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

; Nancy L. Snyderman, MD


November 01, 2013

In This Article

Witnessing Man's 'Inhumanity' and People Who Become 'Heroic'

Dr. Topol: You've had the experience of being a correspondent all over the world. What are the most memorable experiences that you have had? I know it's all been rich, but what are some of the ones that come to mind as extraordinary?

Dr. Snyderman: I've watched people die. I was in Haiti 48 hours after the earthquake and amputated an arm. Where would you think that we would have that skillset -- using rudimentary instruments to do an amputation? But you find, as a physician, that your DNA is so ingrained to help people, that you go back to this rudimentary skillset and in a crisis you can do things you wouldn't have thought possible.

I've been in refugee camps in Bosnia where I've seen 11- and 12-year-olds, who've lost their parents, steal food, get extra blankets. I've watched the survival skills. I once stepped over bodies, during Hurricane Katrina, in the airport where the dead and dying were put together in the baggage claim area.

I've seen man's inhumanity to man and I've seen ordinary people become heroic. I always find that when I'm in those situations, the doctor in me steps forward and then the journalist is second. I have to say that it's what makes me tick, and I think it makes me a better storyteller. The great gift of being a surgeon and being a physician, and obviously a correspondent, is that as an MD you get invited into people's lives; one of the great gifts is that people trust us to be transformative in their lives. As a correspondent I get invited into the craziest situations and I take that same responsibility there that I would into a patient's life.

The Digital World's Influence on Television and Medicine

Dr. Topol: I want to get into how the digital world is affecting, first, television and then medicine. Things are happening right now to alter television in an irrevocable way. What's your sense about that?

Dr. Snyderman: I always laugh, saying that doctors and journalists love change; we just don't like it when it happens to us. But we like it when it happens to the world around us. There's no doubt that [television is changing]; just go back to the DVR and how it disrupted measuring television sets and those crazy Nielsen ratings, and what is charged for a 30-second ad during the nightly news. With primetime programming, if people don't watch it [during primetime] but they watch it later, can you suddenly count that and say to an advertiser, "I can still charge you the same amount of money"? How do you recalculate Twitter feeds, Facebook stuff, and the world around you that's not so stagnant?

I think cable upended things. The Web has totally upended things, and traditional media has been slow to change. I was taking to someone recently. A comment was made that there's traditional media and new media, and this woman said, "Stop it -- there's no distinction anymore; it's [all] media, it's one big bucket." Until you start to think of the media, not as heterogeneous, but as one homogenous group, you're not going to move forward. I happen to work at a network that sort of saw the future better than some other networks, cable being one of them, and we have a robust Website. We are expected as journalists to post Web stories and extras. When I interviewed you, a lot of stuff that didn't make the regular show was posted so people could see it.

Dr. Topol: Are you all supposed to tweet too?

Dr. Snyderman: I tweet all the time. I'll tweet about this.

Dr. Topol: But is that expected or do you do it on your own initiative?

Dr. Snyderman: Some of the more senior correspondents balk. The youngsters live for it. I like tweeting because in a crazy situation it's an instantaneous newsfeed. When I was in Haiti I could figure out where the Red Cross plane was, and someone had sighted the Israeli medical volunteers. I found the Israeli medical center by watching a Twitter feed and being a little more of a sleuth than your average correspondent. I knew that if I could find the Israelis I would have a great story, and I got 2 stories out of it. So I watch Twitter not for truth-telling but for little blips on my radar screen as to what's bubbling out there. I also realized that no matter how uncomfortable, I had to be an early adopter. When there were new gadgets out, I'd buy them and just push buttons until I figured them out.


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