Healthy Woman: Bernadine Healy '65

By Maryann Teale Snell

Show her something that's out of whack — a heart, a policy, an entire institution — and she'll do whatever she can to fix it. If there's anyone who doesn't shy away from challenges, it's Dr. Bernadine Healy.

As former president of the Red Cross and the first woman director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), this Vassar graduate has taken on some tough tasks. And the forge-ahead agendas she's promoted - including preserving post-9/11 Red Cross donations in a Liberty Fund, for exclusive use in terrorist-related response and readiness; championing the efforts of Israeli's Magen David Adom to be included in the International Red Cross movement; and launching the largest-ever study of women's health issues - haven't always made her popular. But a little opposition rarely stops her.


Bernadine Healy '65 poses in front of a large body of water
Bernadine Healy '65 poses in front of a large body of water

A cardiologist trained at Harvard Med and Johns Hopkins, she's followed a lofty career path that's included (besides her stints at the Red Cross and NIH) being head of the Research Institute at the Cleveland Clinic and the coronary care unit at Johns Hopkins, dean of Ohio State University's College of Medicine and Public Health, and president of the American Heart Association. She's served, in an advisory capacity, three U.S. presidents (Reagan and both Bushes), and followed her own political instincts when she ran for the U.S. Senate from Ohio. She's also written hundreds of peer-review manuscripts and authored A New Prescription for Women's Health: Getting the Best Medical Care in a Man's World (Viking, 1995).

Now a columnist and senior writer for U.S. News and World Report (she writes the "On Health" column), Healy is somewhat relieved to be out of the limelight. In fact, she's pleased to be writing, which still gives her the chance to offer her opinions and weigh in on policy issues, perhaps on a more personal level. "It's really just another version of being a doctor," she says. "It's a way to communicate with people about one of the most important things in their life: their health."

In choosing her topics (recent ones have included teenage depression, the re-importation of prescription drugs from Canada, breast implants, the health risks of air travel, and the dubious claims of "safer" cigarettes), Healy taps her two decades' worth of patient care, experience in public policy, and extensive work as a researcher and scientist. Always, she abides by one simple rule: "Imagine you're the patient."


Bernadine Healy '65 poses in front of a large body of water - different shot
Bernadine Healy '65 poses in front of a large body of water - different shot

Her work in the media (including six years as a medical consultant and commentator for CBS News, editor of the Journal of Women's Health, and adviser for Prevention magazine) has made clear to her the necessity of talking to the public about complicated issues in understandable ways. And beyond that, she says, "medicine has moved to the realm of being something that must be, should be, driven and dominated by the needs of patients. What do they need to know? There's no question that the biggest variable in health care is education — whether or not you're informed about your health and well-being and use that information in a way to positively affect your life and your family's life."

The swell of magazine, newspaper, and Internet articles — not to mention books — that address health issues has gone a long way in getting people involved in their own well-being. "I don't know any other country that covers health as avidly," Healy says. But that doesn't mean it's easy to sift through all the information. Medicine has become more and more complicated, she says, and that shows no sign of letting up.

One notable change in recent years is the attention that's been given specifically to women's health issues. Even 10 or 15 years ago, Healy says, "it was a struggle to have people take you seriously when you were talking about the fact that differences between men and women weren't being adequately addressed in the health-care environment, and in the research environment. It was sort of seen as 'feminist ranting' or a distorted vision. Now you pick up a journal, and in virtually every area of medicine, you see studies examining fundamental differences between men and women — in the pathophysiology of disease, and how diseases should be treated."

Healy has played a key role in bringing women's health-care issues to the fore and changing the mindset. As head of the NIH in the early 1990s, she launched the Women's Health Initiative (WHI), an effort to study the causes, prevention, and cures of diseases affecting women over 50. "Mystery women," Healy calls them, because there was so little known about their risk factors for heart disease and cancer, or about dietary concerns or hormone replacement therapy (HRT).

"It was a really bold step," Healy says. The WHI — at the time, the largest clinical study ever undertaken in the world — teamed up 40 major women's health centers across the country to examine the health and well-being of women over 50. It came at a time, Healy recalls, when "people were saying it couldn't be done because you couldn't get women to enroll in trials, it was too big, too expensive — which, let's face it, was silly — it was not quite a billion dollars over 14 years. Because it's difficult, does that mean you shouldn't do studies?"


Bernadine Healy '65 poses in front of a body of water - different shot
Bernadine Healy '65 poses in front of a body of water - different shot

More than 160,000 women have participated in the WHI, and in its first decade, it has only begun to raise questions and disperse information, Healy suggests. A WHI report in summer 2002, for example, revealed that HRT — in regular use for decades — wasn't all it was cracked up to be. In fact, it was determined in the randomized clinical trial that HRT could be quite harmful. The side effects among women on combined estrogen-progestin therapy included breast cancer, heart attacks, strokes, and blood clots. The news was "a big shocker around the world," Healy says.

While the findings came as a surprise to her, too, she says she'd had "an intuitive sense that if you take women who are in their 70s who have not been on hormone replacement therapy — who have gone through menopause feeling well — and then you suddenly put them on hormones — we have no idea what that's about. That was just one big question mark, yet it was being done at the time. The world seemed ready to put hormone replacement therapy in drinking water [as if it was] good for everybody."

Healy's work at the NIH was cut short when the Clinton administration took office. (She'd been appointed to the directorship by George H. W. Bush in 1991.) While her tenure in the post did allow her to oversee the WHI, time ran out before she could fully launch a similar initiative focused on nutrition. In terms of medical science, she says, "I think nutrition has really fallen through the cracks at every level. It's time, as it was 10 years ago, to look at it, in part because we now have more insights into genetics. Everyone doesn't have the same risks. People have different diets; there are reasons for that. A particular diet might be good for some people and not for others."

Nutrition "is the ultimate biochemical interaction — the human organism reacting with the environment, daily, in a very intimate sense. And it's been starved for research funding," Healy says. "If you don't invest in research in a particular area, you're not going to have any scientists working there. They might have all the ability and attention to doing it, but if there's no money, there's no ability to set up laboratories and train new scientists."

Nutrition studies, no matter how simplistic they might seem, need to capture funders' attention, Healy says. "Again, if you focus on who you're serving — the public, the patient — then it seems obvious that you need to do those studies. Like it was obvious there needed to be more emphasis on women's health research."


Bernadine Healy '65 poses in front of some trees
Bernadine Healy '65 poses in front of some trees

In her commencement address at Vassar in 1994, Healy reminded her audience that no matter who we are or what we do in life, every one of us has a stake in health. She spoke about the huge advancements being made in medicine, calling the trend "a measure of the greatness of this country and its priorities, especially how we value the individual." She urged everyone to acknowledge that ethics and public interest are necessary companions of science. And, in trademark Healy fashion (she ends all her addresses this way), she concluded with the maxim, "At the end, what really matters is who you loved and who loved you." It's a sentiment she holds near and dear.

"I've been with many people in the last moments of their lives," the cardiologist says. "I've sat at their bedside and held their hand in the last moments of their life. They've shared with me where they are, what's burdening them, what's giving them any kind of solace. You never hear anyone talk about the money they did or didn't make, the jobs they had or didn't get, the vacations they went on...it's only about who they love and who loves them. Because in a way, that's a measure of your life — your family, your friends. That's the most important thing, and you have to keep it in your heart at all times. It doesn't mean you don't enjoy your life and what you're doing. But ultimately, we all will face that time."

When Healy had a brain tumor a few years back, she had a life-assessing moment of her own, which only reinforced her view. "You're there in a very lonely time in your life, and your relationships are the things that define who you are and how you get through that period of time, whether it's for good or bad."

In becoming a doctor, Healy "approached medicine as both an intellectual and a spiritual, humanitarian, endeavor. I still feel that way, absolutely," she says. "I think the moment medicine ceases to be [both those things], it'll break with what should be an immutable quality in medicine, which is helping a fellow human being in distress." Throughout her career, Healy says, whatever she's taken on — "even if it seemed a little off the beaten path" — she's done it as a doctor. "There are different ways to practice medicine," she says. "But I've never ceased having the heart of a doctor, the mind of a doctor, the perspective of a doctor."

Maryann Teale Snell is a freelance writer and editor in Saratoga Springs, NY.


What does the doctor say?


Health Care Coverage

It's not going to be an easy issue to solve, as medicine becomes more complex and offers more to virtually everyone. It's sort of on an inevitable collision course; people keep expecting that medicine is going to get cheaper, not more expensive. And there's the issue of how to make the fruits of discovery available to the public at large.

Diet and Nutrition

We haven't tested any of these diets that are out there - cabbage soup, Atkins, South Beach. You can't help but see how woefully absent science is from them. We know so little, and there's no reason for it. Physicians are inadequately educated in the area of nutrition; the whole field is a neglected science. [Nutrition] may not be a drug, but in many ways it's more powerful than a drug — I mean, everyone eats.


It's public enemy number one. And we don't have a clue. I mean, how much of that is linked to diet? I bet there's a link there! Why aren't we doing research on this? Obesity isn't something that just belongs in the institute that does endocrine disease. It's much more than that. It's mind, it's body, it's cravings, it's a brain issue, a heart issue. In some cases an endocrine issue. It's not just a one-dimensional problem.

The Proliferation of Health Books

In a way it's very positive; it shows that people are interested in learning about their health, in absorbing [the information] and making changes to lead healthier lives. I have no doubt that that puts the stronger burden on the research and education community to listen to that interest and recognize that you have an obligation to do more.

Women in Medicine

When I started out, you were lucky if seven percent of practicing physicians were women. In medical school, there was a rigid quota for how many women they'd accept in a class. There was sort of an attitude that [women] wouldn't necessarily give back [to the profession] or stick it out. It's now a field in which men and women are about equally represented, though not necessarily in the leadership positions. When you have a strong presence of women as well as men, it changes the way you think about disease, and patients.

The Women's Health Initiative

My hope is that the WHI continues beyond 16 years [it's funded until 2006], because you have this phenomenal human resource of women. In a few years, we'll have one of the largest populations of centenarians ever studied, in an organized way, in the history of the planet. So I think it really should be a resource for women's health and well-being way into the future, as long as those women are with us.

The Red Cross and 9/11...

Believe it or not, the final plan for responding to an attack by weapons of mass destruction — 'the disaster of tomorrow' — was literally on my desk about two weeks before [9/11] happened. If we'd only had a few more months [to prepare]... But at least we'd been thinking about it. We knew what we had to do. And it was an amazing time in terms of generosity and enthusiasm for the work we were doing.

...And Americans' Generosity

The American public is so unbelievably generous. Not just with their money, but with their labor. They really want to pitch in and help a neighbor in distress. They're willing to roll up their sleeves and do virtually anything to help someone in a time of great need. The federal government can do so much, but this is something that needs to work at the level of communities. Volunteer organizations have a vital role to play in preparing communities for uncertainties.

Her Personal Life

I value my children, my husband, my immediate environment, keeping a sense of humor. I love to curl up and read, whether it's magazines or books...and I'm sort of a junkie for newspapers. And I know this sounds very pedestrian, but I love to shop with my daughters. It's the best time we have together. We talk endlessly.

Why She Didn't Become a Nun

I think my father was right - I would not have been a very good nun. But I thought a career in medicine was a way that I could do sort of a nun-equivalent. I guess I had a missionary zeal in me from when I was younger. I had this sort of romantic view of what I would like to do with my life, and I stubbornly and doggedly pursued it. It gave me a good focus for the early part of my life.

Life's Biggest Challenge

I think everybody has two lives — a personal life and a public life. I think the hardest thing in the world, and the most rewarding thing, is keeping your head together in all of the pressures that surround you, and making sure that the two [lives] mesh in a reasonable way. I put most value on that inner life, that spiritual life, and making that work. No one ever does it perfectly. You always ask whether you could do it better.


It was heavenly, one of the most idyllic times in my life. In that sort of pre-women's-lib time, Vassar was known for having women who were forceful and did things in the world. Now it has a different face, but I think it's stayed current, dynamic. It's still an idyllic intellectual environment. It's a great place; it's what college should be.