Perhaps one of the most important topics of interest to viewers and listeners of news, regardless of race, creed, color or sexual orientation, is health. So whether you are facing an ongoing or immediate health crisis of some sort, or you are simply someone who seeks reliable, cutting-edge information, the name Sylvia Perez will probably resonate with you. As ABC 7's Healthbeat Reporter, Perez has established herself as a source of groundbreaking, often lifesaving information on how to live healthier, and stay healthier.
Perez and her producer Christine Tressel have done countless reports and segments covering a vast array of topics ; everything from the pros and cons of liposuction to acclaimed pieces like, "The Quest To Quit," on how to quit smoking.
Perez wears many hats in her efforts to educate, inform and enlighten her viewing audience. One thing is certain, she takes her role as Healthbeat Reporter very seriously.
But her high-profile role at ABC 7 covering daily health and medical stories for the 4 and 10 p.m. newscasts is only part of Perez's current work load. Sylvia is also co-anchor of the daily 11:30 a.m. ABC 7 newscast with her friend and colleague Linda Yu. Perez became part of ABC's winning lineup in June of 1989 when she was hired as a weekend reporter and anchor.
The Oklahoma-born Perez, a self-proclaimed "army brat," is the youngest of five children and fondly remembers following an Illinois veteran back to Hawaii to visit the USS Arizona where the veteran's brother and countless other American war heroes perished. A graduate of The University of Oklahoma School of Journalism, Perez actually discovered her affinity for doing investigative medical stories while reporting on medical breakthroughs during her tenure at KPRC-TV, the NBC affiliate in Houston. Perez also worked in Denver and Lawton, Okla. The winner of several awards in journalism, Perez and colleague Linda Yu are involved in a local campaign to combat breast cancer, a cause which remains dear to Sylvia's heart.
A warm and vivacious woman, the lovely rising ABC star spoke to me recently for an interview with Windy City Times. She discussed her life, career, working at ABC, her many interests. Sylvia Perez lives in the western suburbs of Chicago with her husband and two young daughters.
DAVID GUARINO: Sylvia, you started out as a reporter covering breaking news stories such as drive-by shootings, robberies, fires. I understand you went back to medical reporting after being a general assignment reporter.
SP: I felt the same way I believe many viewers at home feel when they watch the news each night. I felt, why am I doing this? What good is this? You know, it's depressing, isn't it? What's going to affect you more, the fact that there was yet another horrible, awful drive-by shooting or the latest medical breakthrough? What's going to affect you the most? And that's why I went back to medical reporting. It's sad that so many terrible things happen every day in this town and many others and we're not discounting that, but the reality is, how is this going to affect the viewer? And in a half-hour newscast, you have maybe 11 minutes of news time, so you've got to pick and choose, you know, what are you going to do? We really try to look at what affects our viewers the most. Two questions to ask: who is this story going to affect, and do viewers care? Sometimes we don't always hit the nail on the head like we should.
DG: I think your Healthbeat Reports are excellent. They are always informative and timely, I believe.
SP: Well, thank you. I really enjoy doing them. To me, it's a great learning experience. Because I learn something new, and I feel like I am actually doing something that's helping our viewers. We're always trying to find out the latest information. One of the reasons I got into the business was to provide a public service and I think I've found my niche. I love it. Very often medical reports can be very complex so you have to be able to break it down to where you are not speaking to the viewer in what we call "Doctor-eeze." Doctors don't speak English. ( We both laugh ) So breaking the information down is the key and to make it understandable and to make it something that viewers want to listen to is our goal. Something that will provide information that's useful.
DG: You started at ABC 12 years ago?
SP: ( Sylvia nods ) I came here from Houston. I started beside Mike Jackson, and he ended up leaving and Jim Rosenfield took his place. I came from Houston where I was also doing medical reporting and anchoring, moved here, did medical reporting and weekend anchoring. When I first came here I just did general assignment reporting. I loved being at Channel 7, it was a great place to be, but I felt like I wasn't doing what I had originally set out to do in journalism, which was to provide a public service. I was doing the street reporting that involves so many things including tragedies that we really don't want to hear about but unfortunately are part of our everyday life. I just didn't feel like it was fulfilling my need. I was very fortunate when Mary Ann Childers went to Channel 2, because she was the medical reporter here and that left an opening for me to fill.
DG: What is the best part of being designated as "Healthbeat Reporter"?
SP: I learn something new every day. I'll find out about a medical issue or medical breakthrough; I mean, how can you not get excited and fascinated by that? We did a story not too long ago about this new type of hip replacement surgery. David, you would not believe the amount of phone calls we got. In February we did a story on the "camera in a pill" that is able to actually take pictures of your digestive tract and it just got approved by the FDA last week. It would take away the need for the invasive procedures such as endoscopy. ... I can tell you that the majority of calls we get here at ABC are health-related calls. Even doctors call us about stories we've done in their areas of expertise. They ask us to send information.
DG: Sylvia, what single event in your life brought you the most joy?
SP: Oh, that's a tough one. I've had a lot of wonderful things happen for me. Let me think about that ... . Probably the birth of my children. My husband and I were married very young; I was 19. And we made the choice; we waited 15 years to have children. We decided that because of my career, and he was great about moving around with me, that we would have children one day. I didn't have my first child until I was 34. I'm so lucky, because we had some fertility problems, and we ended up having to undergo fertility techniques, so I truly consider both of my girls miracle babies. I was this person who was very focused on my career, and finally I thought, OK, I want to have children, but I couldn't have them, you know? We had gotten to a point where we were going to adopt, and we went through a really horrible thing that took me years to be able to talk about. We found a birth mother who we'd hooked up with; her baby was due in a couple of months and without going into all the grisly details, she pulled out at the last minute. This was only after I found out that she was trying to tell other people that she was having twins and was going to sell one to "the TV lady" and one to somebody else. You know, I almost got involved in something that could have turned into a horrible scandalous mess. ... So the birth of my girls is a miracle ... .
DG: You covered the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor.
SP: That was the highlight of my journalism career. Being a military "brat," I grew up on military bases. When I covered this story, it was the Army, and God bless the USA! And I have to tell you that when I got to cover that story, it was incredible because I went back with a veteran who lost his brother on The USS Arizona. And he had a lot of guilty feelings about that because he was the one who persuaded his brother to be stationed on the Arizona with him. At that time the military was big on keeping families together. And the night before Pearl Harbor was bombed, they had gotten shore leave and they'd all gone to Waikiki. He had decided to go downtown in Waikiki and his brother decided to stay on the Arizona, well, then you know what happened. It was unbelievable; you see his brother's name on the wall. I get chills thinking about it now. I was so proud to go. My father was in the military; my husband was in the military ... . I have this huge tie there, that's all I've known and to this day I tell my husband every time a parade starts and you see that American flag coming out, it just brings tears to my eyes. To see those veterans, you know? I'm very touched by that.
DG: How do feel about the fact that you undoubtedly serve as a role model not only for young female journalists coming up, but for Latinas in general? Do you take that seriously?
SP: Oh, I do! Like it or not, I do take the responsibility very seriously. I just think that it's very, very important because I've had so many people who will make some racist comment to me or comment about a Hispanic person and I'll say, "Well you know I'm Puerto Rican." And they'll say, "Oh, I don't think of you as being Puerto Rican. I just think of you as a regular normal person." And I find that extremely insulting because they have categorized all Latinos and Latinas and I don't fit that category. Even within our own community there's that racism.
And I want the young people that I speak to in high school and college to know that it was never a hindrance for me. I tell people that being Hispanic has been such a great thing because it's opened so many doors. Now once those doors were opened, I had to prove myself. Because some people say, well you only got there because you are a Latina. Once those doors opened I had to prove myself, but it helped because now society is realizing that there are Hispanics, there are gays and lesbians, and there are all types of other ethnic groups. We need to show that in what we see on television in so many ways, whether it be in entertainment or in news; that's what helped me get to where I am. ... People should know that just because you're a Latino or a Latina doesn't mean you're in one category. People are not just gay or lesbian, they are much more than that. Hispanics represent so many people in so many different ways and I'm just one of them.
DG: What Hispanic male or female made the biggest impression on you?
SP: My parents. Absolutely no question about it. My Mom and Dad were born in Puerto Rico. And my Dad joined the military; he came from nothing and he wanted a better life for his kids. So, here's a man who, at the age of 45, got his college degree and at the age of 50 he got a Master's degree [ in psychology ] . There's my mother who graduated from high school, had never been to college. When they came to the States, she was working at a laundromat. Eventually she started working for the government. These people inspired me like nobody else.
... And they did everything they could to help us. My Dad was in the Army and he wasn't making much money; he took a job as a janitor at night, making sure that we had what we needed, and that we all would be able to go to school. So there's absolutely no doubt at all in my mind that it's my parents who made the greatest impression on me. They both came here not speaking any English, and they did amazing things. ( Sylvia's eyes get misty ) My parents worked so hard to provide for their five children ... they are definitely my role models. They're incredible.