For THR's annual Doctor's Issue, the former NBC News chief medical editor tearfully describes in her own words the 'Kafkaesque' experience of becoming a national pariah, and resigning from her job, after a supposed quarantine violation last fall.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
A rap came on the hotel room door. It was our head of security — a big, sweating, burly man — who said our security detail had abandoned us because my cameraman, Ashoka Mukpo, had tested positive for Ebola. Three weeks before our arrival in Liberia, eight members of an Ebola outreach team, several journalists among them, had been hacked to death by machete-wielding villagers in Guinea. "You have 30 minutes to get out of here," he said. "People have heard you're the Americans with Ebola. They're coming to get you." Then he left.
I'd covered rough spots before. When I was with ABC News, I reported live from Mogadishu. I was with Charlie Gibson reporting from Desert Shield. I've been on the front lines in Jordan and Beirut covering the Syrian refugee crisis. And I'd just spent three years going back and forth to Haiti for NBC News.
But I had never been in a hot zone before we landed in Liberia [in late September 2014]. As my other cameraman, David, said, "I can put a microphone on a terrorist who's carrying an RPG, but in Liberia, I can't even touch anybody." So we had the extra challenge of getting good audio and shooting compelling pictures while staying far enough away from people to not get ill and become the story.
I thought we were late to the game, and I had said so to NBC. ABC medical correspondent Rich Besser had been there and brought back a wealth of information. But I believed that the U.S. media was really far behind in covering an escalating human tragedy in Liberia, New Guinea and Sierra Leone.
I made all the calls to everybody I knew who was smarter than I am when it comes to hemorrhagic illnesses. I knew the rules that could not be broken and had all the medicines I knew I would need to self-sustain, including IV fluids, IV tubing, hazmat suits. I went in prepared to take care of my team.
In Liberia, every hotel and restaurant worker wore a little paper badge where it would usually say, "My name is Sue." But instead, it would have their temperature on it. So everyone was self-assessing. If you needed to take your temperature twice a day and record it, we would take it six times a day. We were hypervigilant.
We arrived late on a Monday and shot all day Tuesday. We went to two hospitals that were taking care of Ebola patients. We watched simple things: how debris was being incinerated, bleach baths, the extraordinarily strict protocol. The saddest moment was when a mother brought her teenage daughter, slumped over in a wheelbarrow, to the back door of an Ebola unit. The girl awakened from a deep slumber, tumbled out of the wheelbarrow and tried to run away, then collapsed on the sidewalk. We observed from a distance, in hazmat suits, triple-gloved, with shields on. It was brutally sad. I'm sometimes at a loss for words at how much human suffering is out there. And when I come back from these stories, my life gets knocked a little off course. And I think appropriately so.
The entire crew was American: Ami, my medical producer of many years; David, who works out of Beijing; a second producer, Charlene, who runs the Cairo bureau; and Ashoka, a freelancer who had been in Liberia working for Vice. He could shoot and do audio, and he knew his way around the capital city, Monrovia.
Snyderman, who served as NBC’s chief medical editor from 2006 to March (the position has yet to be refilled), appeared with Lauer on 'Today' in May 2013.
The story about the mother and daughter aired Tuesday. Wednesday we retraced the tracks of Thomas Eric Duncan, who came into the U.S. and ended up dying of Ebola. On Thursday, we traveled into the countryside. We had heard of three sisters whose parents had died of Ebola — that the village burned down their house and they were living under a tree, eating grass.
Ashoka was shooting with us that day, but he was in a separate car, getting B-roll. Because we crossed county lines, we had to have our temperatures taken by case workers coming and going. Later in the afternoon, we went back to our hotel. I started to work on a script. Ashoka was perhaps six or eight feet away from me, sitting on a sofa, and everyone was having casual conversations as if we were in a newsroom.
A little later, Ashoka said, "I'm pretty tired." But he had an interview to do and left to go track down someone from the CDC task force.
Ashoka called later that evening. "I have a fever," he said. And I said, "Ashoka, first of all, it may not be anything bad. Are you on malaria medicines?" He said no. And I said, "Ashoka, that is really stupid." I remember that well because we were in the heart of malaria country. And he said, "Nancy, I've had malaria before — it doesn't feel like this." And I said, "OK, let me make some phone calls." He took a nap, called me later, and his fever was still high.
At that point, I had called friends of mine who are Ebola experts, and they said he needed to get a test for Ebola and malaria. But there was a strict curfew, and we'd heard reports that the police were using the curfews as an excuse to beat people up. So I advised Ashoka to lay low — nothing bad was going to happen in six hours.
We began getting our ducks in order. By morning, Ashoka had made it to Doctors Without Borders. We'd notified everyone at NBC. I had called friends at the CDC and one of my best friends, who is the head of global health at Stanford, a hemorrhagic virus expert.
Ashoka tested positive on Friday morning. Our security detail quit by sundown. The question then was: Where do we go? We contacted the State Department to see if there was help at the embassy. Fortunately, the U.S. Army was using our hotel as their base. In the end, we turned ourselves over to the military for protection. We had unfortunately become the story at that point.
NBC set up a three-way call between 30 Rock, my team (huddled around an iPhone) and health commissioners from New York City, New York State and New Jersey. What we heard was not reassuring. Everyone was coming up with different recommendations for what to do with us when we came home. When one of the commissioners suggested to "continue this conversation offline," I knew they were making up protocols as they were going along.
The great news was that Ashoka was getting great care. He was to be airlifted to the University of Nebraska. And with that, it was a full-court press between NBC News, the State Department, the CDC, the University of Nebraska and me, just working my normal doctor channels of getting him the best help that we could possibly get him. It was a very complicated, very compressed 48 hours.
Upon his arrival at Nebraska, Ashoka was started on an IV, which probably saved him. He had massive vomiting and diarrhea, but he was lucid and was able to walk around. I knew it was going to be bumpy, but I had great faith that he would survive. And I knew we were safe because we had never come into contact with Ashoka and he had never been ill in our presence. You can't be infectious until you have a fever. And Ashoka had twice, during the day with us, registered a normal temperature. So we were very confident that we were not at risk.
“It just kept spinning out of control,” says Snyderman, 63. “We were very, very confident that we were not at risk.”
During that time, the Ebola task force in Liberia came, separating us as if we were being interviewed by a grand jury. They deemed us not at risk. We had flown to Liberia on a commercial flight, but NBC sent a jet for us with a nurse on board. We landed at Teterboro at midnight and were met by NBC executives. [NBC News president] Deborah Turness was there, and David Verdi, who is in charge of global operations, and a wonderful woman named Stacy Brady, who's in charge of all of our crews. They were warm. They weren't keeping their distance or doling out air kisses. We had communicated that we were in good shape and feeling fine. There wasn't even a case of diarrhea on this trip.
The word "quarantine" was first spoken by Matt Lauer. I think the term he used on air was "voluntary quarantine" while we were still in Liberia. "Nancy, you're fine. You'll be on a voluntary quarantine when you go home." Things were moving so fast that I remember saying during the live interview, "Yes, we're going to voluntarily quarantine ourselves when we get home."
But we weren't privy to, and certainly not sensitive to, the turmoil that was going on in the U.S. with Thomas Eric Duncan. That case struck me as a candidate for malpractice. He was seen in an ER with a history of just being in Africa and a 102-degree fever (that alone buys you a ticket of admission). This was spinning out of control during that week we were in Liberia, and I was unprepared for the societal chaos that we walked back into. (It's worth remembering: More people have been married to Kim Kardashian than have died of Ebola in the U.S.)
Things escalated quickly on my end. Charlene and David came back with me to my house — no rental property or hotel would take them during the quarantine. We were told a medical officer from the state of New Jersey would see us. In walks a tall, lanky guy, very handsome and young. He introduced himself, and the first thing out of his mouth was, "When they make a movie out of this, I want Matthew McConaughey to play me." We all looked at each other, as if to say, "Are you kidding?" I thought it was extraordinarily inappropriate. Then he went through the rules. We were allowed to leave our homes and be in the car; we were asked not to go to a grocery store or a movie theater; we were required to take our temperatures twice a day (we already were doing it four times a day); and we were required to check in with our health officer when we left the house.
The nurse always came in the evening. She'd arrive around 6:30 to check in on us, and she would laugh, saying, "I know it's overkill, but it's fun to come in and see you guys," and she wouldn't leave. She either stayed for dinner or wine and cheese. It was almost like she thought it was a party. She never actually checked on us; she just dropped in. So we were getting all these mixed signals about the seriousness of it. People were freaked out, but that was the state of the bureaucracy that we were dealing with: a wannabe actor and a nurse who came over only at cocktail hour.
On Friday, I had left my house and headed to a little place that had put some sandwiches out for us because they knew we were probably running out of food. It was just one of those simple small-town gestures. I was waiting in my car while David grabbed the sandwiches when I was spotted by a woman, who then called 911. That night, I was served mandatory quarantine papers by Gov. Chris Christie.
I realize now that I was not sensitive to how frightened people were. Suddenly I became the nexus for those fears. I behaved correctly by the letter of the law. I knew I had never been infected. I had all the paperwork from the CDC. I had been in touch with a health officer. I never left my car. But that didn't take into account how just downright scared people were, and so it came off as phenomenally arrogant.
NBC executives had tried to warn me before I came back that people were flipping out. But it just didn't make sense to me. Rich Besser, who came back at the same time, went over to 30 Rock to tape a show for Meredith Vieira, where nobody would touch him to put his mic on. And he told me that the ABC people were saying, "Why aren't you locked up like Nancy Snyderman is?"
Though medical experts disputed his position, Christie took a tough stance about quarantining Snyderman and nurse Kaci Hickox.
Another thing that clouded this for me is that I'm a child of the polio epidemic, where my dad, a doctor, would go out and take care of kids who died of polio and then would come home and not know whether he should hug us or not. And then as a young surgeon in San Francisco, I took care of HIV/AIDS patients when other doctors wouldn't. So when it comes to the stigma of infectious diseases, I thought I'd seen the worst. Ebola is a virus we know really well, and there was no way it was going to cut a swath through the U.S. So every day I kept thinking things would die down. I could not have been more wrong.
I don't know to what extent media — traditional and social media — stoked the flames. I will tell you I saw the mean side of social media and the number of people who wanted me dead — or worse. It was a traumatic time. I never wanted to be famous — that's not the reason I got into television. But man, oh man, did I see the ugly side of having too many people know who you are.
The fallout was significant. The senior center wouldn't give my 88-year-old mother her flu shot because they knew she had seen me. That was the low point. My ex-husband, a freelance journalist who came to help, lost a story because someone didn't want him riding in a car with them. I swear to God: If it had been Salem, I would have been burned at the stake.
I made phone calls to CNN's Sanjay Gupta, CBS' Jonathan LaPook and Rich Besser to give them the timeline so they understood. I didn't want them to think that I put anyone in harm's way. I also called Tom Frieden at the CDC and Tony Fauci at the NIH and apologized for becoming the story. They were gracious and, of course, they knew the science. Tony Fauci said, "Well, a little cabin fever is better than a real fever." The medical community was extraordinary. The troops at NBC? Phenomenal. It was the American public who seemed infuriated and hurt.
Reporters from TMZ stalked my house. Someone put up wanted posters in downtown Princeton that said, "Anyone reported seeing Nancy Snyderman, please report her immediately to the police." The posters listed my home address, which meant we had to then get the police involved to protect the neighbors. I just kept thinking, "This too shall pass." And every day, it didn't pass. Nobody is going to feel sorry for me, I recognize that. But it was horrid. It was so Kafkaesque. It just kept spinning out of control.
The CDC recommends that people who are potentially exposed to Ebola be monitored for 21 days, but unions wanted me kept away from 30 Rock for a longer period, so I was asked to stay away from NBC for two 21-day cycles. Never mind that I was never infected; by this time, it was like talking to a wall. So I have two out-of-town guests in my home, and I'm trying to make life as normal as possible for them.
But the quarantine wasn't an actual quarantine, so I have people coming and going from my house. My mother, my ex-husband, my son, who was home from school for the semester. We spent the first 72 hours hunkered around the kitchen table, watching ISIS documentaries. Later, my son pulled up True Detective, and we binge-watched the series in a single day.
We became a family. I insisted we set the table every night. We put out linens. I had someone shop for us, and we cooked and grilled outside and had bottles of wine and talked about something other than Ebola, other than ISIS. In the evenings, we could all find space for ourselves where we didn't feel like we had to entertain each other.
With a police escort, an ambulance transported Mukpo to an isolation unit at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha on Oct. 6, 2014.
People would say, "Well, can I come and visit you?" And I said, "Yes, you can visit us — we just can't leave." So a few producers I'd worked with spent the afternoon, stayed for dinner. You really find out who your friends are. The irony is that Ashoka got out of the ICU before I was allowed out of my home, and everybody who had been treated for Ebola was being interviewed on the Today show before I was allowed back to work.
I left for Liberia on Sept. 29, and I returned to work on Dec. 1. I think it was my first day back at work that Matt Lauer interviewed me on Today. Viewers held me in contempt for thinking the rules didn't apply to me. I was a doctor who was too arrogant to think I couldn't have put the world at risk. Who was I to go gallivanting around town? And of course, there were numerous false sightings of me. So it was a rehab mission for Nancy, to get me back on the air. I apologized to people for frightening them. The great thing about Matt is that he's a phenomenal professional. I think he asked me, would I go back to Liberia again, and the answer was absolutely yes. The rest of it is a little bit of a blur. I haven't watched it.
In February, I did a remote report on possible treatments for peanut allergies. My father had died shortly before it, and my whole family was in. It was a chaotic day. I had a home studio, and the lighting was malfunctioning — a moment where everything that could have gone wrong did. I couldn't see the graphics. It also was one of those days where I was searching for words. They just weren't coming to me. It wasn't even that vital a story — we should have done it as a voiceover.
Immediately, Twitter lights up with, "Nancy must be drunk." People who know me know I'm not much of a drinker. But my character had been dinged earlier in the fall, and people jumped to that conclusion. I spoke with an NBC executive within minutes, and we had a talk that was coherent and fine, and she could hear that I wasn't drunk. All I can say is, after 29 years of reporting, I didn't do a good job.
I was the one who broached leaving NBC News. I went back to Haiti in January and reported, and it was just OK. It wasn't my best reporting — it was sort of soft. After 10 years of being at NBC, I decided it was probably time to say goodbye. I had a couple of lovely conversations with people in management, and I wrote a letter of resignation in March, and it was accepted. Readily accepted.
These days, I've had time unlike I've ever had before: I haven't had a summer off since I was a young doctor. I have two kids who are in between schools right now, so they're home. I've been able to move my mom closer to me; it's given me an extraordinary amount of time to be with her. Sometimes gifts come in funny packages. I've been a visiting professor at a few universities: Johns Hopkins, University of Nebraska, Stanford. But I do miss journalism. I miss telling stories. I love traveling the world. A lot of people have told me they want me to return, but I haven't spoken about it to anybody in power. I can't say I'm surprised.
Ashoka and I remain in contact. He's back in Liberia, and I'd go back tomorrow. I hope we don't forget the suffering in West Africa. If there were anything I could say to the American public, it's the importance to take a deep breath when these things happen. What would we do if polio came back? How would we react to HIV/AIDS? Not that long ago, Ryan White wasn't allowed to go to school. If it happened today, what would social media do to him?
There's an angry aspect to things these days, but medicine is imprecise. People want results or news by 5 p.m., or their Twitter feeds start blasting things. You don't lynch people before dinner. You take a deep breath and you move slowly. In this epidemic of Thomas Eric Duncan, I watched the fabric of the U.S. come unraveled. I unwittingly contributed to that, and it makes me very sad. You know, we're all trying to do our best, whether it's correspondents or it's doctors. My goal is to do great journalism and come back alive.
After Snyderman was seen in her car, someone hung wanted posters in Princeton, N.J.
"I Survived Ebola": Snyderman's Cameraman, Ashoka Mukpo, Recounts His Brush with Death
By Ashoka Mukpo, as told to Seth Abramovitch
I had been in Liberia four weeks before joining Nancy’s crew. Prior to that, I had lived there for two years. I just felt some kind of compulsion to go back because of the Ebola epidemic.
On the way to interview someone from the CDC, I started to feel achy and rundown, so I asked the driver to drop me at my apartment to do a temperature check. That was the beginning of the fun.
I will go to my grave not knowing how I caught Ebola. All these journalists were doing the same things I was doing, and most of them were going into containment units. Nancy did that day: She wore a biohazard suit and went into an Ebola ward. I refused to do those things.
Upon his release from the Nebraska Medical Center on Oct. 22, 2014, Mukpo (center) posed with Dr. Andre Kalil (right), an infectious disease specialist.
With Ebola, you get a little sick, and six hours later, you’re really sick. I was bedridden within 12 hours. I couldn’t see; my eyes were closing up. But I never hemorrhaged. If I had, I’d never have survived. It’s a sign that someone’s about to die.
The entire NBC organization, in my opinion, somewhat shockingly rallied behind me. They worked with the State Department to get me airlifted out. In Nebraska, I was running a fever of 104 degrees. It felt like every part of my body had some kind of problem with it. When I looked to the left or the right, I got this piercing pain. Within 48 hours of arriving in Nebraska, I got the worst of it. I was hopeful, but there were moments where I thought I might not survive.
On day 12 of the illness, I woke up and noticed my eyesight was clearer. My eyes felt less heavy. That same day was the first day I decided it was OK to check up online. I had 9 million email messages and tweets, and everything was complete chaos. That’s when I realized what was happening to Nancy. I thought it was just ridiculous. I felt a lot of people were passing judgment on her in a moment of extreme national panic without examining the facts or an understanding of what had transpired in Liberia. Nancy and I never had contact with each other. We spoke a couple of times, but I’d say the closest that we ever were was four feet.
She sent me an email congratulating me on getting better, and I told her that I fully supported her and was sorry that what I’d gone through had such a negative impact on her. To be honest with you, I still feel bad about it.