CLEVELAND — On a recent trip to his South Dakota hometown, journalist Tom Brokaw asked his boyhood friends a question: Could they remember any man from their childhood who lived past 70?
He said they paused, running through all the hard-drinkers, smokers and red-meat-eaters they had known as boys. In the end, they could come up with only one name.
“That became a community responsibility because you’re losing resources. If a banker dies or a teacher dies or a doctor dies because of not paying attention to their health, it becomes a community responsibility … to say nothing of the cost to the state and the community,” Brokaw said. “This is true of every state in the country – you should have enormous pride in the health of your community.”
Brokaw’s words had particular resonance Friday as he addressed a sold-out crowd of 244 people at the Grammy Museum Mississippi. Brokaw was here to kick off the first Delta Conversation, an event to benefit the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi, a charity focused on health and education issues in the Delta.
Friday’s conversation centered on health, both Brokaw’s recent cancer diagnosis, as described in his 2015 book, A Lucky Life Interrupted: A Memoir of Hope, and the health issues facing the Mississippi Delta. He was joined on stage by Andy Lack, the chairman of NBC News and the founder of Mississippi Today.
Even with cancer, by the standards of his hometown, Brokaw, 76, is the picture of health. But the former NBC anchor has always held himself to higher standards. Known in the news industry for his stamina — he anchored coverage of the World Trade Center attacks for 15 straight hours on Sept. 11, 2001 — he’s just as rugged in his personal life, biking across Chile and Argentina after his 73rd birthday.
So his 2013 diagnosis of multiple myeloma, he said, rocked him to his core, changing not just how he saw his own health but also how he saw community health.
“I’ve got resources and access to the best doctors in the world,” said Brokaw, whose cancer is being effectively managed through a series of medicines and treatments. “But across America, there are people who don’t have that access.”
In addition to health, Lack and Brokaw also discussed the role of media in the 2016 election, specifically Monday night’s highly rated debate between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Lack said he and his team of journalists and researchers at NBC, which hosted the debate, had spent three weeks preparing.
He also came to the defense of moderator Lester Holt, whom some had criticized for not reigning in the candidates.
“The stakes were high. This election is like no other, I think you’d agree, that we’ve seen in our lifetime,” Lack said. “We … tried to make it a debate rather than a (question and answer format). The candidates revealed themselves on some deeper level. That’s the purpose of a debate.”
Still, the conversation frequently came back to Brokaw’s experience with cancer and how it had shaped the way he saw treatment.
“Cancer invades not just the patient, but the entire family,” Brokaw said. “The emotional support that a cancer patient gets is as important as the physical (treatment).”
Brokaw, who received his treatment at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York, said he knows he’s uniquely lucky to have access to cutting edge therapies that aren’t available to most Americans.
“We ought to work a lot harder, and we’re beginning to do that,” Brokaw said.
“And the great healthcare institutions are working harder at getting out into these remote areas. And it’s not just the responsibility from the ground up but from the top down as well. There’s nothing more important to an individual or a family than good health.”
This is why Brokaw also stressed the importance of people reaching out and helping their friends and other members of their community stay healthy.
“In every community there is cancer and in every community there are people who can be a caregiver so I encourage everyone to be a caregiver to the community,” Brokaw said.