Dr. Jennifer Ashton is known by ABC News viewers for her expertise on women’s health and the pandemic. Get to know a new side of Dr. Ashton on a new episode of At the Heart of It with Nancy Brown.
Resilience means that you have inner strength, that’s both physical and emotional or mental that you may not even realize existed before it really comes to hit you in the face. And I’ve seen that in my personal life, but I’ve also seen that with my patients. Until many people have a personal health crisis, they don’t know how strong they can be. – Welcome to “At the Heart of It.” (upbeat music playing) (upbeat music playing) Welcome to “At the Heart of It,” where we are telling the stories of remarkable people. Pull up a chair and get ready to hear intimate conversations about finding purpose, unleashing innovation, and maintaining wellbeing along the way. Listen to a softer side you may not have heard before. We’re all in this journey together. So let’s explore and discover together. We’re thrilled this week to have as our guest, a woman who calls herself Your BFF/Ob/Gyn, and who also happens to be the ABC News Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Jen Ashton. – [Moderator] As Chief Health and Medical Correspondent for ABC News, Jennifer Ashton is a familiar face on television, helping Americans navigate the latest medical news and providing straight talk or women’s health. A board certified obstetrician gynecologist, it seems almost impossible for Jen to have become anything but a doctor. She hails from a medical family. Jen’s wisdom on health, nutrition, and lately on COVID-19 is in high demand on shows including Good Morning America, World News Tonight, Nightline and nationally syndicated GMA3: What You Need to Know. And yet she’s well aware that medicine doesn’t have all the answers. In her 2019 book, “Life After Suicide,” she shared her powerful story of grief and loss after the death of her ex-husband and offered a glimpse of how suicide affects those left behind. And her latest book is all about coping with the pandemic. Given that wellness is Jen’s watchword, today we’ll explore exactly what that means in her own life. – Jen, welcome, it is so good to see you. – Nancy, it’s so good to be with you and your opening to your show looks incredible. Now I know, even though I know you’re the busiest woman on the world, that if I ever can’t do anything for ABC, I know who to suggest as a fill-in. I mean, that looks amazing. – Oh, you’re very kind and it’s so great to see you. And it’s such an honor to have you with us. We have some life-changing topics to cover, but before we do that, I thought we would start with a little bit of fun. Are you game for a few easy rapid fire questions? – Absolutely, I’m ready. – Oh, okay, working style: early morning or late night? – Both. – Of course. (Jen laughing) Multitasker or one thing at a time? – Multi-tasker. – Exercise: walking or running? – I prefer to run, but my Achilles has been acting up over the last five years. So I’m probably relegated to walking now. – Past time, do you log on or log off? – Log on – Animal lover: dog person or cat person? – Dog person till recently and then I became a cat person. – Well, you gotta love all animals. So that’s a good thing. Well, thank you, Jen, that was fun. So now let’s get to the heart of it. As a television broadcaster and a household name, especially during the pandemic, you give people medical news and information, context, and advice, and people trust you immensely, but how does the doctor take care of herself? – I follow, Nancy, that saying that when we used to take airplanes all the time. If you’re next to someone who needs assistance, put your mask on first. And that can be really hard to do for anyone, male or female, but women have a particular hard time doing that. But I’ve realized in the last 15 years of my career, both as a practicing doctor and as a medical journalist and a network correspondent, that if I don’t take care of myself, I literally can’t be there for the people who depend on me. So that’s my family, my patients, my viewers at ABC News. So I am incredibly committed to what I call the trifecta of good health, both physical and mental health, which is good rest, good nutrition, and good fitness or exercise. And if I don’t get those things on a daily basis, I start to feel the effects pretty quickly. – Yeah, and this is such good advice that I know you have given all of us over so many years, including your amazing patients who I know you still see on a regular basis. I’ve really been struck by the focus of your new book. That is about the pandemic, “The new normal.” Are we currently living a new normal? And what do you think normal is actually going to look like when the world gets back on its feet? – Well, I do think we’re in a new normal and it’s not really new anymore, right? Because we’ve been dealing with this now for over a year. I kind of cringe when I hear people ask, well, when will we be back to normal? You don’t live life in reverse, right? So what that reminds me of is in obstetrics after a woman has a baby and people start talking about her body bouncing back. And I think, look what she just went through. Maybe it’s not gonna be back to the way it was two years ago. Maybe it’ll be better, but it will be different. And we’re just wasting time if we fixate on the past, right? That’s the past for a reason. So I think that the way we’re living now, because it’s been such a prolonged period of time, is kind of our new reality. Do I think it will always be exactly like it is right now? No, and by the way, that’s not just my opinion. It’s based on the Infectious Disease and Public Health experts that I’m in communication with on a regular basis. But also no one has a crystal ball as you know, Nancy. So everyone likes to kind of guess and guesstimate and estimate and pontificate, and no one knows, right? They’re looking at epidemiologic models. They’re trying to guess. They may have their opinion, which is fine, but we have never been in this situation before. So therefore no one knows what the future holds. That’s why we can only really focus on the present. – Yeah, such an important point. And you have often used this word, as a matter of fact, you may have been the first person I heard use this word many, many years ago, and it’s the word resilience. And when I think about you and your life, I’d love to hear what resilience means to you. We know you’ve had the suicide of your ex-husband Rob that you’ve been so brave to talk about that has really been so emotionally impactful to many of us. And COVID-19 of course is all about resilience. What does it mean to you? – Resilience means that you have inner strength, that’s both physical and emotional or mental, that you may not even realize existed before it really comes to hit you in the face. And I’ve seen that in my personal life, but I’ve also seen that with my patients. And you know this well also, until many people have a personal health crisis, they don’t know how strong they can be. They don’t know how quickly they can recover. They don’t know how powerful their mind is to effect changes on their lifestyle. And you’re right, I did live through that with Rob suicide death. And I had to really dig deep inside me for the sake of my children and my patients and my colleagues and friends and for myself to get through that. And it’s only when someone’s through a crisis like that, that they really discover a lot of times their strength that I think as a country, we are all collectively discovering that because who would have ever thought we would have been in this situation before? And I think a lot of people’s strength is coming out in ways that are surprising to them. – I remember when you told the story about Rob’s suicide death, and so many other really difficult conversations that you have publicly brokered and things that you’ve talked about, and I know that that has been difficult for you, yet life-changing to the people who have heard your message. How did you build up the strength to tell the story? And do you see at the other end of it, the people whose lives you’ve impacted from being so brave? – I mean, first of all, thank you, Nancy. I mean directly thank you because the only way that I was able to speak publicly about suicide and mental illness and what my children and I went through was A, because my children basically implored me to do it. They said, mom, you have a platform where you can reach millions of people. You need to speak about this. And so as any parent knows, when your children ask you to do something, usually find a way to do it. But the reason I wanna thank you and all my friends at the American Heart Association and all my friends and colleagues at ABC News and my patients in my medical practice is that I wouldn’t have had the strength and the courage to do that without the massive support that I could feel from the people in my world. And part of that was spoken support. People saying, look, I’m here for you, whatever you need. But most of it was unspoken. Most of it was being inspired by other people’s strength and other people’s courage. And also feeling that ironically, Nancy, it was the only way I thought that I could heal myself is by being completely honest and transparent about what had happened to me and my family. And look, whether it’s mental illness or heart disease or COVID, or cancer or a combination thereof, no one is immune. This can happen to anyone. Cardiologists can have heart attacks and do. Oncologists get cancer. Psychiatrists suffer from depression. And suicide does not discriminate either. So I really felt that it was part of my path to healing was to just say, I am no different than any other of the 47,000 people who die by suicide in this country every year and their families. And the only difference is that I happened to reach millions of people every day, and so I felt an obligation to use that voice. – Yeah, that voice with your viewers has been powerful, but I often want to take the opportunity to remind you of the wonderful time you came to our CEO round table. And you spoke with CEOs of large corporations in this country about what employees go through when they’re facing tough times in their life and how you personally were touched and impacted by your employer. And I’ll tell you, people walked away from that room and they were different CEOs after engaging with you on this topic. I have no doubt about it. And that’s just another way your story has made a difference. So let’s get back to you for a second. When is the last time you negotiated for yourself? You give so much to others. When is the last time you negotiated for yourself? – Well, actually, if you must know, it was just about two weeks ago when I took my first two real days of vacation in a year from my practice and from ABC News. And I went off the grid for Thursday and Friday. I’m not gonna do my show. I’m not gonna do any show. I’m completely not available unless the world ends. So we have a bench of doctors and they had no problem with that, but it’s difficult for me to remind myself to do that. And I think it’s difficult for a lot of people because we all feel a sense of obligation and responsibility and so I learned in the last year that again, just like my foundation of health and wellness, if I don’t force myself to truly take time off, fun fact, I’m also taking this Friday off, it’s not good. It doesn’t set a good example and I don’t do my best work. And it’s just not healthy. So I do need to do more of it but I do a little of it. – A little less is better than none and a little is a step to a little more in the future. So when you look over the course of your life, is there anything you would’ve done differently when you think back? – The only thing and this is personal, it’s not professional, is I kind of wish I had had another baby. I wish I had had three children instead of two. I had my two children, Alex and Chloe, when I was in medical school at Columbia. They’re 17 months apart. And then I started a residency that was four years. And because Ob/Gyn is a surgical specialty, I was working over 80 hours a week for four years. My son started preschool when I was a resident. I never saw the inside of his classroom. My mom and Rob took him. And that was a sacrifice on my part. I knew that he was well taken care of, but when I was a senior resident, so my third year of residency, I really wanted to have another baby. And when Rob and I discussed it, he kind of said, “Well, it’s expensive to have another child and blah, blah, blah, but if you really wanna do it…” He was kind of wishy-washy about it. And then didn’t think about it, didn’t act on it and my window of opportunity passed, but that’s really kind of the only thing. Everything else, I feel a massive sense of gratitude for teaching me the life lessons that everything has taught me. – I know that your children, who are incredible by the way, are likely your most proud achievement or accomplishment. So we’ll say that we know that. Beyond them, what personal or professional achievement are you most proud of? – I think it would have to be getting my degree in nutrition. I got a master’s in nutrition as you well know from Columbia University. I got that degree in 2016. It was a three-year program because it was designed for professionals like myself who have day jobs and they can’t go full time to school. It was a massive amount of work, Nancy, massive amount of work, but it put me into a position that very few doctors are in because doctors are taught almost zero formal nutrition in medical school. And nutritionists and dieticians who learn a lot about food, obviously, don’t go to medical school. They are not taught the same degree of physiology and pathology, et cetera, as physicians. And I really wanted to have both, and I wanted to have formal education and credentials in nutrition and not just talk about it like many other doctors do. So I put in those three years, and it was probably the best professional decision I ever made and the best professional accomplishment really, because it enabled me to give advice and care to both my patients and ABC viewers that I really think is on a level that very few people have. And I think it’s that important. I’m probably most proud of that. – It was a wonderful accomplishment. I remember when you achieved that wonderful milestone and I think it has uniquely positioned you as a partner to people in this country and around the world, frankly, who are trying to focus on self care and you have written so much and reported so much on self care. Since the start of your medical career and up through today, what are your patients saying are the two or three most common wellness issues that they face? – Let’s start from the top down. It starts with mental health, psychological wellbeing. I see patients, women mostly, from teenagers all the way up to 80 plus years of age and every single patient in the last year that I’ve seen has spontaneously mentioned or in some cases almost admitted because they feel badly about it, that they have suffered anxiety, depression, PTSD, fear, frustration, fatigue, because of the pandemic, every single one. So I think in terms of self care, everyone now is looking for ways to pay closer attention to their mental health and wellbeing. And in some cases, on the other end of the spectrum, are overtly suffering as a result of the last year and what we’ve all lived through and continue to live through. I think weight management is probably number two. And again, that dovetails on why it was so important for me to get formal education and credentials in nutrition. I don’t think I see very many people of any age who aren’t focused or concerned about their weight. They’re either trying to lose weight. They’re trying to prevent weight gain. In some cases they’re trying to safely and healthfully gain weight, a few percentage of the time. It’s across the board. This is a major, major focus for people. And those would be I think the top two. – Yeah, and when we think about the struggles that all of us have had, frankly, I mean, seriously, the past year, I think for all of us, has given us a moment to reflect about what’s important in life, but also has forced us to think of new ways to work, to take care of ourselves, to find time to do the self-care that you talk about. There’s a lot of public health issues that are still going on in this country and COVID has had the lion’s share of exposure rightfully so. What other issues in public health keep you up at night? What else are you worried about? What else are you reporting on? – The first thing is both because of really my specialty, but also because the statistics support this. We have a big women’s health crisis in this country, and it’s not just for maternal mortality or pregnancy-related deaths or complications, but it’s really women’s health. It’s why I’ve been so passionate to do so much work with the American Heart Association over the last five to 10 years, because it’s the number one killer of women and it always has been, and it really always will be. And COVID of course has tied it statistically this past year but I have no question that that will eventually come down and heart disease will continue to be number one. And then when you put that in conjunction with the type of pregnancy related or reproductive health care services that women in this country get or don’t get, we need to do a lot better, a lot better in terms of research, in terms of delivery of care, in terms of patient education, in terms of access. I mean, literally on every level. And it’s 2021. I was saying for awhile, it’s #time’s-up for social reasons, but it’s also time’s up for this disparity in women’s health. I’m starting to see some glimmers of improvement with that, but we need to pick up the pace and we have a lot of lost ground to make up for. – We do indeed, the year of lost healthy life years that we read about a week or two ago. And the impact that women have had this past year has been incredible and we are always grateful to you for remembering the power of women. So speaking of the power of women, I know that you are a daddy’s girl and I love the story of your father. And I know how proud that he is of your accomplishments. Is there a piece of advice that your mom or dad gave you growing up that have helped create who you are today? – Definitely, so for people who don’t know, my father is a cardiologist, still in practice, winding down but still in practice here in New York city. He was in the Air Force during Vietnam. So I was born on an Air Force base, which I’m very proud of. And so I literally grew up at the dinner table hearing about heart attacks and learn looking at a cow heart from a lab that he once brought to our house. And I mean, it literally and figuratively was in my blood and in my upbringing. My father gave me the best advice in medicine ’cause my whole family is in medicine, all doctors. My mother is a retired, registered nurse. And my father once said to me, I think I was in medical school or residency and he said, “To be the best doctor, the best doctor, you need to do or be only three things.” And believe it or not, not one of them is smart. He said, “You need to work really hard. You need to be honest all the time and you need to care. And if you do all three of those things, you will be one of the greatest doctors ever.” – Yeah, fabulous advice. – Yeah, I really think it’s true. And then my mom gave me also great advice, which I’ve thought of so many times during the last year of this pandemic, which is in life, you can’t control what happens, but you can control what you do with what happens. And I think that’s really true. And I think I hear them both saying that all the time. – Wise parents, so speaking of wise parents, you are one as well. We’ve talked about your wonderful children. If you were giving them one piece of wisdom or advice, what would that be? – I think it would be, and I have given this advice to them. They’re now 21 and 22 years old and I am so proud of them. They’ve lived through a nightmare and it would have been very, very understandable if they had come out angry at the world or really bitter at life and they actually are the opposite. They were sensitive people before they lost their father to suicide but they’re even more sensitive, grateful people today. And the advice that I give them and always have given them is you have no idea how strong you are. You can get through anything. Trust your strength and you’ll be more than okay. You’ll be excellent. I think they’ve already seen that to be honest. – I have seen that in them and really such wonderful advice for all of us. So Jen, we are so grateful to you for letting us in your life and giving us such wonderful advice here today and in your books and on your newscasts and I know for your patients in the everyday practice that you have. Do you have any parting thoughts for us that might give us some perspective, especially in this unprecedented moment in time? – My thoughts would be, I hope that your viewers read my latest book, “The New Normal” and understand that even in the setting of a global pandemic historic in the last 100 years, there is so much that we can all do for ourselves. Not only to make us feel better, but to make us truly healthier. And I hope people never forget that. Even when things seem out of our control, there’s still so much in our control. And so that’s what I really hope people away from the book, in addition to learning how to think like a doctor, which I think anyone can learn. You don’t have to go through four years of medical school to do it and that they don’t lose hope for a better, healthier future because I am an eternal optimist. So I think it’s better than the alternative. And I hope people get that as well. – Dr. Jennifer Ashton, thank you for always being such a great friend and such a wise mentor to all of us. We are so grateful to you for your time today. – Thank you, Nancy, loved being with you. Congrats on the show and I can’t wait till I see you in person. – I can’t wait either, love you, girl, take care. – Love you, bye. – Bye-bye. I want to thank Dr. Jennifer Ashton for her time, her insights and most of all for her ongoing work to make us all healthier and happier. I was especially struck by Jen’s own personal demonstration of resilience. She is so brave to have told the story after Rob’s death by suicide. And she got the energy within her to help other people by so bravely telling her story. And I love hearing about how she takes care of herself and she’s so right that if we don’t take care of ourselves, we can’t take care of other people. We’d love to hear from you. What did you identify with that you heard Dr. Ashton talk about? Please let us know. Let’s get a conversation going and thank you for joining us for this inspiring moment with Dr. Jennifer Ashton. – [Moderator] Next on “At the Heart of It” with Nancy Brown. When life throws you off the horse, what will it take for you to get back up and ride again? – I think the difficulty of life, the suffering that’s sort of always gonna happen, the chaos that is always going to happen, the only way out is through: – [Moderator] Your actress and director, Elizabeth Rohm, share her heart with CEO, Nancy Brown, and take away some of the lessons she learned that encouraged her to always move forward. Next on “At the Heart of It.” (upbeat music playing) (upbeat music playing)