Up Close and Personal with Diane Rehm
A Conversation with NPR’s Renowned Talk-Show Host
Nationally acclaimed public-radio talk-show host Diane Rehm is used to asking all the questions. The Diane Rehm Show features thoughtful and lively conversations with newsmakers, authors, and experts of all kinds. Even NIH Director Francis Collins has been on her show a few times. But the tables were turned recently when she was invited to be the guest at NIH’s J. Edward Rall Cultural Lecture. Collins played host and asked all the questions—his own as well as ones that other NIHers had sent him in advance. During their conversation, Rehm talked about her public-radio career, her struggles with her voice, some deep personal conflicts relating to her husband’s death, and her views on “death with dignity.”
Rehm began her radio career in 1973 as a volunteer producer for WAMU-FM 88.5, the National Public Radio (NPR) member station in Washington, D.C. She was soon hired as an assistant producer and later became the host and producer of two health-oriented programs. In 1979, she began hosting WAMU’s local morning talk show Kaleidoscope, which was renamed The Diane Rehm Show in 1984. In 2009, she won the prestigious George Foster Peabody Personal Award in recognition of her “wide-ranging [show] covering politics, the arts, science, cultural trends, literature, and world affairs [that is] an exemplar of thoughtful, civil discourse about public affairs.”
She is also the author of several books. Her most recent, On My Own, is about the long, drawn-out death (from Parkinson disease) of her husband of 54 years and her struggle to reconstruct her life without him.
Following is an edited transcript of the conversation that took place between Collins and Rehm on April 7, 2016, in Masur Auditorium (Building 10).
COLLINS: You did not have a traditional pathway toward becoming a journalist of such wide repute. How did it all start?
REHM: I began as a secretary at the Washington, D.C., Department of Highways. My boss would drive to work and see all the potholes in the roads, and when he arrived at the office, he’d say, “Diane, get on the two-way and tell the workers where the potholes are.” That’s what I did. I was recruited to other jobs and ended up as secretary at the U.S. Department of State. One day a brash young man [John Rehm] with a crew cut, blond hair, and broad shoulders walked in. He noticed some books on my desk including The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham, and we started talking about them.
COLLINS: Those books seemed to be an indication that you wanted a different career path.
REHM: I had not gone to college but was surrounded by intellectuals at the State Department. I wanted to learn. John was a Renaissance man who taught me so much about music, history, literature, and science. He had a fabulous education and literally became my teacher [and later my husband].
COLLINS: But how did that lead into WAMU and radio, which doesn’t sound like a natural next step either?
REHM: After staying at home for 14 years raising two wonderful children, I realized they would soon be gone. My husband had his career, but what was I going to do? So I took a course called “Developing New Horizons for Women” at George Washington University [Washington, D.C.]. There were about 20 of us, and for some reason they all said to me, “You really ought to be in broadcasting.” Well it was the craziest thing I had ever heard because although I had grown up with radio all my life, I had never thought about broadcasting. Within two weeks of finishing that course, a friend of mine said she was volunteering at the tiny little station—WAMU—on the campus of American University [Washington, D.C.]. So I decided to volunteer too. On my very first day, the talk-show host was out sick. The manager was going to do the program and invited me into the studio to help. For 90 minutes we interviewed a representative of the Dairy Council. I was so excited at having had this opportunity and I had asked some challenging questions. When I got home, John Rehm looked at me and said, “Someday you’re going be the host of that show.”
COLLINS: Do you specifically try to emphasize medical research on your program?
REHM: Death and illness and medicine have always been things I had great interest in. My mother died from liver cancer when I was 19, and my father died of a broken heart 11 months after my mother passed away. I wanted to know why, and there were no answers. When John’s father got diabetes and later diabetic retinopathy, he took his own life. A couple of years later, John’s 92-year-old mother felt she could no longer function or walk and took her own life, too.
COLLINS: Give us some pointers on how scientists can be great interviewees.
REHM: By being concise. By knowing their subject so well that it comes out not as a scientist talking to a scientist but rather a scientist who knows his or her subject so well that it’s conversational. That’s the kind of message that reaches people.
COLLINS: You had your own medical challenge. Your career as a radio host depends on your voice, which was afflicted by a rare condition called spasmodic dysphonia. How did you deal with that?
REHM: From 1992 to 1998, I felt my voice clutching, clamping. It started with a cough, a tiny little cough. I went from doctor to doctor to doctor, all of whom kept putting tubes down my throat. I think the insertion of those tubes did not help my condition. The last doctor who did that said, okay, I’m putting a camera on the end of this tube to see what’s going on with your vocal cords. He called me the next day and said, “Sorry, the camera didn’t work.” Not good. The last day I was on the air was in February 1998. I told my boss that I had to find out what was wrong with my voice. I sat at home for four months, not answering the phones, not speaking to anyone except my husband. Wouldn’t go to the door, wouldn’t go out of the house for fear of having to speak with someone. Then my wonderful internist referred me to neurologist Dr. Stephen Reich and otolaryngologist Dr. Paul Flint at Johns Hopkins [Baltimore]. Within one hour they said I had spasmodic dysphonia and gave me a botulinum toxin (Botox) injection in my vocal chords. The Botox paralyzes the vocal cords so they don’t come together for a little while. Then slowly, slowly they begin to vibrate and I could speak again. Dr. Flint is now at Oregon Health and Science University Hospital [Portland, Oregon], and I go there every four months to get my Botox injections from him.
COLLINS: You wrote an intensely personal book, On My Own, after your husband’s death from Parkinson disease. Tell us your thoughts about what we as scientists or as a nation could have done that wasn’t done. What could have been different?
REHM: In the end, John could no longer care for himself in any way. One day our family gathered around his bed at the assisted-living facility where he was staying, and he said, “I’m ready to die.” He asked his physician to help him. But his physician said that he understood John’s wishes, yet he couldn’t legally, morally, or ethically help John because Maryland did not yet have a “Right-to-Die” law. The doctor suggested that if John was absolutely determined, he could help himself by stopping food, water, and medication. So John stopped eating, drinking, and taking his medicines. He said he felt great, and I know why—he felt as though he had taken his life back into his own hands. For the next two days, he was fine. His face looked pink, he looked wonderful, and then at the end of the second day he fell asleep and he never woke again. For 10 days I saw that man lying there helplessly.
I think this country had been death averse until Oregon passed its Death with Dignity law, then Washington State, then Vermont, and now California. We have to talk more openly about death and about what we want at the end of life. I think there is so much to talk about and so much for the doctors to learn about listening to the patient about what the patient wants and how best you can make that happen.
I will be talking a great deal about the Right to Die after I step away from the microphone [when I retire at the end of the year], without crossing any lines.
COLLINS: Why have you decided to step away?
REHM: Because in September I will be 80 years old. I thought 80 was a good time to make the change.
The J. Edward Rall Cultural Lecture, part of the Wednesday Afternoon Lecture Series, honors Joseph Edward Rall, who helped to define NIH’s modern intramural research program and, in the 1950s, to establish a stable academic-like community within a rapidly expanding government agency. The videocast of the April 7, 2016, lecture featuring Diane Rehm can be viewed at http://videocast.nih.gov/launch.asp?19606.
This page was last updated on Wednesday, April 13, 2022