Cambridgeshire radio presenter returns to airwaves after battle with rare brain tumour

A Cambridgeshire radio presenter who lost the ability to project his voice after suffering a rare brain tumour has returned to the airwaves.

Joshua Donlon, a 26-year-old broadcaster from Huntingdon, recently got back behind the mic for the first time in almost half a decade when he appeared on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire to share his challenging and courageous journey in an emotionally-charged interview with presenter Chris Mann.

Josh was diagnosed with a brain stem glioma at the age of two which affected his central nervous system and left him a permanent wheelchair user at the age of 12. As his condition worsened throughout his adolescent years, his passion for radio grew, working as a presenter on his university’s radio station in addition to other local broadcast roles.

After becoming a radio presenter on a local community station in 2011, however, Josh’s tumour caused respiratory complications resulting in him having to step away from presenting and move into a producing role. This was also short-lived, when in 2018, Josh caught pneumonia, which left him needing six months of intensive care.

Joshua Donlon

Having been shielded during the pandemic, Josh was finally able to access a rehabilitation programme in September 2021, and was admitted to Askham Rehab, a specialist neuro rehab community, near Doddington, Cambridgeshire. On entry, he found it challenging to talk at length and to articulate words due to becoming breathless, and could only sit independently outside the constraints of his wheelchair for five seconds before needing assistance.

The prolonged time spent in intensive care had caused Josh to suffer with global deconditioning – a rapid deterioration of the muscles, bones, and mental state due to being bedbound.

Josh said: “I’ve always been passionate about radio so having to step away from presenting due to my condition was extremely hard to accept, but the rehab I’ve received at Askham has allowed me to regain my voice and enabled me to achieve my pursuit of getting back on the radio.

“It’s been a long journey, and not always an easy one, so my long-awaited return to live radio was a special moment, and quite overwhelming actually. It has played such a huge part of my life – through both the good and not so good times. I can’t thank the station enough for having me on.”

Sara Neaves, Clinical Lead and Outpatients Service Manager at Askham Rehab, said: “When Josh arrived at Askham, his condition was quite severe, having had issues with taking deep breaths, which affected his ability to speak, and decreased exercise tolerance – all caused by the tumour that impacts the messages from the brain to the spinal cord and then the nerves that innovate all the body’s muscles.

“He was assessed by all four of our multidisciplinary teams; clinical psychology, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, and speech and language therapy, before working with them to design an individualised and holistic therapy programme.”

Treatment included several oral motor exercises to help improve his breathing and ability to swallow. Due to Josh’s sheer determination, it wasn’t long before he could enjoy tasting food for the first time in four years – having been exclusively fed through a tube into his stomach.

Josh also made use of Askham Rehab’s robotics and sensor assisted technology, thanks to it being one of a very small number of providers in the UK to offer a specialist robotic-led rehabilitation service. He used the AMADEO, a sensor-based device for hand therapy to help work on his left arm – which had been stuck at an almost 90-degree angle due to his neurological condition.

Slowly but surely, Askham’s speech and language team’s breathing techniques allowed Josh to regain and increase the power of his voice, a moment Josh describes as “absolutely fantastic”.

And after almost four months of structured, high-quality person-centred care, Josh returned to the airwaves for the first time in over four years in a raw and powerful interview on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire – where he shared his story to thousands of listeners in the region and beyond.

Josh said: “Overall, I’ve made progress in all areas of my rehab. I can now talk longer and for louder thanks to the therapists, which has given me a newfound confidence. The position I was in two to three years ago to where I am now is just a huge difference, both physically and mentally. It just shows that hard work can pay off.”

Sara added: “After several unsuccessful attempts at rehab, Josh came to us with the hope of being able to project his voice and be heard, so this has been a huge achievement for him. In fact, he’s done incredibly well and much better than people initially anticipated due to the fact he was so deconditioned on arrival. In addition to improving his speech, his left arm is now just off full extension, and he can sit independently for almost five minutes – this drastic improvement is down to the hard work Josh has put in and we’re delighted to see such significant improvements to his quality of life.

“Getting back on the radio was always a key milestone for Josh and while we played our part in helping him achieve that goal, it’s completely down to his extraordinary willpower. This is hopefully just the start of the next chapter of Josh’s incredible journey.”

For more information on Askham Rehab, please visit https://askhamrehab.com/