Mixing medicine and the media: Dr. Nancy Snyderman.
The morning fog is burning off the San Francisco Bay area on this crisp October Friday as I arrive for an early afternoon interview at Nancy Synderman's four-bedroom apartment in upscale Presidio Heights. The quiet and pristine neighborhood with its stately Victorian architecture and breathtaking views of the bay is as far removed from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan's media centers in ambience as it is in geography.
I am to learn that such striking contrasts are a staple of Synderman's life, as she divides her time between the sterile environment of the operating room at the University of California, San Francisco and the energetic atmosphere of television studios in both San Francisco and New York. Even more unexpected, perhaps, is her third persona - that of single mom to two energetic young girls.
On this day, Synderman has already spent time in each persona - after an 8 a.m. conference with her older daughter's teachers, she had a busy morning schedule seeing patients at the hospital, then checked in with the news producers at local television station KPIX to plan that evening's medical segment. And it's only 1 o'clock.
Her afternoon will be full as well, with an interview and photo session, then it's a quick trip to KPIX, where her report - describing how scientists have been able to grow a hair follicle in a test tube, possibly leading to a cure for baldness - will be the opening story on the 5 o'clock news.
But by Synderman's standards, this is a calm day. There was no 3:30 a.m. wake-up call for a live medical report on Good Morning America. There was no complicated eight-hour surgery. There is no plane trip to New York, no live interviews to prepare for.
The fact that Synderman does so much is a story in itself. What makes it a story worth telling is the fact that she does it all so well.
Medicine in Her Blood
So who is this enigmatic and energetic woman? Born into a medical family in Indiana - both her father and grandfather were doctors - Synderman always knew she wanted to go into medicine. "I remember very vividly in third grade telling people I wanted to be a doctor when I grew up," she says.
After completing medical school at the University of Nebraska, she went to Pittsburgh for her medical residency. "At first I chose pediatrics for my specialty," she says, "but after about three weeks I realized I wasn't cut out to be a pediatrician." More by chance than design, she says, she fell into ear, nose and throat surgery - the same field her father was in - then into the further specialization of head and neck cancer surgery, which she has been doing exclusively since 1983.
It was during her medical residency in Pittsburgh that Synderman got her first taste of television reporting. "When I was a resident in ear, nose and throat, one of the evening magazine shows was doing a story on whether tonsillectomies and adenoidectomies were overly done operations," she says. "They came into the room where I was operating and ended up interviewing me. At the end of the interview, they said, 'Have you ever considered doing television?' and I said, 'No.' They said, 'Well, you know, you might consider it.'"
Because that went over so well, Synderman says, she began appearing occasionally on local evening news program to discuss medical matters. In 1983, when her residency ended and she took a surgery job at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, she decided to parlay her media exposure into a second occupation.
"I approached the local ABC and NBC affiliates and said, 'Look, there's medical reporting on the East and West Coasts, but there's none in the Midwest. I think you should have it, and I think I can do it.' I don't know how I could have been so brazen! But they said 'OK,' so I started," she says.
Over the next few years, bothe Synderman's surgery and media careers blossomed. At a national television convention, she met an agent who liked her work and sent a tape to Good Morning America (GMA). She auditioned and was hired to do medical reporting for the ABC morning show beginning in 1986. Two years later, she accepted a job with KPIX in San Francisco, the local CBS affiliate. "It's a little weird that I work for ABC network and CBS local," she says. "But I moved here already having an ABC contract, so everybody just sort of looks the other way and lets me do my own thing."
But how, I wondered, does she handle the logistics of living and working on the West Coast and reporting from New York? "Sometimes I actually do the reports in San Francisco and uplink (transmit by satellite) to New York," she says. "When I need to be in New York, I can usually get there, do the show and get back within 27 hours." To minimize the disruption for her two daughters, precocious Kate, 4, and shy Rachel, 2, Synderman has a live-in nanny. And she's usually able to plan her live appearances in New York far enough in advance that she can adjust her surgery schedule accordingly.
Synderman shares the medical reporting duties for Good Morning America with Dr. Tim Johnson, the program's medical editor. In recent months, however, Snyderman's visibility on the program has extended beyond the medical area - she has been increasingly filling in for Joan Lunden as co-host.
"I think what every morning show wants is continuity," Snyderman says. "The viewer wants to know that there's going to be the same friendly face every day, and if it's not going to be Joan, then they want to know it's going to be someone they recognize. I told them that I thought I could do it. We finally signed a contract the night before I co-hosted the first time, and it went pretty well, so now I guess I'm Joan's fill-in. I'm sort of the designated hitter."
"Nancy is a very smart person," says GMA executive producer Jack Reilly, who is ultimately responsible for what and who appears on the program. "Next to having a lot of experience, being smart is the first and foremost thing you need to be a good host. You have to know what you're talking about. The audience can tell when you don't."
Medicine: A Hands-On Priority
As Synderman's star continues to ascend in the competitive and highly visible television news arena, the inevitable questions about her medical practice have begun. "People always assume I'll give up medicine and go to television full time," she says. "But I love being in the operating room - I mean, I genuinely love it. I can't in my wildest dreams imagine giving that up.
"I think working in medicine gives me more sensitivity for what matters to people," she continues. "It gives me a chance to keep in touch with the pulse of what people care about. And I hope it gives me more credibility. I always wonder if the viewer really knows or cares that I'm a practicing physician, but I hope so." Of all the current network or syndicated television medical correspodents, Synderman says only she and Red Duke are still practicing medicine.
With credibility so important to Synderman, I wondered how she ensures the accuracy of her medical reports. "I read all the time," she says. "Those throw-away medical journals that I used to never pay attention to - I now pay attention to. And I frequently consult with other doctors. I'm very cognizant of the fact that I'm just a cancer surgeon - I can't know it all. I have no hesitation whatsoever to pick up the phone and call someone.
"The nice thing about a doctor calling other doctors is you know you're going to get called back that day," she adds. "When a general reporter calls a doctor, he may not get that information for a week or so. I always get topnotch information right away. And doctors will often give me inside information that they wouldn't give to other reporters because I'm a doctor."
in Medical Reporting
With daily reports on local television and at-least-weekly segments on the network, Snyderman certainly has her fingers on the pulse of America's health-care appetite. I asked her what topics are most popular. "women's health issues are still the biggest," she says. "Women are voracious. Breast cancer, menopause, ovarian cancer - women are hot for information on them. And I'm convinced men get their health-care information from the women they live with. So a lot of times we'll gear some of our male stories for the 5 o'clock news when women are home making dinner. The husbands may bring home the bacon, but the women provide the health-care instruction.
"Pediatrics is always hot," she adds. "The new transplant surgery is also popular. And I think chronic diseases like arthritis and diabetes interest people because so many people are affected by them. Things that are near and dear to my heart like heart disease and cancer aren't so hot. People think they've heard it all. And people are starting to get tired of hearing about AIDS, which is really too bad."
While we were on the subject of health, I mentioned that Arthritis Today was researching an article on america's healthcare problems (see "high-Cost Care: Blueprint for an Unhealthy America," following this article.) I asked for her perspectives on our health-care system.
"It is in dismal shape," Snyderman says. "I think we're in a health crisis. And I'm very frustrated that our politicians don't understand in order to have a functional, successful society you have to have a healthy society. we are less healthy every day, and who suffers the most? Our indigent patients - they're falling through the cracks in the health care system, and the cracks are getting wider and wider.
"I think it's absolutely immoral for any doctor to refuse to treat patients because they don't have insurance. If you went into medicine, you went into medicine to take care of patients -- it doesn't matter whether they can pay or not." Snyderman stops short, however, of laying the blame for our country's health-care woes at the feet of the medical profession.
"I think the problem is everyone's responsibility. I think it lies in corporate America; I think it lies in our government. And individuals must do their part to have healthier lifestyles. It will not be easy, but I believe the situation is winnable. I'm cynical and I'm critical, but I'm hopeful. These are not impossible goals."
Driven to Success
As Snyderman continues to speak knowledgeably and eloquently on any subject I bring up, it occurs to me that, at 38, she has enjoyed more experiences and more success than many people do in a lifetime. What else does she want to achieve?
"Well, I wanter to be a physician astranaut, but I'm not going to get to do that," she says. "Those hopes were scrapped after the Challenger incident. I've always wanted to fly in an F-18, and I'll have the opportunity to do that in the near future when I do a medical report on the Blue Angels."
But beyond these immediate goals, for the first time in our conversation Snyderman doesn't have a ready answer to my question. "well, it might be fun to have my own show some day," she allows. "Or Ihd like to be a more prominent person in the field of medicine. I might like to have another child in the next year or so, but it's not as though these are burning issues for me."
No, the burning issues in Snyderman's life have become realities. It's apparent that she is a woman who decides what she wants and goes after it. "most of my life is just pluck and determination," she says. "I know I'm no smarter than anybody else; I know I'm no better on TV; I'm very much a run-of-the-mill person when it comes to talent, but I know how to budget time well and how to decipher priorities.
"there have been times when the odds have seemed pretty insurmountable," she says, "but i have just always had a lot of tenacity. I've never believed it when people told me I couldn't do something."
Not many people are telling Nancy Snyderman that anymore.
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|Title Annotation:||includes related article on medicine in the media|
|Author:||McDaniel, Cindy T.|
|Article Type:||Cover Story|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1991|
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