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Surviving Life on My Own Terms

Finding Balance Between Work, Play and Meaningfulness

I am fortunate to have had a successful 30 year career in broadcast media, including both radio and television. My resume fits neatly on one page because there are only three companies listed. I spent the last 24 years working at NBC and CBS.

I’m often asked “How did you survive in such a turbulent, stressful industry without more job changes?” I always answer the same way: besides having a lot of good luck, I survived on my own terms.

By that I mean I tried to never forget what attracted me to broadcasting in the first place, what excited me about it and motivated me to pursue my dream career. I tried to stay true to my initial goal, which was to get paid for doing something that I loved – immersing myself in news, politics, music and pop-culture, while helping to create something that I could be proud of sharing with an audience.

I also tried to care for myself, and that meant doing the important things that brought me pleasure outside of work. That included spending time with my family and friends, indulging my love of music and my passion for running.

That wasn’t always easy. Life finds many ways of distracting us from our goals, and one can get thrown off course in a variety of ways. It takes determination and resolve to remain true to one’s self.

I grew up in Southern California, where I began my career in radio. After a few years spent honing my skills and learning the basics of broadcasting, I got a call from CBS in New York City. They offered me a job producing a nationally syndicated news talk radio show. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, but also intimidating. I didn’t know a soul in New York. Although I had traveled some in my teen years, I had never lived for any length of time anywhere other than Los Angeles. I’d worked for six years in local radio, but this was the big time calling. What if I failed?

I asked myself a question that my father had taught me to ask in situations like this. What is the worst that can happen? He told me that as long as I was prepared to deal with the worst possible outcome, I should never be afraid to take risks, and to push the envelope of my life.

For me the worst possible outcome would be that I failed at the job, and after fulfilling my one year contract with CBS, they’d let me go. I decided I could deal with that if it happened, so I soon found myself, my pregnant wife, and our one and a half year old daughter packing up everything we owned and moving to New York.

Working at CBS turned out to be the best job I have ever had, even though it only lasted six years. In that time I accomplished some things that still amaze me to this day. I met the President and the First Lady, and I produced radio broadcasts from the White House lawn. I also produced a variety of broadcasts from political conventions, the O. J. Simpson trial, congressional hearings, and even the first radio show to air from inside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, using their brand new in-house studio. I booked interviews with and met some of my favorite heroes of news, politics and music.

But that’s not all that happened during those six years. My son Will was born in 1993, about five months after I started at CBS. Six months later we found out that he had a life threatening disease called Severe Combined Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or SCIDS. He was like the famous boy in the bubble; he had no immune system. By the time we discovered this he had become acutely ill with pneumonia, and was admitted to the pediatric ICU where he would remain for one year and one week. My wife Suzanne and I, and our daughter Katy, spent most of that time at his bedside.

During Will’s time in the PICU he went through two bone marrow transplants (my wife was the donor both times, since the first transplant was not successful) and literally hundreds of other procedures that eventually saved his life.

Unfortunately, one night his lungs collapsed and he lost oxygen to the brain for a very long time before they could revive him. He was now brain damaged and would never be able to lead a normal life. To say this was the longest year of our lives would be an understatement. But this was just the beginning of our challenge.

Early in this ordeal Suzanne and I quickly understood our individual roles. Mine was to remain employed and provide the family with an income and health insurance, while hers was to take care of our daughter Katy, and to be the best possible advocate for Will. I’m not sure who had the tougher job, but I suspect she did.

After Will’s fifty-three week stay in the PICU at Hackensack University Medical Center where he was born, he was transferred to Children’s Specialized Hospital in Mountainside, New Jersey, about 30 miles away from where we lived, for a year of physical rehabilitation. We relocated to be near him, and spent most of that year at his bedside as well.

After spending the first two years of his life in hospitals, we finally got to bring Will home. This was the beginning of another monumental challenge. He was a quadriplegic and had a tracheostomy, and was fed through a feeding tube. He required constant monitoring, and complicated 24 hour a day medical care.

We were fortunate to qualify for 16 hours a day of in-home nursing care. The nurses usually took the evening and the overnight shift, and Suzanne picked up the other eight hour shift during the day. But if the agency couldn’t staff the case, or a nurse called out, Suzanne took those shifts as well. Because of this, we were a one income family and money was often tight.

Our home became a mini ICU, with oxygen tanks, IVs, a feeding pump, oxygen saturation monitors, a hospital bed, and 24-7 care 365 days a year. This would continue for 21 tumultuous years.

During those years I changed jobs, moving to MSNBC in 1998 where I would remain employed for 18 years, and eventually win an Emmy Award. Suzanne and I bought our first home in Fanwood, New Jersey, where our daughter Katy went through grade school and high school, before graduating from New York University in 2013.

In 2015, on April 1st, 22 years and three months after he was born, Will passed away. He lived an uncomfortable life in a damaged body, and struggled with nearly every breath he took. He never walked or talked, but we gave him the best life he could have had. As a family, over the years there were many moments of happiness. Despite his brain damage, Will had a sharp mind, and a wonderful, sweet personality. He loved his mom and dad and he adored his big sister. He had a good sense of humor, loved music, and was passionate about books on tape.

People often ask me how I survived such an ordeal, and again, I answer that I survived it on my own terms.

My own terms meant taking care of myself so that I would have the strength to do what I needed to do. I needed to stay healthy, physically and mentally, so I found comfort in running almost every day. My love for music was another outlet that sustained me. Our house was filled with music, and Suzanne, Katy and I would see live music whenever possible. My bond with my wife and daughter deeply motivated me, and the three of us became extremely close as we tried to keep our family strong. I also immersed myself in my work.

Then in early 2017, life threw me a curve that I never saw coming. I lost my job at MSNBC. The company was going through what they called a staff reduction and quite a few people were let go, mostly the ones who were a bit older, and probably making more money than many of the newer, younger hires. I was devastated.

However, I was an Emmy Award winning producer with 18 years at MSNBC under my belt, so I was certain I’d be able to get a good job sooner or later. I was wrong. I couldn’t find a job. Then, after several months of unemployment, something interesting happened. A job found me.

I read an article about one of my favorite people, someone I had booked for many interviews on various shows at MSNBC, a man named Wendell Potter.

Wendell was a former health insurance executive who had become a whistleblower after having what he called a crisis of conscience. He began to realize that he was an apologist for an industry that left millions of Americans without health insurance, and that fought to deny payment to many of them who did. He wrote a book about his conversion called: Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR Is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans.

One memorable interview I booked Wendell for paired him with Michael Moore, a man he was once paid to discredit. Michael had taken on the insurance industry and the nation’s health care system in his documentary, Sicko. During the interview Wendell apologized to Michael for what he now realized had been a misguided effort.

The article I read about Wendell explained that he was starting up a non-profit, investigative journalism company called Tarbell.org. It was named after the famed muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell, whose expose on Standard Oil back in the early 1900’s had led to the break-up of that monopoly. I was intrigued.

I called Wendell, with whom I hadn’t spoken since I reached out to him a few years earlier for advice. My wife and I were locked in a legal battle with an insurance company over reductions in coverage for our son Will. It was the kind of fight we had many times during his life, in an effort to make sure he got the care and services he needed to survive.

I asked Wendell if there was anything I could do to help with the launch of Tarbell, and he said, “Well, can you get me on MSNBC?” I said I was sure that I could, and that was the beginning of my new career.

I’d long ago come to realize the importance of working with people I like and respect, people who are doing things to make our world a better place in which to live, and who inspire me to do the same. Wendell Potter is one of those people, and Tarbell is one of those organizations.

Tarbell published its first series of articles in late 2017 on Big Pharma, exposing the grip they have on our elected officials, how they have gamed the system to their advantage, and the effect that has had on our health care system. Obviously, this was a topic near to my heart. Future articles would deal with the growing power and influence of large corporations, whose overriding goal is to maximize shareholder return, and how we can hold them more accountable.

This is work I am proud of, and fits perfectly with my goal of living my life on my own terms. To me that means doing things that I know are not only good for me, but good for society in general, and things that help to make our world a better place.

Follow me on Twitter @greggcockrell or email me at [email protected]

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