NBC’s Dr. Nancy on TV, Surgery, and Academia’s Glass Ceiling

; Nancy L. Snyderman, MD


November 01, 2013

In This Article

Balancing Medicine and the Media

Dr. Topol: What I've got to find out, because I've never asked before, is how did you get into the media world? Was it in Arkansas first?

Dr. Snyderman: It was an accident. It was in Pittsburgh, actually. I was doing a tonsillectomy, and at the same time, one of the big controversies in the world of ENT surgery, especially in pediatric ENT, was whether tonsillectomy and adenoidectomies (TnAs) were being overly done, because we knew that children were dying from elective surgery. We realized that there had been no measures in place, meaning, what are the qualifications to say to a child that we have to take your tonsils out or we have to take your adenoids out? Nobody had ever studied it. Doctors just sort of did it on kids as a rite of passage. And occasionally children would hemorrhage to death.

Two doctors, Bluestone and Stool, measured parameters around TnAs and found that these operations were being done too often.[1] It was transformative research in pediatrics and then in pediatric ENT.

Dr. Topol: Yes, at that time everybody had their tonsils out.

Dr. Snyderman: Right; it was a rite of passage. But we didn't hear about the horror stories. And every once in a while, children went in for tonsillectomies and they didn't come out of that operating room. So this was game-changing in my field. I was doing a tonsillectomy one day and the local television station was in the OR. My chief of staff said to go out and talk to them. I said, "I can't talk to them; I'm just a chief resident." And he said, "If you can't talk about tonsillectomies, then maybe you shouldn't be graduating." So I went out and talked to this television crew, and at the end the producer said, "You're not bad; have you ever considered television?" And a career was born.

Dr. Topol: What year was that?

Dr. Snyderman: 1982.

Dr. Topol: That was the time of Marcus Welby.

Dr. Snyderman: Yes.

Dr. Topol: Who else, and I mean a physician, was in the media at that point?

Dr. Snyderman: Dr. Tim Johnson [at ABC News] and no one else.

Dr. Topol: That is incredible.

Dr. Snyderman: No one realized that I was actually working during that time. I always knew I wanted to be a doctor and then a surgeon. So the idea of leaving a residency and saying, "Oh well, I'm going to change for the bright lights" was never in my game plan. I always knew I was destined to be a doctor, so my idea was that I could have parallel careers. Being a correspondent has made me a much more inquisitive physician, and being a physician gave me a lot more credibility in the television world. I resisted giving up either career and have always said that they made me stronger. That was until I turned 60 two years ago. That's when I got to that point where I thought -- and this is the question that I think every surgeon has to constantly ask him- or herself -- "Am I doing enough?"

I realized that now, at this stage in my career, I am traveling the globe. If there is a war, I am on a plane; if there is a tsunami, I am on a plane. Surgeons can't have that kind of hectic life. And I also think surgeons don't know quite when to say goodbye because we just always want to think we're so damned indispensable. I wanted to go out on top of my game.

I quietly knew when my last case would be. I took in the sights and the smells of the OR. The case went well, and I went in and said to my partner, "It's time. I am pulled in too many directions." I miss the sanctity of the OR, but I am glad I did things on my own terms.

Looking Back: First TV Job

Dr. Topol: Let's go back. So you started out with this initial gig with the TnA story.

Dr. Snyderman: I pretty much started in Arkansas.

Dr. Topol: And then you had all of these different jobs -- co-hosting Good Morning America and then you had your own show.

Dr. Snyderman: You know how it is when you're young and you don't realize the hurdles in front of you. I moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, and I went into the local television stations and said, "You should have medical reporting on television; we have that back east." They looked at me and glazed over. One station lost my tape -- it was a big three-quarter-of-an-inch tape. And the other said that they would be interested in talking. I had been advised by someone back in Pittsburgh, where I had trained, that because I'm a specialist, I could command 2 times the union wage.

So I sat down with the director of the local news station, and he said, "What do you want, Doctor -- to be on TV?" And I said, "I want 2 times the union scale." He leaned over and said, "Honey, in Arkansas we don't have unions." I was offered $25 an appearance. I demanded $50 and we settled on $37.50. My first-ever segment was on head lice with then health commissioner Dr. Joycelyn Elders (who as we know went on to be US Surgeon General) and this governor that nobody had ever heard of, Bill Clinton.

Dr. Topol: Are you kidding me?

Dr. Snyderman: That was the dawn of my medical journalism career. My first-ever public appearance was with [Governor Clinton] talking about cardiac health, food, and exercise at a local high school. I thought, "Wow, he is a pretty young governor."

Dr. Topol: Did you ever think he was going to go on to what he did?

Dr. Snyderman: No; in fact it's so funny. I'm always asked whether people take my advice, and I say, "I'll tell you someone who didn't take my advice." Years before, when the then-Governor Clinton was thinking about running for President, I advised him to sit out 4 more years because I didn't think the country was ready for him. And he thanked me for my advice and then did not heed it. We know the rest.


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