To say vagina or not say vagina on national television, that is the question. Marie Savard, ABC’s medical contributor, has learned when to say what anatomical term and how to cover complex medical topics in four-minute sound bites. She traded the sleepless nights of on-call patient care for middle-of-the night trips from Philadelphia to New York for regular appearances on “Good Morning America” and is on call for breaking medical news.
Though Savard had previously been on Philadelphia TV shows, her first appearance on a national program, “Good Morning America,” came in 1995 when the concept of using testosterone to treat women with low libido made front page news. Her frankness caused a stir. “I didn’t understand you can’t use the term vagina on morning television except in the last half hour,” she says.
As one of the most trusted voices on women’s health, wellness, and patient empowerment, Savard keynotes the Seventh Annual Women’s Wellness Day staged by Heart to Hearts, a nonprofit women’s wellness advocacy group based in Hamilton Township, on Saturday, November 20, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., at Educational Testing Service.
Four healthcare practitioners — including two physicians from Princeton HealthCare Systems — will speak at the conference. Dana Supe, director of the University Medical Center at Princeton’s Sleep Center, will speak on sleep apnea. Supe is board certified in sleep medicine, internal medicine, and pulmonary and critical care medicine. Jason Hollander, board certified in endocrinology, who is also affiliated with Princeton HealthCare Systems, will speak on thyroid issues for women (see sidebar page 36). Janet Cargill, a consultant, author, and lecturer, will speak about body image. Laurie Samuels, a dental hygienist and health coach, will cover several topics, including the rising cost of obesity and why it is not just about “looks.” She writes in an E-mail: “I will be upbeat and give lots of options for change including changing our diets forever. I will give my ‘Top 10’ list of things to do to improve your life. I believe in living every day to its fullest even as we age into our 80s and 90s — it is an easily attainable goal. ‘Live fully and age gracefully,’ is what I like to say.”
The full-day conference includes professional health screenings by the Princeton HealthCare System, Reiki and reflexology sessions, and chair massages. Thirty-five exhibitors will show health and wellness products and services. Cost:$60; $50 for members and seniors. Breakfast and lunch are included, and registration is required (no walk-ins accepted). Call Terry Tucker or Sue Methot at 609-689-3131 or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Though a natural for the media, Savard never set out to be a media personality. “It was not my life’s goal, I just fell into it,” she says in a telephone interview. She has both a BS in nursing (Class of 1972) and an MD from the University of Pennsylvania. She left a solo practice to direct women’s health care at the Medical College of Pennsylvania and has also been technical advisor to the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, advisor to the American Board of Internal Medicine Subcommittee on Clinical Competency in Women’s Health, health columnist for Woman’s Day magazine, and senior medical consultant to Lifetime Television’s Strong Medicine. At one point she supervised the care of convent nuns. Now as corporate medical director of Philadelphia-based New Courtland, she oversees nurse practitioners who take care of 2,000 elderly seniors in nursing homes.
Savard landed her ABC gig as a result of an appearance on the Oprah Show. “When I was on Oprah, ABC was looking,” she says. In addition to her on-air commentary, she has written four books and provides updated medical information through her website (www.drsavard.com), her newsletter, and the health page of ABC.
Her latest book, just released in paperback, is “Ask Dr. Marie: What Women Need to Know about Hormones, Libido, and the Medical Problems No One Talks About,” written with Sondra Forsyth (Globe Pequot, 2010, $14.95). Reading it is like being closeted with a woman doctor you have known for years and, with no feeling of being rushed, getting frank, knowledgeable answers to your most intimate questions. The paperback is revised and updated from the hardcover with new inforation and guidelines.
Suitable for reading by a teenager who is not sexually active, “Ask Dr. Marie” takes a conservative, matter-of-fact stance about sex, neither condemning extra-marital or pre-marital sex, nor advocating it as a “must-have” in order to be fulfilled. “I want women to learn to cherish their own body, versus giving it away, which is now done so freely,” says Savard.
Raised in a Roman Catholic family, the third of eight children (her father was an engineer and her mother a nurse), Savard is certainly comfortable using anatomical terms. Yet she is not a fan of “Our Bodies Our Selves,” the landmark feminist book that, in the interests of sexual liberation, encouraged women to inspect each other’s sexual organs. In her own book, she chooses a more dignified, clinical approach — self examination with a mirror, accompanied by untitillating black-and-white drawings.
“Even though I say ‘look at yourself,’ I was even almost uncomfortable for saying that much,” admits Savard. “Maybe I was offended by that book and wanted to put a stake in the sand.” In later chapters in her own book, occasionally referring to “down there” rather than a specific term, she helps her readers feel comfortable and honors their modesty.
Savard’s husband, Bradley W. Fenton, is a doctor and the son of an obstetrician. A Harvard graduate, he has his own internal medicine and infectious disease practice in Philadelphia. They met at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania when they were both enduring a grueling residency, right in the middle of the Legionnaire’s disease outbreak.
They have three grown sons. How did the boys feel about their mother talking about sex for their friends to hear? She says they were OK with that. “They grew up with a mom who was kind of private in a way but also honest about life and circumstances. And I took them seriously. They come to me when something is wrong with them, even if it’s personal. They know I will be clinical.”
She tells the story of trying to raise the subject of penises and vaginas while the boys were in the back seat of the car. “All of a sudden, one of them said, ‘Why do you think you sent us to sleep-away camp? We learned all that there.’”
Telling stories to make a point comes naturally to her. Using PowerPoint does not. In fact, she has a vendetta against it because it breeds such dull lectures. For her books and blogs, she doesn’t write the stories. “It’s what comes out of my mouth when I speak.” For her broadcasts, she speaks off the cuff. “If I had to memorize, I would be paralyzed.”
Though limited to four-minute sound bites on television, she can say as much as she wants in her blogs and speeches. “I love that four minutes is only a teeny bit of what I really do. I get tons of questions and am compulsive about responding. I do a fair amount of travel; I just came back from North Dakota where I talked for almost two hours to 500 women.”
For her Women’s Wellness Day talk, she will discuss how the distribution of a woman’s fat tissue changes at each stage of life, and how these changes affect health. Sometimes women have a “pear” shape (weight distributed in the hips, thighs, and legs) and sometimes they have an “apple” shape (with most of the fat around the belly). Her recommendations were the subject of her book “The Body Shape Solution to Weight Loss and Wellness” and also form a chapter in “Ask Dr. Marie.”
Her four F’s for fighting belly fat:
Fiber. This means whole grains, to slow down the dangerous glycemic or insulin response to sugar, sweets, and white flour foods.
Fat. Savard means the healthy omega-3 fats found in flax seed, nuts, grass-fed animals, and cold-water fish. These fats “help just about every cell in your body,” she says.
Fitness. Women who walk 30 minutes a day, six days a week, can lose significant amounts of belly fat. But lack of sleep cancels out the beneficial effect of exercise and contributes to weight gain.
Fluids. Heed these words: lots of water. “Alcohol is good for heart health and insulin in small doses and bad for breasts, blood pressure, and waistline in larger doses.”
The thread of “be an empowered patient” runs through most of Savard’s advice. She believes that the patient is an underutilized resource. But because doctors tend to focus on the time-is-money equation, always asking “how am I not going to lose money,” patients need to be coached. “There are schools for doctors and nurses, there need to be schools for patient power,” she says. “Learn to be your own best advocate. Don’t antagonize.”
Here are some of Savard’s suggestions for becoming an empowered patient:
Bring a health buddy to appointments. Women make good health buddies for husbands but the reverse may not be true. Consider choosing a girlfriend instead.
Be a smart E-patient by doing Internet research. No doctor these days should roll his eyes when a patient wants to be a partner in her own care, says Savard. “But don’t come in with a sheaf of websites. Bring targeted questions based on that research.”
Keep your own paper records. With all due respect for the Obama administration’s requirements for electronic health records (EHRs), Savard believes electronic personal health records (PHRs) are not ready for prime time.
Keep a health journal of your body’s rhythms and symptoms. Savard wrote a whole book about this and has included extensive charts, strategies, and suggestions for paper records in her book “Ask Dr. Marie.” Writing down even the smallest body responses may be helpful for later diagnoses.
Several weeks ago, when it was in the news, yet again, that women taking hormonal replacement therapy are at increased risk for cancer, Savard had to cancel a scheduled interview with this reporter and hop a train from Philadelphia to New York for an emergency taping. On air, she made a complicated subject clear but did not offer easy solutions. Unlike some of the well-known PBS medical commentators, such as Susan Love, she takes the middle road with respect to hormones and other controversial topics.
Another topic on which she differs from popular opinion is the (deep breath) G-spot. It gets short shrift in her book. “I grew up with strict anatomic science,” she says. “The G-spot has never been defined, anatomically. That’s not to say that there isn’t a collection of nerves somewhere, but it is not a clear part of our anatomy.”
In true myth-busting fashion, Savard puts the kaibash on the famous “top 10 stressors.” In her book, “Ask Dr. Marie,” she points out that the study from which this list was originally drawn, the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory, was conducted in 1967and then given a follow-up study 1970 — with 2,500 sailors, all, of course, men. Needless to say, the “top 10” stressors for sailors in 1970 — including death of a spouse, divorceor separation, and getting fired — are, Savard found, not the top stressors for 21st century women.
Savard took her own informal poll of female patients and their top stressors and the answers are, writes Savard “all true and sad”: getting a new puppy (“I walk him and clean up after him even though my husband and I both work”); pumping breast milk in the lactation room at the office; losing weight before a reunion; putting my mother in a nursing home; finding out my hsuband has been cheating on me; finding out my husband has been going to a prostitute; giving birth to a stillborn baby, full-term; having a preemie who died after two weeks in the NICU; husband had prostate surgery and now wears diapers and can’t get it up, the dog died right after my last child left for college, my daughter lost her baby.
Savard has a disarming way of revealing very personal information in order to teach a lesson. For example, contrary to what your mother told you, she says she sits on public toilet seats if they are dry, because you can’t pick up a disease on a dry seat.
And what your mother probably did not tell you: that post-partum intercourse can be very painful. With this information drawn from her own experience, she relieves the anxiety and guilt of every woman who is trying to recuperate from giving birth.
Savard’s medicine has an ever-so-slight moral edge: Sex is good, she says, and women should be empowered. “But we can give permission without being permissive. It’s just who I am.”
Women’s Wellness Day, Heart to Hearts, Inc., ETS, Carter and Rosedale roads, Princeton. Saturday, November 20, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Talks on sleep apnea, body image, thyroid issues, and healthy eating. Exhibitors with health and wellness products and services. “Shape Shifting Through Time” presented in keynote speech by Marie Savard, M.D. and author. Breakfast and lunch buffets. Registration required (no walk-ins accepted). $60; $50 seniors. Call Terry Tucker or Sue Methot at 609-689-3131 or E-mail email@example.com.