As more of an Internet scanner than a TV watcher, I was intrigued enough after my conversation with Nancy Snyderman, chief medical editor for NBC News and professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school, to watch her morning appearance on MSNBC via the Internet. She was being interviewed, along with a psychiatrist, about swine flu, a breaking story that had demanded her attention within 15 minutes of stepping off a plane — after a week’s vacation and total electronic disconnect in Italy.
I was infinitely calmed by listening to Snyderman speak on MSNBC about the flu outbreak. Just her look was soothing. She might have been a housewife out of a ’50s television show, with her shoulder-length, flipped hair, and her no-nonsense, down-to-earth advice: wash your hands often, stay away from sick people, and trust the government because it has a good handle on this potential crisis.
For Snyderman, who is always on call for NBC News, talking about health-related stories with her viewing public is all in a day’s work. “I have to absorb breaking medical news and report on it precisely,” she says in a telephone interview. The Princeton resident will receive the Barbara Boggs Sigmund Award: Celebrating Women Who Inspire Us to Greatness, on Thursday, May 14, at the Hyatt Regency Princeton. Journalist and author Cokie Roberts, who is the sister of Womanspace founder and former Princeton mayor Barbara Boggs Sigmund, will present the award to Snyderman, who worked with Roberts years ago at ABC.
After the reception will be a book signing for Snyderman’s newest book “Diet Myths That Keep Us Fat: And the 101 Truths That Will Save Your Waistline — And Maybe Even Your Life” and Roberts’ expanded and revised “We Are Our Mothers’ Daughters.” Other books will also be available, and proceeds will benefit Womanspace.
As a health journalist, Snyderman is committed not just to educating people, but also to providing healthcare consumers, most of whom are women, with helpful, accurate information so they can make own smart decisions. “People are knowledgeable but they are overwhelmed,” she says. She names the 24-hour news cycle as the culprit in people’s confusion; bombarded by information, they have continual questions about what is credible and who they can trust. As the swine flu cases were appearing in Mexico, for example, she says, “They don’t know if it’s bullshit or should people be scared.”
Another consequence of this ever readiness of health information, says Snyderman, is that people expect it to be correct. “But medicine and science are fluid,” she says. “When they change, it irritates people. What we know about medicine and health right now is what we know right now — tomorrow it will be different.”
To stay on top of medical news, Snyderman always keeps her eye on medical journals, especially the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association, to see if anything big is on the horizon. She also gets ideas from viewers and patients. For fast-breaking stories like the swine flu, she checks the CDC website regularly, stays in touch with appropriate experts from her rolodex, and relies on her two “phenomenal producers,” one of whom has been with her for over a decade.
Snyderman covers both big medical stories like a salmonella outbreak as well as events like massacres that have medical and mental health aspects. Her most challenging stories, she says, have been the foreign ones, where access to resources may be limited and it may be difficult to get the story out. Particularly tough physically, emotionally, and from a safety perspective, are stories from war-torn areas. She was, for example, in Mogadishu the week before the Blackhawk helicopters were shot down; in Afghanistan and Pakistan after September 11; and has been in refugee camps all over Africa.
She recalls her experience with refugees from the Balkans who were arriving at camps in Macedonia. The guards at the camps claimed that the refugees had left home of their own accord, but Snyderman divined a different story — by looking at people’s shoes. “No woman left on her own and hiked through the mountains wearing high heels,” she says. The exposure to husbands separated from their wives and children from their parents struck a particularly wrenching chord for her on that trip, because she had flown to Macedonia directly from London, where she was on vacation with her family.
Most of Snyderman’s international travel took place during the 17 years she was a medical correspondent with ABC News and a contributor to 20/20, Primetime, and Good Morning America. After joining NBC News as chief medical editor in September, 2006, her focus has been more on health and wellness in America and her reports appear on Today, NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, MSNBC, and MSNBC.com.
As to subject matter, Snyderman says, “There are stories to be told every day of people slipping through the cracks in the healthcare system, asking whether they should pay the doctor or pay the electric bill.” Last year she covered a story where volunteer doctors, nurses, and dentists saw thousands of patients at a fairground in Virginia. “It’s a sad look at the United States,” she observes, “diagnosing and treating people in cattle yards.”
Snyderman’s commitment to medicine goes back to third grade. In a biographical entry on a National Library of Medicine website titled “Changing the Face of Medicine,” Snyderman jokes that her father, a surgeon, would take her to the hospital with him before church and give her chocolate-covered graham crackers and chocolate milk in the doctor’s lounge, and she thought she was “making rounds.” But what really drew her to the profession was not a matter for jokes. “I saw the pride my father had and how he loved what he did,” she recalls. “It was never a question for me.” Her mother was a stay-at-home mom.
That was true until she had a moment of panic after a friend asked her what she would do if she did not get into medical school. So in 1974, just in case, when she was about to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology from Indiana University, she applied for a job as a microbiologist with Eli Lilly. Although offered the position, she never took it and instead entered medical school that fall at the University of Nebraska, where she graduated in 1977. Her first residency was in pediatrics, but later, intrigued by the idea of surgery, she did another in ear, nose, and throat surgery; both were at the University of Pittsburgh.
As for journalism, Snyderman had her television debut while she was a surgical resident. A local television station was doing a story on whether the tonsillectomy was an overly done procedure, and the chief of surgery did not want to be interviewed. So he asked Snyderman to do the honors. When she was done, she remembers the show’s producer saying to her, “You’re not bad — have you ever done TV before?” When she said she hadn’t, he suggested that she ought to consider it. She did, and she ended up doing more reporting locally during her residency.
In 1982 Snyderman joined the surgical staff at the University of Arkansas and shortly after began her paid broadcasting career at KATV, the ABC affiliate in Little Rock. In hopes of learning a little more about her new profession, she signed up for a meeting in Salt Lake City of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. In the hotel lobby she happened to meet an agent, who asked her to send him a tape of her work. She did; he liked it; and with her permission he sent it off to “Good Morning America.” That was her foot into the door at ABC.
In 1988, Snyderman moved to San Francisco, where she practiced surgery first at the California Pacific Medical Center and later at University of California; and she also worked at a local television station.
In December, 2000, while she was in California, Snyderman co-founded Lluminari, Inc. a Wilmington-based company that provides expert content on health topics to Fortune 500 companies.
Snyderman came east in January, 2003, to work for Johnson & Johnson, where she served as vice president of consumer education, and the University of Pennsylvania, and says she never expected to go back on the air. Then she had a great idea for a joint venture between General Electric, which owns NBC, and Johnson & Johnson, and the result was Understanding Health, an initiative that used the Web and television as a way of informing the public about health and medicine. In 2006, she went to work for NBC.
Snyderman and her husband, Doug Myers, have three children: Kate, Rachel, and Charlie. She works at NBC in New York five days a week, but on Thursdays hops a train down to Philadelphia after the “Today Show” to teach residents and medical students at the ENT clinic at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is associate professor of otolaryngology – head and neck surgery.
Her academic appointment suffices at present, although she confesses that “there’s no surgeon who doesn’t miss the operating room now and then.”
Snyderman, though, finds her current work life very satisfying. “I’m doing the right thing,” she says, affirming that she left surgery at the height of her career and on her own terms. “There was no more surgical stuff to learn,” she says, “and I needed to intellectually explore other avenues.”
But after coming to the proverbial fork in the road, she really took more of a veer rather than a turn. “I still do a combination of medicine and media but the ratio has changed,” she says. And on Monday, June 29, she will be launching her own show, called “The Daily Dose,” on MSNBC.
When asked about the connection between her own life and the award from Womanspace, Snyderman’s response was solely from the perspective of her work. “I have dedicated my whole life to women’s health issues,” she says. “For 20 years I have reported on them — I think more than any medical reporter in the country.”
But according to an autobiographical book she wrote with Peg Streep, “Necessary Journeys: Letting Ourselves Learn from Life,” Snyderman’s emotional resonance with women’s issues is also very personal. In this memoir she details her own journey from a rape at 19 in her college dorm through two failed marriages, single motherhood with two small daughters, and ultimately to the self-knowledge and inner strength that brought her to a happy marriage with Myers.
What she learned from her own denial of the rape that had so badly affected her sense of self — she finally told her parents about it two years later, but did not get professional help until much later — could be an advertisement for Womanspace. She writes, “While we can’t entirely prevent acts of violence, we can exert control over the aftermath of any crisis. We have it in our power to stop our bad experiences from taking over our lives. We can work together to insure that when a woman is victimized, the damage done is not compounded by either the woman herself or society at large. We can, through the intervention of professionals, friends, and loved ones, prevent the blind alley leading us into a crisis of self-doubt and self-abuses. Silence only makes a place of darkness darker.”
Barbara Boggs Sigmund Award, Womanspace, Hyatt, Carnegie Center, Route 1, West Windsor. Thursday, May 14, 6:30 p.m. Dr. Nancy Snyderman, chief medical editor, NBC News, and a Princeton resident, receives this year’s award. Cokie Roberts is honorary chair. All proceeds benefit victims of domestic and sexual violence. Register. $150. 609-394-0136 or www.womanspace.org.