GMA’s Dr. Jennifer Ashton ’91, PS’00, HN’16 is on a mission to demystify women’s health.
Just What the Doctor Ordered
Ashton isn’t simply a talking head, though. She was recently named ABC News’ chief medical correspondent — a journalism gig that’s sent her into the field to cover hurricanes and mass shootings, and also pushed her to weigh in on the intersection of health and politics during the (never-ending) debate about whether to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Ashton doesn’t just play a doctor on TV, either. A board-certified ob/gyn and a nutritionist, she has her own medical practice where, along with treating her regular patients, she offers pro bono care to female military veterans.
Ashton has also published three health books — one each for teens, expecting mothers and women over 30 — and writes a column for Cosmopolitan. These all contribute to her personal mission: demystifying complex or taboo subjects surrounding health, fitness and sex for women of all ages.
“I believe there’s a massive crisis in women’s health today in this country that crosses all socioeconomic demographic lines and geographic regions,” Ashton says from her car while reverse commuting from Manhattan to her New Jersey office, where she sees patients three days a week. “Women’s understanding of the body and how it works is in many cases stuck in the Dark Ages. It’s filled with myth, rumors and old wives’ tales. I think it’s really hurting women.”
Ashton grew up in Tenafly, N.J., and as a senior at Horace Mann debated whether to attend Duke or Columbia. Columbia was the obvious choice: Her father, cardiologist Dr. Oscar Garfein, holds degrees from the College (1961), P&S (1965) and the Business School (1997), while her mother, Dorothy, graduated from Teachers College (1968). Her brother, Dr. Evan Garfein, also has a degree from P&S (1999), while his wife, Tanya Simon, has one from the College (1992). “Believe it or not, I got no pressure from my dad when I was deciding,” Ashton says. “It took me more than a month to choose, and I never regretted it. I was always more of an NYC person than an N.C. person.”
Ashton knew she wanted to apply to medical school eventually, but as an undergraduate she majored in art history, reasoning — on her father’s advice — that it was a good time to focus on something she probably wouldn’t have time to study later in life. After graduation, she enrolled in General Studies’ post-bac program to complete her science requirements; she matriculated at P&S in 1996.
There, Ashton dialed into the drive that has become one of her defining characteristics. She was elected class president four years in a row; she also gave birth to both of her children while completing her coursework. “I kind of knew that it would only get harder, so I figured it made sense [to do] while I was still paying to be there, versus doing it while I was getting paid to do work,” she says. Her daughter, Chloe, is a junior at Lawrenceville, a prep school in New Jersey, and her son, Alex, is a sophomore at the College.
The opportunity to be on TV didn’t come Ashton’s way until 2006. She had been doing ob/gyn work for several years — a specialization she chose because it contained a bit of everything: women’s health, which she was passionate about from the start, but also surgery, endocrinology, psychiatry, cancer and obstetrics. “I had zero desire to do media,” she says. “Some friends in the TV news business told me they thought I’d be great on camera, and I thought they were kidding. But they kept pursuing it, and I was asked to come on Fox News for a weekend segment.
“It was about kids and nutrition and healthful snacks,” Ashton recalls. “I wasn’t trying out — it wasn’t something I really wanted to do! The only things I remember are it was a Saturday, I’d never been on set before and it was on live national cable TV.” Before long, Fox offered her a contract; she stayed with the network for three years and was the channel’s first on-air female medical contributor.
In 2009 Ashton switched to reporting at CBS. She appeared on the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric and The Early Show, and, with a team of reporters, earned a 2010 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for excellence in journalism. (The winning news segment was about how the recession was hurting children’s health, from an uptick in abuse cases to increased depression and anxiety.) Since 2012, Ashton has appeared almost daily on ABC, where she’s now a fixture on Good Morning America, and, from 2013 to 2016, she co-hosted the health and wellness talk show The Doctors.
Alberto Orso, a senior producer who has worked with Ashton since she joined ABC, says her friendly, down-to-earth style immediately appealed to GMA’s viewers, but that her work on women’s health was what set her apart. “One of her passions is heart health,” Orso says. “She has a good relationship with the American Heart Association and she’s brought us stories about women and heart health that explain how the issues are slightly different for women. She’s been really good at flagging new studies, and also participating in campaigns to make people more aware.
“The fact that she continues to practice keeps her fresh, too,” Orso adds. “She brings patient perspectives to the table and can discuss the kinds of things our audience is wondering about. That kind of intimacy and immediacy is really special.”
Ashton extends her caring manner to ABC’s staff, many of whom have come to regard her as a kind of inhouse physician. “If one of us needs help with something, a suggestion for a referral or a question about our own health, she’s not afraid to weigh in with ‘Go see this person’ or ‘Do this,’” says Orso. “We’re lucky to have her one phone call away.”
PHOTOS: COURTESY DR. JENNIFER ASHTON ’91, PS’00, HN’16
“It’s very easy for journalists or doctors [to appear] robotic or detached, but it’s hard to see that level of suffering and not have it affect you,” she says, adding that as a reporter, she’s not always coming to the scene in her emergency room “armor.” “I’ve seen really horrendous things in the hospital; as a medical resident I was in the operating room with a woman [dying of] stage 4 ovarian cancer. But when things happen in the field it can be even harder, because you’re in a different mindset.”
She also points to the challenges that come with social media. “For anyone in the public eye, while we’re used to it, it can still be unbelievably hurtful,” she says of anonymous commenters and trolls spewing hate on Twitter. “I welcome debate and differences of opinion. But many, many times it’s done in such an unprofessional and disrespectful and rude manner, so it obviates any real potential for an intellectual discussion.”
What makes it all meaningful, though, Ashton says, is the enormous platform she has to weigh in on news, publicize sensitive issues such as sexually transmitted diseases, dispel myths about the side effects of birth control (which “dramatically lowers uterine and ovarian cancer risk,” she says) and talk about things no one wants to talk about, like menopause.
Her work with female veterans was largely enabled by her platform as a public figure. “Last year, I saw an article about how only one-third of VA hospitals have a gynecologist on staff,” she recalls. “I thought, that is unacceptable! It goes into my belief about there being a crisis in women’s health on every level. I can’t change this in Washington, D.C., or in the VA hospital, but I can change it in my office, because I don’t have to ask for permission. So I did a press release saying I’d be honored to provide free care to any female veteran or active service member, and I’ve had women take me up on that.”
“There is a crisis in women’s health on every level. I can’t change this in Washington, D.C., or in the VA hospital, but I can change it in my office.”
Given the current political climate, and how much public discussion there is about sexual harassment, rape and reproductive rights, Ashton now sees her role as an expert on women’s health — and a woman who’s experienced sexism in the workplace — as doubly vital.
“I hope this conversation will change the paradigm for women and men,” she says, referring to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. “I think people need to know that this isn’t just about actresses. It happens in every profession. Unfortunately, I’ve had many patients who were raped — some in college, some by strangers, some as children — and personally, I was sexually harassed when I was a resident.”
Whether she intends to project a superwoman image or not, Ashton is an impressive human. Her day starts with a meditation session at 5 a.m., plus she’s taking a class to improve her Spanish and trying to learn more about wine. She’s also a lifelong, self-professed fitness fanatic who loves running, lifting weights, competing in triathlons and SoulCycle. “Certain things are nonnegotiable: seven hours of sleep, working out six days a week and keeping my brain busy,” she says.
Family friend Kathy Leventhal says being this driven is in Ashton’s nature: “Jennifer has always been dynamic, and everything she sets her mind to do she does with gusto. When she was in med school and pregnant with her son, she never missed a beat. Her hours were crazy, she was commuting and doing a residency, and yet seemed to handle everything with great ease. I’ve never met anyone who’s so good at balance.”
Leventhal also points to Ashton’s lack of awkwardness — likely forged by years of talking about vaginas to complete strangers, as well as a deep understanding of what she’s talking about — as crucial in bridging the gap between her identities of being a journalist and a doctor. Leventhal would know: She’s also her patient.
“When she walks into the exam room she’s Dr. Ashton, but it’s not weird, it’s not awkward — she goes from being Jennifer my friend to Jennifer my doctor. She has an uncanny ability to make all people, not just patients, comfortable.”
Ashton regards her accessibility as imperative to her cause. “I read so many articles about gender discrimination in medicine. We’re not including women in scientific studies. We’re not even doing aggressive research on women’s health issues. We don’t like to talk about ovaries or cervixes or the uterus, and it’s a massive problem.
“I have a big voice for women and so I want to use it to help as many women as possible,” Ashton says. “And I like to project that I understand what people are going through and that I have a lot of those feelings, too.
“The era of paternalistic medicine is over.”
Atossa Araxia Abrahamian ’08, JRN’11 is a journalist and the author of The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen.
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