NBC News White House correspondent Carol Lee went in for a routine ultrasound last spring. At 44, she was four months pregnant with her second child, who was conceived via IVF after a devastating miscarriage the previous year. The doctor squirted the gel on her belly and the machine whirred to life. Images of the baby began to appear on the monitor, then the doctor began to focus on the baby’s heart.
The two arteries that carry blood from the heart to the lungs were transposed. Called TGA (transposition of the great arteries), it is a potentially life-threatening condition that requires emergency heart surgery after delivery. Lee tried to remain calm.
“When you go through IVF, you get all of these [genetic] tests. So you think, OK, we’re now through three months, and we’re past this window and everything should be good,” recalls Lee, her voice catching. “And it’s not, and it’s just…shocking.”
Lee was diagnosed with placenta previa, which can cause severe bleeding during pregnancy and delivery. Her doctor would advise her to stay within 20 minutes of a hospital. “He was afraid I could hemorrhage at any moment,” she says.
So in April 2021, when she was six-months pregnant, Lee moved with her 8-year-old son Hudson into an Airbnb in Philadelphia, near Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where she would deliver her baby and he would have heart surgery. NBC News set up a camera and lighting in her temporary home so she could do live hits. Hudson was going to school remotely, care of the pandemic, and her husband, Lt. Col. Ryan Harmon, stayed in Washington, D.C. during the work week, and traveled to Philadelphia on the weekends.
She tried to focus on work; the Biden administration was mere months in, the nation was very much in the grip of a deadly pandemic and still reeling from an insurrection at the Capitol. Lee — who had become habituated to the chaotic, 24/7 pace of the Trump administration — had plenty of distractions. And she had to hold it together for Hudson. But in her head, she says, “there was just this constant hum of panic.”
Her colleagues — who invariably describe her as “unflappable” and “grounded” — may not have noticed.
“All of us have our moments and work can be hard and life can be hard, but Carol never ever, ever lets it show,” says Stacey Klein, the director of NBC News’ White House unit. “She shows up and she gets the job done. And she makes it all seem so easy.”
None of it was easy; at one point in her pregnancy, Lee began to experience shortness of breath while she was on air. “It was weird,” she says. “And I talked to a friend about it and she was like, ‘Well, yeah, your baby is not well, he’s going to need heart surgery. Of course you’re having trouble breathing.’”
Then came the delivery. Lee needed a blood transfusion; she was in and out of consciousness. “I remember they got him out and started yelling that he wasn’t breathing. I’m having a blood transfusion and they would come to update me, ‘Baby’s not doing well.’ I think they thought it was helpful. But I was having panic attacks,” she says. “I needed oxygen. That was not part of the orientation that you get about how this is going to go, even if you know that your baby’s going to need heart surgery after he’s born.”
Montgomery “Monty” Alexander Harmon was born on June 11, 2021. He was in surgery for 10 hours. After nine days in the hospital, he was able to come home. Lee is now dealing with normal baby problems, though because of his medical history and the pandemic, Lee has to take precautions. “Monty hasn’t even been to a grocery store. He’s not vaccinated. He’s a heart baby, so we basically hang out in our house, with each other,” she says.
Lee hopes that sharing her trauma will help other women dealing with difficult pregnancies. But she knows many women do not have the luxury of extended leave. When her son Hudson was born, she was a single parent and political correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. Though she was a full-time employee, she was not eligible for extended leave. At the time, Journal owner News Corp. required two years of employment before employees became eligible for extended leave. So she got the paltry federally mandated six weeks.
“When I had Monty,” she says, “there was so much to worry about. I can’t imagine having to worry about going back to work or arranging child care. I wasn’t physically or mentally in a place where I could do that. And neither was Monty. He came home. We got back to D.C., we thought everything was fine. His incision got infected. We were back in the hospital again. And then you start dealing with regular baby problems, which is enough and requires not having to worry about whether or not you’re going to have a job.”
News Corp. has since evolved on the issue — but many employers have not. “It absolutely matters where you work,” says Lee, whose sister works in the restaurant business, where taking time off is unpaid. “I think things are trending in the right direction. But the stories of women who do not have paid leave, those are the stories that need to be told.”
Lee returned to work last January, and is fully reacclimated to the rhythms of a demanding job, that has become more intense as correspondents are expected to feed content across multiple platforms. On Tuesday, Lee and the rest of the NBC News White House unit will be pulling a marathon day with live coverage of President Joe Biden’s first State of the Union address. It is a particularly important moment for the president, whose poll numbers are foundering amid economic uncertainty at home, while Russian president’s Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and nuclear saber-rattling has set off a global diplomatic crisis.
But even during such a fraught political time, the Biden administration marks a return to some kind of normalcy for the White House press corps. “It’s much more traditional reporting,” says Lee. “With Trump you constantly had to monitor your phone. He would make policy on Twitter, he would pick fights, he would upend legislation. And that is not how this administration operates. There’s a process. They’re much more disciplined in terms of, unfortunately for us, not allowing a lot of leaks. Things aren’t lurching a lot policy-wise. But it’s harder to get at stuff. So it’s a different type of challenge.”
Lee and her younger sister and older brother were raised by a Christian reverend father and public-school math teacher mother in Levittown, Pennsylvania, right across the Delaware River from New Jersey. Her dad was a pastor at a church in Trenton, New Jersey. Then in the 1980s, at the height of the AIDS crisis, her father came out as gay. “A lot of his friends were dying,” says Lee.
Still, it was a shock: Her parents had been married for 17 years, and known each other since they were both in middle school. And the gay community was still fighting for acceptance and equality. “It was such a different time and my parents were very religious. But now we all do the holidays together,” laughs Lee.
The holidays also include two step-siblings and step-parents. And after he came out, Lee’s father became the pastor at the Metropolitan Community Church in Philadelphia, part of the LGBTQ network of churches founded in 1968 in California. He became more active in the gay rights movement and adjacent political issues. His daughter didn’t harbor aspirations of political journalism.
“I wanted to be a magazine writer,” says Lee.
In high school, she devoured MS magazine, the feminist monthly founded by Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes. She studied psychology and women’s studies at Westchester College in Philadelphia, then moved to New York to study journalism at NYU. After earning her graduate degree in 2002, she landed a job as a researcher for Gail Collins, then editorial page editor at The New York Times.
“That’s when I fell in love with politics and foreign policy,” says Lee. “Gail gave me a lot of opportunities.”
Lee wrote quirky life-in-New York columns about things including drunk dialing (the precursor to drunk Tweeting) and walking-while-eating. She also penned columns about her flirtation with surfing and pondered the radical feminism of Barbie. Then in 2006, she took a job as a reporter at a daily newspaper in Sarasota, Florida, a small town on the gulf coast known for being the birth place of the Ringling Brothers Circus.
“I was really proud of her for that,” says Collins, “because that’s one of the problems you usually have when you bring young people into these kinds of jobs at a place like the Times. They’re very ambitious naturally, and once they’re there, their plan is that they will somehow attract attention and they will [get a staff writer job] at the Times. It doesn’t often work out because it’s really hard to get a job at the Times and they’re often just not ready. They haven’t done the stuff you need to do. Carol knew what she needed to do; to get a job where they’re going to send her out every day to do 9 million different stories. You’re under huge pressure to produce a whole bunch of stuff all the time. That’s just the most important part about getting ready for your career. And many people try to avoid it, but she understood right away that that was what he needed to do.”
The assignments were definitely less intriguing than her stint at the Times. There were stories about the new walk-in beer cooler at the Circle K and a giant squid that washed up on the beach. And Lee wondered if she had made a mistake.
“These were not the type of hard-hitting stories I envisioned myself doing,” she says. “But it was actually a great lesson because I realized it doesn’t matter what I think I should be writing about and what I feel are the most important stories. It’s really about what matters to the people you’re trying to write for. And frankly, people really wanted to know about the walk-in beer cooler at the Circle K and the big squid.”
In between human-interest stories about refrigeration and local fauna, she did get to cover politics, including the 2008 presidential campaigns. And in October 2008, she landed a job at Politico, which took her to Washington, D.C. She left Politico in 2011, for the Wall Street Journal, where she became a frequent presence on television and radio, including on PBS’ Washington Week. She did a stint as president of the White House Correspondents Association from 2015-16 and served on the association’s board from 2010-16. In 2017, NBC News tapped her as a national political correspondent. Going from print to television did not present a steep learning curve for Lee, but it took some time to get comfortable with the exposure conferred by TV.
“Sometimes stories get a lot of pushback and that can be very uncomfortable. And anyone who says it’s not, is better than I am, I guess. But with TV you’re out there talking about your story and you’re owning it. And that felt different,” she says. “That was not something that I was used to. And it’s a lot harder than people, particularly people in print, think that it is.”
After a couple of decades in journalism and a harrowing personal trauma, it’s obvious Lee knows how to do the hard stuff.