CNN’s John King quietly battled MS for years. Working the ‘Magic Wall’ on election night 2020, he suddenly couldn’t feel his fingers

FILE - CNN's John King speaks to the crowd before moderating a debate between Republican presidential candidates on Feb. 22, 2012, in Mesa, Ariz.(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)(AP/Ross D. Franklin)

For 27 years, CNN Chief National Correspondent John King has been a familiar face on the network, especially on election night as he spends hours in front of the “Magic Wall,” which helps him report election results. Until 2021, what people didn’t realize is while King was on screen he was fighting an invisible illness: multiple sclerosis.

March is “MS Awareness Month.”

On the Mastering MS podcast, King said the first symptoms of MS appeared during a workout in Martha’s Vineyard in 1998, where he was sent to cover then-President Bill Clinton.

“My feet went numb, and it moved up sort of into my calves and first it was pins and needles and then it was like almost a total lack of sensation,” King said.

He got checked out by a doctor but at the time, MRI imaging didn’t lead to a diagnosis.

Multiple sclerosis is an illness in which a person’s auto immune system mistakenly attacks the myelin that protects the nerves. The result of that nerve damage is a wide range of symptoms that in the early stages can be blamed on other illnesses or conditions.

For King, he believed the numbness stemmed from a car accident in the past that caused back pain. In 2008, the numbness got much worse, spreading up to his thighs and then his chest as he covered the Republican National Convention.

“I literally felt like they had poured lead into my body, and it was hard to move it and it wouldn’t do what I wanted it to do — and that got scary,” he said.

He went to a paramedic who he said whispered in his ear, that his aunt had MS and because King’s symptoms appeared to be similar, he believed the correspondent had the disease.

“I looked at him like ‘What planet are you from, dude,’” King recalls.

But he went to a doctor when he returned to the D.C. area. This time MRI imaging showed lesions on both his brain and spine. That would lead to an official diagnosis, which King said left him petrified at first.

“You went on the internet, and you saw how cruel it can be and how quick it can be cruel to a lot of people,” he said. “And I said, ‘Oh my God, you know, am I gonna pay to play baseball with my kids? Am I gonna be able to do my job?’”

As he coped with the diagnosis, he made the decision to not share it publicly, he said. For more than a decade after he found out he had the illness, only his family and small group of friends knew about his struggle with the illness.

“I was afraid if I told my bosses, they would discriminate against me, not out of any bad intention, but out of good intentions to protect me. ‘No, you can’t go to Iraq. No, you can’t be out covering campaigns … We don’t want you traveling all the time,’” King said.

King began treatment and try to mask the symptoms to the best of his abilities, but he said there were times when “his friend would visit” — the phrase he would use to describe when his symptoms returned.

One “visit” was during his coverage of the 2020 presidential election results, which required him to use CNN’s “Magic Wall,” which is a touch screen.

“I couldn’t feel my fingertips,” King said.

Usually, he would just reach out and touch a state, Pennsylvania, for example. Then zoom in on a county to see the results.

“If you watch the tape you can see my eyes … staring, making sure, ‘Am I really doing what I think I’m doing?’ Because I can’t feel it,” King said.

Fatigue is a common symptom for MS sufferers, and King said that is a big one for him, in addition to the shakiness when he first gets up and an occasional fall when his brain has difficulty communicating with his legs.

“We learn to fall — you learn to try to land better,” he said.

Also, he said loud noises and white noise can also lead to vertigo or dizziness for him, due to the MS.

Despite his struggles with the disease, he said he considers himself fortunate, because his treatments appear to be working and his illness is progressing slowly.

“I have bad days. I have bad weeks. Sometimes I have horrible days and horrible weeks. But I know how lucky I am. I understand how cruel this disease can be to so many people so quickly, and so profoundly,” King said.

King has a form of MS known as relapsing-remitting MS, where there are periods without disease activity. Other progressive forms of the illness involve no pause in the disease’s progression.

Looking back at his time with the illness, King said he would today encourage others to go talk with doctors if they have symptoms that concern them. Also, he urges those newly diagnosed to consider being more open about the illness and not keeping it a secret as he did.

“I blocked myself off from that. It was the biggest mistake, I made in the beginning, from finding people who actually understood this, who were living it. And some people who were struggling, and other people who are thriving. And from both you can learn really important lessons,” King said.

Learn more about MS from the National MS Society.

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Mike Murillo

Mike Murillo is a reporter and anchor at WTOP. Before joining WTOP in 2013, he worked in radio in Orlando, New York City and Philadelphia.

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