Carolina Conversations with WRAL-TV Health Team’s Dr. Allen Mask

by Carrie Frye | Photography by Diana Matthews

Dr. Allen Mask has been treating patients at his Raleigh Urgent Care practice since 1985, but most know him from his WRAL-TV Health Team reports on the weekday 5:30 newscasts.

Mask was already established in his practice when the call came in to see if the idea of health reports would appeal to him and whether the viewership would respond in 1993. Twenty-three years and several thousand news segments later, this good doctor and North Carolina native is still researching and producing health team news pieces every week along with seeing patients. Mask, a father of six and grandfather of seven, is still learning and continuing to make a difference.

At his medical office off New Bern Avenue, Mask sat down to be the one on the other side of the interview process.

ONC: Before opening your practice here in the Triangle, where did you grow up?
AM: I am originally from Hamlet. I went to school there, and then I came to (University of North Carolina at) Chapel Hill, where I did my undergraduate work and got a degree in English. Interestingly enough, while I was there, I worked for a television station as an intern, which led to me doing the medical reporting that I do right now. I went to medical school at UNC as well. I did my internship and residency at Harvard Medical School at Massachusetts General (Hospital), so I was there for five years, and then I came back to Chapel Hill and did a second residency in anesthesiology. Then I worked at Burlington Anesthesiology Associates as a full-time anesthesiologist and eventually came back to Raleigh and opened up this office in 1985.

What made you go from being an English major to medicine?
You know, I had always been curious. I have an uncle who is a physician, and he was always a great influence on me. When I was interning in college at the TV station, I went to Charlotte and interviewed Dr. Les Walton, who was a GYN oncologist who had just come from New York. GYN oncology now is a big field, but back then, it wasn’t. He was the only GYN oncologist in all of Charlotte, and he was a black physician. I remember doing a three-part series while I was there on the shortage of black physicians in Mecklenburg County. I got a chance to know Dr. Walton as a part of that TV piece I was doing, and then came back to UNC. I got my English degree, but I had taken all of the science curriculum, biology and chemistry and decided to apply to medical school and got in.

When you opened your practice, was there an impetus for making it an urgent care?
It was actually by accident. When I came back from Harvard to UNC and was doing anesthesiology, I was moonlighting to make some extra money. I was working at the Cape Fear Emergency Room in Fayetteville, and there were a group of doctors who had opened an urgent care center, and they asked me to work some shifts at their urgent care center.

What we do here is a myriad of work as an internist, and what I like to do is see those patients who are coming in with diabetes and hypertension, thyroid problems, those things that we can treat and make a difference. Of course, we treat everyone and everything. People come in with a common cold, not too much flu yet, or they might need a physical examination. We take care of a lot of different medical problems, and I like that a lot. It has been very rewarding doing it all these years.

How did your work with WRAL develop?
Back in 1993, the dilemma for them was, do we use a traditional reporter for medical reporting, or do we want to have a doctor come in? I had some media experience. The guy who hired me later told me that he wasn’t sure this was going to work out. He said he was skeptical, and we would try.

I started in July 1993. I have been doing it ever since. It has been a symbiotic relationship. For example, it is helpful for me to be able to talk about and encourage flu vaccinations. It is also helpful to me, because I am constantly having to do research on some new topic. We had a recent piece on inclusive playgrounds, playgrounds that include exercise equipment for disabled kids, and the piece we did on microbes and antibiotic resistance, so that’s helpful to me. Whether we do updates on diabetes treatments, cataracts, dandruff or urinary tract infections, it’s all important.

The beauty of it is that I get to go on a Duke Life Flight helicopter, or inside the Duke hyperbaric chamber or in the operating room for bariatric surgery, or work out in a gym to learn an exercise to increase your core strength, or do hot yoga (laughs). We talk about everything at some point in time when you are doing nine pieces a week. You learn a lot, too, and you’re forced to review a lot of stuff to make sure you’re on top of it.

Any behind-the-scenes moments that stand out?
At the television station, the people of WRAL are just great people. They have been so helpful to me, and it is the strength of the whole organization. We have a health team. I have a full-time producer/photographer who works with me named Rick Armstrong. He’s a senior producer and a former reporter, so he knows reporting, editing and photography. All the people at the station-David Crabtree, Deborah Morgan, Gerald Owens, Greg Fishel—they are all just tremendous people and make me feel comfortable. Anchors open the piece, and the anchors close the piece, and I come in between people who are real pros, so they help me look good.

We’ve done some fun pieces. We did a piece with Darius Rucker, the country singer, and it was awesome. The piece was on blood banking and bone marrow registries. I did a piece with Jerry West, the former Lakers basketball player, on atrial fibrillation, and pieces with “The Fonz” actor Henry Winkler and Randy Jackson from “American Idol.”

Do you feel the impact of your segments?
I think so. Talking about flu shots, 10 or 15 years ago, there was a Duke study that said only 15 percent of pregnant women were getting their flu shots, because they thought it might be harmful to their babies, so now that number is up to 75 percent. We can’t take credit for that, but I cannot help but think that some people have heard some of the news over the years. We may do four or five flu shot pieces over the course of the season. We do a piece every year with David Crabtree, our senior anchor, where we do a live flu shot demonstration to show people that it doesn’t hurt and that he’s stepping forward to get it. Viewers see him the next day and days after and see that he’s not getting sick from it.

Then we have gotten letters over the years from people we have helped. A lady wrote in to say she saw a piece we did on melanoma and recognized that she had one and went to her doctor. She says I saved her life, and I wouldn’t say that, but it makes me feel good. I just got a text from a lady saying she saw a piece we did on shoulder surgery and how she thought that procedure could help a friend. We do try to stay away from something controversial. I will talk to my resources and look for evidence-based research. The first rule is to do no harm, and when we do pieces, people can see them as an endorsement, so it has to be good material.

What do you suggest for staying fit after 50?
What I have learned over the years is that the real fountain of youth is exercise. If you are looking at any condition: Alzheimer’s disease, they tell you exercise helps your memory. If you have osteoporosis, exercise. For congestive heart failure, we used to think patients had to rest, but now we know the heart is a muscle and needs exercise.

For weight loss, to strengthen your bones or strengthen your heart, you exercise. To bring your blood sugar down, lower your total cholesterol, lower your blood pressure, exercise. It really is the fountain of youth. The American Heart Association recommends 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week of exercise. The problem is that the majority of us just won’t do it. I try to get out every day in the morning, walking my dog. I think pets are healthful for us; although walking the dog isn’t the best exercise, it gets us out there. We are out walking all over UNC campus with the dog. It is not the flexibility exercise or weight training we need to be doing for core strength, but it gets us moving, and that’s good.

It’s mostly about eating better. I think the best diet is the Mediterranean diet, a colorful diet—red apples, red peppers, yellow squash, green kale, vegetables with lots of color—and meats high in omega-3 fatty acids—salmon, halibut, tuna, mackerel.

What’s your guilty pleasure with food?
I like chocolate, and it doesn’t have to be fancy. I like Hershey’s. Dark chocolate is healthier, but I don’t like the taste of it (laughs). My favorite is just the Whitman’s chocolates with nuts.

What’s your health regimen?
This morning, I had eggs, pineapple pieces, 2 percent milk and peanut butter crackers for a snack. I am not really a fanatic. In general, leaning more toward fresh fruits and vegetables is best. I had a nutritionist who told me that when we go to the grocery store,  75 percent of our time ought to be spent in the produce, and that’s where all the action should be. Most of us don’t eat like that; we are in the cookie aisle or ice cream, and love big, juicy steaks. We recommend red meat no more than twice a week to our patients here. Red meat includes pork, lamb and beef. I usually tell patients, do red meat twice a week, chicken twice a week, fish twice a week and one day a week, eat vegetarian fare. And if you can do that, you can do pretty well. Just try to keep it to the middle of the road, and it is hard. It has us to do with us shopping better. The real culprit in our diet is sugar; it is in everything: orange juice, sodas, bread, yogurts … Reading the labels is so important.

I followed the lead of one of my producers who took sugar out of her diet completely. I started by not putting sugar in my coffee, no sweets, no juices and no soda. I was able to lose 8 or 10 pounds, just simply doing that. I would just have water, coffee or 2 percent milk to drink. I’m having dinner but not having dessert.

For exercise, I like golf. I play a little tennis. I have an exercise bike and a row machine, nothing too fancy. My main pleasures are playing golf and walking my dog.

I have a patient who swims and jogs daily. He shows up at the YMCA at 7 a.m. I just can’t find the time for that. I get up and walk the dog. I do have a morning piece on our sister station Fox 50 at 8:30 a.m., and we do it live, so if I am not there, it’s not good. You can’t be late (laughs).
So we can plan on your Health Team reports to keep coming?
I will continue the health team as long as they will have me. We’ve had a great run of it, and it’s been extremely well-received by the audience. I hope that people appreciate that I am just one of them. We try to be pretty straightforward about it. And we have wonderful resources here like (FirstHealth) Moore Regional, Cape Fear Valley, Rex, Wake, Duke and UNC to find expertise. We try to do water cooler information, so people have talking points to take away from each piece.