Dr. Max Gomez is an Emmy Award-winning Medical Correspondent for WCBS-TV with more than 32 years of experience. An expert moderator, speaker and emcee, Dr. Gomez is renowned for his clear, concise presentations of complex medical information to a wide range of audiences. Dr. Gomez is committed to helping the public understand and navigate the world of medicine, and healthcare and science.
**Lou-Ellen Barkan (LEB):** Max, how, with your outstanding credentials, including an NIH postdoctoral fellowship at Rockefeller University, did you end up on television?
Dr. Max Gomez (MG): When I had a year left on my grant, I realized I was going to have to get a real job. There were some research and academic jobs, but my interests were broader. At the time, I was head of the Young Alumni Committee for Princeton. We were running career counseling seminars, which got me thinking about doing things outside of academics. A Princeton classmate reminded me that I was a radio DJ and a news director at the college radio station. She said, “Well, you did radio and you like science. Why don’t you try to do science and television?” And I thought, “That’s a good idea.”
Someone suggested I talk to a news director at WNEW, Channel 5 and to the editor-in-chief of Popular Science magazine, who had been doing part-time work as a health and science correspondent. The news director agreed it made more sense to take a scientist and teach him television than to do it the other way around. I did a one-month informal tryout. That was 36 years ago.
LEB: To attend Princeton, your family must value education and excellence. How did your father influence your decisions?
MG: He influenced me in ways that were more indirect than parents today. My father influenced me by example. My parents were supportive, but not overly involved in my school life. I did what felt like the right thing and I had, fortunately, a peer group that was both academic and civic-minded.
My parents divorced when I was very young. My friends’ parents became mentors and role models. One close friend had been recruited to play tennis for Princeton and convinced me to apply. On my own, I set up interviews and filled out applications and was accepted. For a Cuban kid from public school in Miami, Princeton was a big culture shock, but I adapted, graduated with honors, and the university became my doorway to mostly everything that followed.
LEB: Telling the story of how your father, who had Alzheimer's disease, was taken advantage of financially is so important. And coming from you, as a journalist, it made an even greater impact. It was a brave thing to do. When you went public with the story, did you think it was a story your father would want you to tell?
MG: He taught by example and I strive to do the same. Telling a personal story makes you more approachable, not some aloof television personality. You have vulnerability and are no different from anyone else. I’ve done stories about my skin cancer, my neck, and reflux surgery. Since I ask people to share their stories publicly when they are at a very vulnerable point in their lives, it would be hypocritical to think that others should do this and I shouldn't.
LEB: You’ve won many awards. Is there one that is particularly special to you?
MG: The one that sticks in my mind is a little Lucite thing that I received from the New York City Department of Health for "Excellence in Time of Crisis," after 9/11.
It was clearly a very difficult time for every New Yorker. I can’t tell you the number of people I had to talk off a ledge: viewers, friends and acquaintances who were stockpiling Cipro because there was Anthrax in the city. I worked with the Health Department, the Health Commission, and others from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.
When Anthrax was found in our building, 30 Rock, people in the newsroom freaked out. Fear and anxiety levels were out of control in the city, but we were spending the first 20 minutes of every broadcast scaring the living daylights out of people and then, as my news director said, at the end of the show I had 90 seconds to talk them off the ledge.
I would interview some top people and if the segment ran two minutes, they wanted me to cut it to 90 seconds. I refused. If they could spend 20 minutes scaring everyone to death, they could give me enough time to tell people what they needed to calm them down; as their fear was a function of absence of control and knowledge. When I received that award, it was very meaningful, because I fought hard to get the information on the air.
LEB: At that moment, it’s remarkable to remember that even though we were terrified, we came together as a community. Information gives people a sense of control, but it needs to be accurate and come from a reliable source. For example, people believe that stem cells are going to be a therapeutic silver bullet for Alzheimer’s. Is there any scientific validity about use of stem cells in Alzheimer’s research?
MG: We were taught that you’re born with all of the brain and heart cells you’re ever going to have. But in the past 10 years, we’ve found examples of stem cells in the brain, in fat, in skin, in the heart, all over the place, so that the need for using embryonic stem cells has become much less. Most of the action has moved to adult stem cells, which don’t carry the moral and ethical baggage of embryonic stem cells, plus they’re far more available. And it turns out that with appropriate manipulation, we might be able to get them to do almost as much as embryonic stem cells.
Using stem cells in Alzheimer’s therapies has promise, but the devil is in the details. In Alzheimer’s there is a loss of certain cell populations in the brain. Early on, this is likely in the hippocampus, so step one may be replacing those cells or getting them to regenerate. Or maybe, if we start early enough, we can preserve those cells. Eventually, we may be able to detect the decline at an early stage, before the cognitive effects become so obvious.
Once the decline is obvious, the challenge is figuring out how to replace those cells. That’s where the stem cells will come in, but that’s only a piece of it. For all neurodegenerative diseases, the keys include arresting the underlying disease process, then replacing the lost cells and finally, those cells have to make the right connections. The good news is that stem cells often seem to have an uncanny ability to “know” what and how to make those connections if the cells are placed or regenerated in the right location within the brain.
LEB: Science is so complex and interesting, but we don’t teach people how to understand what they read and hear. I actually still get calls from people suggesting that aluminum causes Alzheimer’s or that coconut oil prevents it. We believe that people should learn to be discriminating consumers of science and medicine. How do you help them do that?
MG: I try hard to not just to tell people there’s a new study and this is the conclusion: coffee is good for you, coffee is bad for you. If you wait long enough, the conclusion changes from week to week. I want to help people understand the how and why of how we got to that conclusion.
So much of science and medicine seems like a magical black box. You have a shot and suddenly you’re healthy or immune to polio. The public needs to understand at least a little of the process, because if they don’t, then they are susceptible to coconut oil cures and aluminum scares. Now it’s even worse since the internet has become the repository and distributor of rumors and scientific half-truths. "Dr. Quackenbush" puts up a website that looks every bit as authoritative as the Mayo Clinic or Sloan Kettering, but he may be selling nothing but snake oil.
LEB: I meet people who never ask questions like "Who wrote the study? How many people were in it?" Intellectual discipline seems to have declined.
MG: One thing I hammer into my interns all the time is to "consider the source" as the first question. Number two is, regardless of where you read it, always go back to the primary source. I might read an article in The New York Times, for example, written by a well-known journalist, and after reading it multiple times, I've been shocked that it just wasn't right or missed the point entirely.
LEB: I believe that we shouldn’t have anybody writing about science, unless they are truly scientists and/or medical professionals. This is why you are such a huge asset to our organization. We are so grateful for your consistent engagement and support.
MG: What motivates me is honoring my father, but there is also the issue of the coming Alzheimer’s epidemic; that’s the only way you can really describe it. If even half the numbers of those predicted to get Alzheimer’s get sick, we are in big trouble. We will never be able to afford it. People need to know about the disease, about the issues and how funding for research and care should be allocated.
It’s too late to help my father, of course, but my engagement might help others. That’s why I donated his brain to the NYU Alzheimer's Disease Center. Why I helped him volunteer for some of the spinal fluid research studies, neurocognitive testing, and MRIs that he had done. I did it because I thought I could help others, and he did it because he trusted me and my judgment. I’m not sure if he fully comprehended the how and why, but he trusted me.
LEB: His faith in you is similar to what we all feel, when we turn on the news and hear your reports. We trust you and we know you have our best interests at heart. And we thank you for that and for talking with us today.