Chances are that if you are glued to Fox News for updates and health tips during the coronavirus crisis, you’ve already met Dr. Nicole Saphier.
The director of breast imaging at the Monmouth regional site of the world-famous Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, the photogenic radiologist has emerged as a leading source of coronavirus information for the public at large.
The poised doctor has been a medical contributor at Fox News Channel for several years. You might have seen her on Fox & Friends, or cohosting The Five or Outnumbered. She has a gift for breaking down medical information in plain English, and it is obvious Dr. Saphier is having a moment.
She conveys expertise and calm in the face of a challenge and at the same time has strong opinions, which she is not afraid to express. She is asked to assess the relative strengths and weaknesses of the American healthcare system and how they play out in a crisis such as the current one.
She conveys expertise and calm in the face of a challenge and at the same time has strong opinions.
“That’s an excellent question,” the doctor replies, “and unfortunately, it is some of our own doing that is rendering Americans vulnerable to COVID-19 right now. Americans live with more preventable illness than any other nation, and since chronic illness is a risk factor for the severity of symptoms with COVID-19, that may be why we will see a lot of Americans become sick. It’s not because we lack technology. It’s not because we don’t have access to incredible physicians and hospital systems.”
Not mincing words, Dr. Saphier continues, “Now, one of the biggest concerns we have is that there are potentially not enough hospital beds and physicians to care for this massive influx of patients with the global pandemic, and that’s true. We saw a lot of consolidations and closures of larger hospitals and small practices, and a lot of this happened under the Affordable Care Act amongst other restrictive healthcare policies.”
It was in fact the Affordable Care Act that got Dr. Saphier on TV in the first place. She and her husband, Dr. Paul Saphier, a neurosurgeon, were at a social gathering when the Affordable Care Act came up in conversation. Dr. Saphier did not hold back in providing her in-depth analysis and opinion of the infamous legislation. Coincidentally, it seems a staff-member of the Fox News Channel was at the party, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The straight-talking doc is asked about something that is bugging many Americans—the shortage of test kits, which some argue could easily have been mitigated by using tests from the World Health Organization or China. What does she say?
“Well, I think in the beginning we were following our typical process, and the tests from China fell well below the standards of the United States,” she replies. “However, we also all anticipated the original test produced by the United States, was going to be functional. Unfortunately, after the CDC’s test started shipping out, they realized they too weren’t functioning that well, which was a double whammy. We said no to the Chinese test, but we also found our own internal test wasn’t working. So, at that point we had limited testing capability, and that was a problem.”
“I don’t think any single person or entity is responsible,” she adds. “I believe a brand-new test for a novel virus is going to have quirks, and the goal was to efficiently ship it out right away. Usually it would have undergone many more quality tests before being utilized. However, there was an obvious urgency to make it available, which is why it came out so rapidly. And we just started seeing some of those faults after using it on the public, whereas usually we wouldn’t be using it on the public quite yet. We would be doing numerous internal checks under different circumstances.”
At one point, it looked like Saphier’s medical school plans were going to be thwarted.
Nicole Saphier grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona, the daughter of a lawyer father and a mother who was the Clinical Director and licensed counselor working with children of family’s victims of abuse, trafficking and mental illness. “I have had unique perspectives ingrained in my thought process from a humanitarian standpoint and also a legal standpoint,” she says. “I am the first medical doctor in my family coming from a lineage of attorneys, pharmacists, entrepreneurs, and shop owners in Southern Philly and upstate New York. I can’t tell you exactly why I wanted to be a doctor. All I know is that I wanted to be a doctor since before I can remember. And I’m the type of person who, if I have a plan, if I have a goal, I’m just going to go with it, and that’s what I did.”
But at one point, it looked like Saphier’s plans were going to be thwarted: she became pregnant in high school. “Needless to say, this wasn’t the most planned aspect of my life and certainly was not on my regimented timeline for becoming a doctor – or for life in general, for that matter,” she has written. She was told by well-meaning friends around her that, if she went through with the pregnancy, she would have to sacrifice her plans and ruin her own life and the life of any child born in her current situation.
Nevertheless, Saphier decided to have her child. “I would be remiss if I minimized this moment into political rhetoric,” she wrote on a Fox News column. “The decision to have my son at a young age was not based on political or religious beliefs. On the contrary, it was based on emotion and a sense of responsibility. Had this happened decades prior, I may have been forced into an unsafe abortion or hidden away during my pregnancy and my child would have been given away. I am grateful to have had the choice to choose life.”
She added, “I am a believer that life is 10 percent what happens to us and 90 percent how we react to it. There were many dark nights where I questioned my ability to continue moving forward and not become the failure, I felt almost destined to be. I spent the next 14 years juggling full-time school, part-time employment and raising a child to the best of my ability. I was privileged that those in my life who may have doubted my decisions did not hesitate to step in and help me.” Saphier’s oldest son, Nick, who has been with her since before she graduated from high school, is now a student at the University of Mississippi.
She met her husband Paul while she was in medical school. “So, I’d love to say that I met my husband when I was in medical school,” she jokes, “because, technically, I was in medical school when I met my husband, but he had flown to Arizona for a conference and we were at a social gathering following the conference. So technically we met at a bar. But it was a bar from a medical conference. He was in fellowship at the time. He’s an endovascular neurosurgeon, so his specialty is treating brain aneurysms and strokes, and I had been involved in research regarding certain spine devices, so that’s why I was at the same conference that he was.” The Saphiers have two sons together, making her a mother of three boys.
Nicole chose to concentrate on radiology. “I had a really hard time deciding on one specialty,” she recalls, “and one of the aspects of radiology is you’re expected to be an expert of the entire body. When I read images, I have to know as much about the brain as a brain surgeon and as much of the foot as an orthopedist does, and everything in between. And so, I’m tasked with looking at images, finding things that are potentially outside of normal limits, and then suggesting what could be causing this illness. And I really enjoyed that.
In the end, the choice of breast radiology was a personal one.
Saphier completed her specialty-fellowship training in Breast & Oncologic Imaging at Mayo Clinic. In the end, the choice of breast radiology was a personal one. “When I was in medical school my Italian grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and during my third year of medical school she died from it. When she was diagnosed, the breast cancer was advanced because she was too modest to go and get her screening mammogram. And because her cancer was already advanced, she died of the disease.”
“So, I decided that perhaps my message, my goal, could be educating people on the importance of early detection, why it is so important to find disease at the earliest possible time. I also wanted to help mitigate through the challenges of their disease treatment and the overall process of a cancer diagnosis.”
She has lobbied successfully for legislation ensuring that women receive early, accurate and detailed information about their cancer screening tests. She remembers what drove her to get involved in the legislative process. “I saw that there was this grassroot movement in the Northeast developing after a woman who had been diagnosed with advanced breast cancer was upset because she had just had her mammogram, and her mammogram was completely normal. As a radiologist and someone who had dedicated a decade of training to certain imaging studies, I absolutely knew the limitations of mammography. I knew that we were missing a good amount of cancers. But the world didn’t know that. It hadn’t occurred to me that a woman would get a letter saying that her mammogram was normal and then feel a mass in her breast a couple days or weeks or months later and just say to themselves, well, my mammogram was fine.” Women needed better information.
“I do not enjoy government intrusion into medicine.”
“I do not enjoy government intrusion into medicine,” Saphier says. “However, I do support legislation that informs and educates people so that they can do what is best for themselves. So, the laws that have been passed, which are now passed in every single state across the country… make sure that women get a letter following the mammogram letting them know if they have what is called dense breast tissue or not. If they do have it, that the mammogram may be missing things, and they need to have a conversation with their doctor. I’ve also been involved in other forms of legislation, essentially trying to get access to more advanced technology when it comes to cancer screening.”
She is also the author of Make America Healthy Again: How Bad Behavior and Big Government Caused a Trillion Dollar Crisis (HarperCollins Publishers). The book argues against socialized medicine and in favor of our taking better care of ourselves to reduce the overall costly burden healthcare is placing on our society. She regards the Affordable Health Care Act (ACA) as, overall, altruistic at best but not a sustainable long-term solution.
She explains, “The ACA wanted to cover everyone. It wanted to make sure everybody had access to care, and who can argue with that? That would be wonderful. Here’s the thing that it didn’t tackle: It cut off the legs for the supply. …All of a sudden, they required physicians to purchase extremely expensive electronic equipment and put forward various other restrictions that made being a doctor very difficult. And that’s why we saw doctors dropping out and consolidating practices leaving us with a deficit in physicians.”
“But the biggest thing that they did not address with the Affordable Care Act, in my opinion, is reducing the demand of this whole equation,” she continues. “We have a large swath of preventable illness that is overrunning our healthcare system. Right now, with COVID-19, we are seeing our hospital beds full and we have six out of every ten Americans living with a chronic illness, which is one of the risk factors for having severe symptoms with the coronavirus. If we had focused on decreasing the amount of preventable illness in our country, we would have started off as a much healthier nation.”
“You cannot simply give an insurance card to everyone and say everyone can have ‘free’ health care…”
“You cannot simply give an insurance card to everyone and say everyone can have ‘free’ health care, whether we are discussing private health care or public single-payer, because no system is going to work as long as we are still completely overrun with illness that could have been prevented,” she adds. “If we can focus on those illnesses and prevent them, then we would have significantly more resources for those that cannot be prevented.”
As you might have expected, Dr. Saphier doesn’t try to play down the gravity of our current situation. She acknowledges that an estimate of 1.2 million Americans could die from coronavirus is “not outlandish.” She believes we will never get to this number because she has faith in our system and leadership, and rather sees the possibility of a peak in the next three to four weeks. Absent more testing, it is hard to draw conclusions.
“The Trump administration is doing what they can right now from a multifaceted approach,” she says, “however, we have a huge concern that, if we don’t mitigate the spread of community illness right now with this virus, hospitals are going to be overrun with patients, and people will die. Not because of the virus, per se, but because we weren’t able to treat them all. And that is why we’re taking such restrictive measures, trying to halt community spread and we hope that we can get additional resources in as soon as possible.”
While we are mostly cooped up at home, worried about the medical outcomes of our actions, many Americans are turning to Dr. Saphier to help us get through this. She has a great bedside manner as well as the knowledge to give Americans advice on how to get through this crisis, and continue living healthier lives after.