Back in 1985, when Larry King first began hosting his long-running live interview show on CNN, he opened the show while smoking a cigarette on camera. Over the 25-year course of King’s show, our perceptions about everything from smoking to mental illness to cancer have changed radically -- and King has often played host to our evolving national conversation about health. By sharing their own struggles with conditions like depression, prostate cancer, and HIV, King’s celebrity guests have lifted taboos and made us all more comfortable with talking about what ails us -- and seeking help.
In December, King will turn off his microphone for the last time. As they prepare to wind up the show, he and his longtime producer, Wendy Walker, reminisced with WebMD about the ways in which health coverage has changed over the years, and how “Larry King Live” has helped to change it.
Larry King: The whole field has changed tremendously. Wonder drugs like Lipitor and Plavix have been giant advances in heart disease and cholesterol. And the modes of surgery have evolved tremendously. What took 4.5 hours when I had my heart attack now takes just two hours, and so much of it is done with robotics.
Prevention is also stressed much more today. It started back with [former U.S. Surgeon General] C. Everett Koop in the 1980s, when he required all tobacco advertising to have health warnings. I think the fact that we’ve lowered smoking rates so much is a big factor in [helping to] stopping heart disease.
WebMD: You’ve done more than 300 shows dealing with various health issues over the years. What topics have you focused on most?
LK: We’ve probably done more on cancer than anything else. Lung cancer, breast cancer, colon cancer. Colon cancer is a classic example of how important prevention can be. ….We had Matt Lauer on the show and he said that he gets a colonoscopy every six months, because his father died of colon cancer. If you’re sitting at home watching that and you know you have a close relative with colon cancer, that’s going to force your attention.
Sen. Bob Dole was very open on our show in talking about his prostate cancer, at a time when few men discussed it. He discovered it with a PSA test. At the Republican Convention in 1992, he and I were walking together and a man came up and said, “Both of you saved my life. I never knew about the test but after I saw you on the show, I went and took it. I had cancer, they took out my prostate and it saved my life. I think of both of you every day.” You can’t match that, as to accomplishing something.
Wendy Walker: We’ve also done a lot on depression. We did a program in the 1990s with Art Buchwald, Mike Wallace, and William Styron, the author of Sophie’s Choice, all talking about their struggles with depression. Buchwald told a story about being in New York, about to jump out of a hotel room window, and there was a porter who came to the door and helped him, so he didn’t. We had a girl call in to the show to tell us that she had been planning to commit suicide, but she was so moved by what Buchwald said that she decided to hold on.
And we also got a call after we did a show about Natasha Richardson’s death from a head injury while she was skiing. [The caller] said having seen the show and learning the warning signs saved their daughter’s life after she hit her head.
WebMD: What are some of the breakthrough shows that you’ve done on medical issues -- topics that previously hadn’t gotten much coverage, or were controversial?
WW: We were one of the first shows to discuss the potential link between cancer and radiation from cell phones. We did an early show on this in 1993, and in 2008 we did a program with Johnnie Cochran’s neurosurgeon, Dr. Keith Black. [Cochran died of a brain tumor in 2005.] He wouldn’t come out and say that he [thought he] got the brain tumor because of cell phone use, but he wouldn’t rule it out.
LK: We did shows on irritable bowel disease -- something that just wasn’t discussed. And colostomies, where you have to wear the bag. We haven’t been afraid to talk about things that might make people uncomfortable.
WW: We’ve also talked a lot about the traditional approaches to cancer treatment, radiation and chemotherapy, vs. alternative treatments. We make sure to cover both perspectives. I think that’s one of the things that these shows have all done. Before, whatever your doctor would say, you’d do it without question. Now people are interested in getting a second opinion, and they have WebMD and other sources to explore their options.
WebMD: What medical shows have touched you most? Have there been any that have moved you to tears?
LK: Going through the burn center two weeks after 9/11, that was one of the hardest shows to do. I learned a lot about burns, why they kill you and how they’re treated. I remember one guy -- they couldn’t even put a sheet on him because the sheet brought him so much pain, so he had to lie uncovered. I was impressed by how many people were willing to talk about what had happened to them.
WW: For me, I think it was our coverage of the earthquake in Haiti, with Sanjay Gupta there discussing what he was doing to help the children. The doctors were leaving the hospital, and he was there by himself. His stories were just amazing. Another difficult night was the night Tim Russert died; it happened so quickly and was so shocking. But we did a good show that night with Larry’s doctor, Dr. P.K. Shah, about heart attack prevention.
WebMD: Are there any medical issues you haven’t covered that you wish you had time for?
LK: Concussions and brain injuries. This is so much in the news now with the NFL, and it’s a huge issue. Why was a famous baseball player kicked in the head and has now decided to retire because of all the concussions he’s had? [St. Louis Cardinals catcher Jason LaRue announced his retirement in mid-September, after a kick in the head during an August brawl, saying that the cumulative effects of that concussion and some 20 others he’d suffered since his high school football days had left him debilitated, unable to drive or cook for himself.] When your kid gets hit in the head in a ball game, how much do you have to worry now?
WebMD: If you could wave a magic wand and jump-start progress against any disease, which would it be?
WebMD: So much has changed in medicine during the 25 years your show has been on the air. Look into your crystal ball -- what do you think will be the biggest changes when we’re looking back in another 25 years?
LK: I think stem cells may help provide the answer to so many things. That’s the issue of the future. I really think paralysis will be cured in our kids’ lifetimes thanks to stem cells. Someone like Christopher Reeve really put that on the map. The sad part is, he really thought he was going to beat it. I remember the night he moved his finger on our show. We moved the camera in real close, and it was just heart-rending.
And as we learn more about the brain, I think we can eliminate Alzheimer’s. You know, I still remember the headline: “Polio Cured.” I can still see the newspaper that day. You don’t see headlines these days about cures. There are “advances.” But whether it’s cures or advances, I hope that the shows after mine keep on focusing on these issues.