of the potent ‘R-ICE’ regime, a PET scan showed “dramatic improvement”.  Two more cycles later and, after two further scans and some scary queries, a huge relief - “You are in total remission.”

So, all sorted then?

Nope.  My faithful immune system is just not doing a good enough job cleaning up rogue cancer cells, so I now need a new one.

The planned schedule from here is:

Next week – preventative chemo in Belfast City Hospital with Bendamustine, a drug new to me

Early December – head to St James’ Hospital, Dublin for donor stem cell transplant.  Using an IT analogy, where Windows 95 is an out-of-support operating system, and the different operating system Linux is available, the plan is

  • a week of conditioning chemo to deprecate my Windows 95 immune system
  • then a stem cell infusion from a very kind anonymous donor, replicating their shiny new Linux 4.13.9 system
  • some weeks insolation in hospital for the donated stem cells to migrate to my bone marrow and 'graft', establishing a new factory for my blood cells.  Critical-level 24/7 onsite support is needed through this phase that my Consultant terms ‘Tiger Country’
  • then, discharged to Ruth’s care for some weeks in nearby Dublin apartment
  • finally, home for a long recovery, with drugs to manage and counterbalance a residual & diminishing Windows 95 with the new Linux system.

Getting through it
I thought I’d mention a few things that have helped get through the past six months.

The toughest thing has been uncertainty at many levels.  Some days, it’s just about clinging on to existence, with Ruth at my side.

Practising basic mindfulness has helped.  After days inside, simply stepping out of hospital, or outside our front door, and just consciously breathing fresh air through my nostrils is real, enjoyable and a relief, reminding me that I’m alive.

In the garden at home, I sometimes sit for five minutes and focus on the leaf of a tree, or individual flower in one of the many pots planted by Ruth.

Slow down.


A sense of grounding, clarity and calm can result.  Notice, connect with – and appreciate – beauty.  I found this free FutureLearn online course on minfulness related to performance in the workplace insightful and applicable.

Also, stories, in various media, have been evocative and helpful.

The action movie Hacksaw Ridge, a true story, features a soldier who must go up a cliff a second time.  Facing treatment again, this second donor transplant will be tougher than the transplant with my own stem cells in 2013.  Army Medic Desmond Doss’ conviction, courage and grit facing awfulness, for a second time, inspires me. 

For a more reflective slant, Tolkien’s short story Leaf by Niggle, (full audio here), depicts an individual working through life’s responsibilities and annoyances.  Leaf by Niggle is an evocative story that, ultimately, suggests Hope into our future.

Support for LLNI – BT Couch to 5K
My Dublin Consultant is Prof. Elizabeth Vandenberghe, who introduced my specific type of transplant to Ireland 15 years ago.

Prof Vandenberghe emphasizes that the transplant and knock-on effects will be tough – “tougher than you think”.  Bloodwise explain the process here.

I have been told that I “will never run again”.

I am therefore so encouraged that BT people across the UK have signed up for this Autumn’s running / fund-raising project in support of Leukaemia & Lymphoma NI’s research into blood cancers.  Thanks to Matt Strudwick for creating the BT MyDonate page.

If you remember nothing else from this time together, remember this -

Thank You!

The benefits of regular exercise are many - the NHS quantifies 10 benefits here.  Through my running in recent years, I have found release from stress, enjoyment of fresh air, a more positive mood with endorphins flowing, and times of both restorative solitude and welcome company.  I recommend regular exercise to everyone.

While heeding medical counsel, I’m still hopeful that, in 12-18 months, I will do a 5K parkrun again, at whatever speed!  Last week, keeping this aim in view, I walked the three circuits of Belfast Victoria Park’s 5K parkrun – my longest distance in six months.

I intend to be back at parkrun next year.

What’s Next?
BT has been very supportive and encouraging about welcoming me back to work next year.  Thank you, especially Phil Lockett, for your support through this unprecedented level of uncertainty in my life.

In his paper “After the Treatment Finishes – Then What?” (a compelling 5* read for any patient, carer, medical or HR professional) Peter Harvey says

“Regaining and rebuilding your strength - both physical and emotional - is a task that cannot be emphasized enough. That is your foundation.”

I have decided, after 30 years with BT, to retire and focus on getting through the transplant and then working on rebuilding the strength needed for the next phase of life.

Thoughts on Leaving BT
Career is a really significant part of our lives as we work through the challenge & achievement of software engineering, IT operational management and leadership to deliver innovative and reliable services for our customers.

Reflecting on thirty years, I see that the major milestones of our lives can be embedded in our work and working relationships. Three examples are

  1. 23 Sep 1984 – As an Ulster Polytechnic placement student with BT in Royston House, Belfast, Damian O'Connor said to me "Tim - you're not well - go home". The next day I was admitted to hospital with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I was in Dave King’s Services team and still recall the sustained support through that difficult year from Dave and team members including Janine Stewart, Eileen Murphy and Arthur Newell.
  2. 20 Oct 1998 – As recently promoted team leader for CSS Bill Follow-up, following the formidably effective Duncan Chambers, I started some special leave as our Social Worker picked us up from Wellington Buildings to meet our new 4 year old sons for the first time.
  3. Tue 11 Sep 2001 – some of us stood on this floor in Riverside Tower at the kitchen area’s TV watching the Twin Towers burn.

This community of people within BT has lived through all sorts of experiences together. Over thirty years, some themes stand out so, as I say ‘Goodbye’, I offer three thoughts.

Respect Each Other
One of our former local Senior Managers, Malcolm Lees, noted around the time of his own retirement that BT had dropped the sentence within our values that “we respect one another”.  Malcolm thought this was a great element to have front-and-centre of our values.

So, it’s Competition Time, with a prize of the first of the German Biscuits brought along from Skinners Bakery.

Q. In BT’s current Way We Work document, how many times does the word ‘Respect’ occur?

A. The word ‘Respect’ occurs 34 times – respect for law, human rights, regulatory limits, brand, customers, stakeholders. And also respect for other people’s dignity, equality, respect for each person’s contribution and the individual diversity of everyone we work with.

“We respect one another” today remains a core BT value.  Indeed, BT, more than any other area of my life has given opportunity after opportunity to meet, and work with, and value many diverse individuals.  It has been great to work with people from places including Belfast, Glasgow, Ipswich, London, Cardiff, Pune, Bangalore and Chennai as well as many global hardware & software vendors.

In today’s world, ‘Respect for the other’ is more precious & necessary than ever.

Promote respect.  Nurture it.  Guard it.

Be Proactive (the first of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Effective People)
Maintain Skills: We are in a technical industry and have access to a rich set of training resources.  I think we all simply have to make time to keep technically up-to-date.  Everyone, for example, should have BT's Bronze certification for the Security pathway training.

Reflect on ‘Calls’:  We spend more time than 10 years ago on conference calls and the technology has improved to make this a richer experience.  Some days, however, can be “back-to-back calls”.  It’s also important to carve out time for focused thinking around innovation, problem solving, continuous improvement. Time for self to plan / learn.  Time for 1:1 sessions.  Time for team sessions to look ahead together.

Write your Team Charter: We did this on the Integration Platform and both the output and process of getting there were worthwhile.

Manage your Boundaries

  • Social media - during chemo over the summer, I realised I couldn’t tolerate toxic inputs from USA, so I switched off Donald Trump on my Google feed.
  • Well-being - I have learnt from colleague Brian Ditty who, before he heads on one holiday, has the next one booked so he can look forward to it. Similarly, years ago, BT NI’s District Engineer George Adams said to me that a half-decent manager must be able to manage his/her own leave – a basic measure in caring for your well-being.

One classic resource – ‘Boundaries’ by Cloud & Townsend – a detailed read, coming from a faith perspective, and about to be republished to also cover social media.



Celebrate Each Day

Our world seems more volatile, uncertain, complex & ambiguous than I remember it 30/20/10 years ago

So, be kind to yourself ... “Treats are allowed.”

What lingers with me today most of all is the small kindnesses shown to me by colleagues along the way.

Charley Moore, Senior Manager who established this Engineering Centre, on some late Friday nights would give a lift to a then very junior colleague from Aldergrove airport to the City Centre.  Every time I drive down the M2 motorway at night time and turn the sweeping bend to overlook the lights of Belfast City, I think of Charley, his work for the Centre, and his kindness at the end of another long week.

And, now, I think of the massive support from BT people last year & this year for our running projects in support of LLNI and the 197 people we signed up as potential stem cell donors.


Our time is up.

“Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about”

… so anything you can do to support a work culture where people help each other on will help with overall effectiveness.


Thank you to people here today, everyone on this conference call, people currently out of the office, and colleagues from former years.

Thank you to Ruth, for presence and support “when it was easy and when it was difficult” as we committed to each other in our wedding vows.

I first worked for BT in 1984, before the World Wide Web was invented in 1989. We have been, and are, involved in world-changing achievement. I wish you well in your careers and in life.

Respect each other.

Be proactive.

Celebrate each day.

Living with Lymphoma – a most unexpected adventure

‘Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.’ (Helen Keller)

September 1984.  I’m 20 years old, on a diet and have lost weight with unmerited success.  The doctor wants a chest X-ray.  Within hours I’m in the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast (RVH). Biopsies identify a mass as Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.  Five months of chemotherapy follow, with unimaginable nausea – then a month of radiotherapy to my chest.

With my dad terminally ill, Holywood Methodists kick into action.  Mr Jack Wilson co-ordinates a rota of daily drives: Belvoir for Dad, RVH for me.  Friendly faces show up regularly with casseroles. I learn from this man of God the value of leadership in co-ordinating compassion and practical care. One night in Ward 22, I wake up following chemotherapy.  Opening a card and reading the comforting words, the room fills with a sense of peace I haven’t experienced before.

Access to my veins becomes tricky.  I experience ‘anticipatory vomiting’ as doctors approach with syringes.  Reflecting on my terror of this procedure – administered for my benefit – I become a supporter of Release International, established by Richard Wurmbrand, that supports people imprisoned for their faith.

Life proceeds.  I get a job with BT.  I meet Ruth and am profoundly blessed to marry this beautiful, insightful woman in 1994.  Twin boys Chris and Downey arrive.

May 2008.  The growing mass in my neck is diagnosed as Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.  It’s just bad luck or, possibly, a ‘late effect’ of Hodgkin’s treatment.  Ruth asks what if it comes back after treatment.  The succinct answer – ‘limited options’.

Cancer treatment had moved on dramatically.  Anti-sickness drugs neutralise my brain’s nausea response.  Chemotherapy is administered as an outpatient.

Treatment days pass uneventfully, featuring helpful chants from Margaret Rizza.  One favourite track (recommended!) is, ‘You are the centre, You are my life…’

From that summer one day shines, infused with an unexpected peace.  While on a drip, Ruth kissed me on the forehead.  A friend from Corrymeela called in.  He kissed me on the forehead.  One of the nurses kissed me.  Small gestures… with abiding impressions of presence and compassion.

I learned to respect expert counsel from the doctors.  I was advised to save sick leave until, after three months chemo, I truly needed time off.  A low moment during my recuperation occurred one rainy autumn morning, with the house empty.  Waiting for a PET scan, I was convinced the disease remained.  Thinking I’m ‘going down’ and feeling ‘anticipatory grief’ for Ruth and my 14-year-old sons after my likely demise, I cried to God ‘I give Ruth and the boys to you’.  The consultant rang the following week.  ‘The scan is clear, you are in total remission.’

Time passed.  Worries about relapse receded and ‘thinking positive’ became more natural.  We had family around for the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony.  Serving drinks, I suddenly found myself weeping with thanks amongst those I love, blurting out, ‘It’s just good to be alive’.  I started to look forward to my five-year survival, anticipating a celebration barbecue in August 2013.
June 2013, I’m worried about a neck lump and bowel symptoms.

By the end of August, I’m critically ill with tumours obstructing bowel, jaundice, pancreatitis, no sleep and hallucinations.  Admitted to Belfast City Hospital, I’m too sick for surgery or chemotherapy.  We update our wills.  I draft my funeral service.  During September numerous doctors, nurses, laboratory and ward staff stabilise me.  Chemo can start, with a view to a stem cell transplant in December.

Ruth and my sister Rozzie visited daily.  Rozzie helped me set up the visitors’ room for a ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ TV date with Ruth.  Friends left food at our home, sent cards and texts.  Church prayer was intense, including a prayer-filled, hand-knitted blanket from Carnalea Ladies’ Connect group.

From those five months in hospital, I still ponder an experience one October night.  Attached to six pumps, on chemo, I had a stomach bleed.  A blood sample had to be obtained peripherally – ie, from my veins.  A nurse tried – no joy.  A doctor tried – nope!  A roving ‘Hospital At Night’ team member, a blood-taking expert, was called at 4.00a.m.  Agitated, I’d been asking God for help, but my veins just weren’t obliging.  Surveying my arms, she explained this would not be pleasant.

The needle went in deep and fast, with confidence and skill – a sharper needle pain than I have ever experienced.  Just as the needle went in, totally unexpected, I received a clear impression that ‘Angels were active when Jesus was on the Cross’.  I don’t ‘do’ angels, but this was very clear – not a visual image, but a definite impression.

After a moment, I said, ‘Can I share an experience I’ve just had?’


I articulated what I could.

‘As you were speaking I felt a tingle down my spine.  I’m actually just reading a book about angels.’

We didn’t say much more.  I offer no tidy conclusion for this story.  The fact that Jesus was pierced has come into clearer focus for me.  Seeing images from conflict zones, I understand that we have a suffering, as well as sovereign, Lord.

In Helen Keller’s terms, my adventure has been an involuntary roller coaster ride rather than ‘daring’.

On this adventure, the phrase ‘show up’ has become very meaningful for me.

All sorts of people have shown up for me and my family in extremis over the years.

God’s love can be experienced as ‘closer than hands or feet’ in diverse situations – maybe, in some inexplicable mystical experience, but more often through a card, kiss or casserole.

Recently, my son Chris quoted from the film Bill and Ted’s Most Excellent Adventure where two teenagers prepare a history talk using a time machine.  Bill says: ‘Be excellent to each other.’

In his hymn, Charles Wesley asks us to ‘Kindly help each other on, till all receive the starry crown.’

The exact nature of the ‘starry crown’ remains vague for now, but each of our adventures presents ample opportunity to show up for others – whether family, friend, colleague or stranger.


First published in The Methodist Newsletter, November 2014 issue.