What did NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams do on his summer vacation? It wasn't fun. After 35 years of suffering from the effects of a devastating knee injury sustained playing high school football, he had replacement surgery on his right knee. Williams returned to the anchor desk on Sept. 3 after a four-week absence. He talked with The Biz about his time away and the painful road to recovery.
TV Guide Magazine: You've had chronic knee pain for years. What made you decide to finally have the surgery?
Brian Williams: My surgeon had told me during all the years of injections and aspirations — which is a nice way of saying draining fluid from my leg — that "you'll know when it's time to operate." Recently, I found that if I had a vacation or an overseas trip I had to time my injection to make it sure it took effect so I wouldn't be in agony on the plane and unable to move around. It just got ridiculous. I'm 54. I'm otherwise in good health and it just seemed like we had one of those summers without Olympic Games, a political campaign or a convention. My only rule was that I had to recuperate at the Jersey shore. It turned it to be my second best decision after deciding to have the surgery just because my family could be there. I was on home turf in a beautiful place during what turned out to be a beautiful month of August.
TV Guide Magazine: Did being a patient for such a serious procedure give you any new insights into health care in America?
Williams: I count my blessings regularly that I can afford quality health care. It was really not the case when I had my first go-around. My first knee surgery was in 1976. My parents did what they could. So did the doctors. I've had my working papers since I was 14 years old and during my low point, I probably went eight years without a lick of health insurance. It's a crazy way to live and I was very fortunate. The other strong feeling I get about replacement surgery is what it is not. It's not MS. It's not Lou Gehrig's disease. It's not cancer. It's not so many other things. It's something I'm going to recover from and something that will deliver me from three decades of pain. I only went public because in this day and age there is no such thing as an unexcused, unexplained one-month absence from your day job.
TV Guide Magazine: When Walter Cronkite was off from the CBS Evening News for two months every summer, they said he was "on assignment."
Williams: Yeah, and later we found out the name of the sailboat. The culture has changed entirely. I have a different relationship with my audience.
TV Guide Magazine: Did you have anchor-like paranoia that the moment they put you under some major story would break?
Williams: Oh everyday. When I woke up [from the anesthesia] it was among the first questions I had. I went under when Nelson Mandela went into the hospital. The Syria situation was getting hotter. We could wake up to any circumstance.
TV Guide Magazine: How much mobility do you have right now?
Williams: I don't have my clearance to fly yet. I don't know when I'll get that. I'm chomping at the bit. I'm very happy to be mobile enough. I'm walking with a cane although I could walk without it. They recommend having it with you as a visual clue that you are moving slowly — walking on the streets of New York City is not for the faint of heart on a good day. I have a new compassion for all those in the slow lane. People looking at devices while walking head-on is a new hazard since I was last a knee surgery patient.
TV Guide Magazine: Did NBC News chief medical editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman talk you through any of this?
Williams: She did. I also had my surgeon and everyone I've ever told I was going to have this done. And I have a co-worker here exactly my age who had the operation two years ago. It turned out his warnings and advice were really spot on — beginning with the fact that surgeons these days wear what look like outfits from the bomb disposal unit with big hoods and face shields. If you don't know about that it could be disconcerting when they allow you into the operating room and you don't recognize your own surgeon. My wife, Jane, was with me from the time I opened my eyes all the way through. I would not be in the shape I'm in right now without her.
TV Guide Magazine: This was the longest period of not being on TV in your adult life. What did you do during your recovery time?
Williams: The TV was always on. I was always watching something. I didn't miss Lester Holt on NBC Nightly News. I didn't miss a local 11 o'clock newscast on WNBC. My wife and I swore we were going to do a deep dive into several of the TV series we've neglected. We didn't get around to that. Despite your promises to the contrary about what you're going to do tomorrow — tomorrow always becomes about physical therapy, your leg, planning the day, moving slow, getting to work.
TV Guide Magazine: No binge viewing at all?
Williams: We caught up on a lot of movies — a lot of On Demand. We watched indie films. Esoteric stuff. We saw Drinking Buddies. We saw The Short Game, a great documentary about kids on the pro golfing circuit. We saw Spectacular Now, which is in theaters but someone took pity on me and sent a DVD screener.
TV Guide Magazine: Are we going to see any video of your operation or the recovery process?
Williams: I didn't shoot a frame. I figured "who else would want to go through this?"