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On Call and Reporting Live

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November 2006
On Call and Reporting Live

On Call and Reporting Live

The multitalented Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who does double duty as Emory-based neurosurgeon and CNN medical correspondent, talks to Khabar.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta has probably been struck more than once by the ironic twists and turns in his life. The son of Indian immigrants who worked as automotive engineers in Michigan, he set out on a different path at an early age.

"When I was 16 years old, I already knew that I'd be a doctor," he points out. "I got accepted into an integrated medical program straight out of high school. My parents didn't push me towards medicine; in fact, my mom always thought it'd be too long. But I really enjoy it. I'm the first doctor from both sides of my family." Not only is Dr. Gupta a practicing neurosurgeon in Atlanta, most notably as chief of neurosurgery at Grady Memorial Hospital, he is also an assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine.

Though Dr. Gupta sees himself as a neurosurgeon more than anything else, his high visibility is largely attributable to the work he does as a senior medical correspondent for CNN. And there is added irony in the fact that, on the battlefield of Iraq, it was Dr. Gupta's surgical skills rather than his talent for reporting which first attracted wide attention and turned him into, as USA Today put it, a "pop culture icon." He is refreshingly modest about his role on television. "I didn't have any special training and I'm not sure it was a natural aptitude either. For anybody who does this business, there is a learning curve. I was a writer for various magazines; a lot of it was related to healthcare and healthcare policies. So it was a natural fit." His two professions are closely linked, he agrees. "I do believe they're very complementary. Especially at a place like CNN, which has such a commitment to covering medical issues, I have this opportunity as a physician to care for patients at an individual level that's tremendously valuable. But I've also recognized that I can reach millions of people through the vehicles of TV and the Internet and all the other mediums we're involved with."

Life Outside CNN

The twists and turns extend to his personal life, too. Dr. Narsi Narasimhan, founder of IPN (Indian Professionals Network), related an interesting anecdote that Dr. Gupta had shared with his audience at an IPN anniversary awards dinner in Atlanta. "Apparently, his mother (or maybe his father) took a road tour when she was a graduate student," Dr. Narasimhan told Khabar. "When her car broke down, she looked up the yellow pages at the pay phone for an Indian name to seek help. That phone call was answered by her would-be husband!"

Dr. Gupta grew up in a small town called Novi (meaning ‘new') – an oddly appropriate name, since his was the first Indian-American family to settle there. "I do think that, in some ways, I may have had a stronger connection to my Indian heritage," he says, referring to his upbringing in Michigan. "Even though there were no other Indians living in town, we still had a lot of Indian friends. It was a big part of my life. Nowadays, I say that I have a very diverse group of friends. When I was getting married, my groomsmen represented different ethnicities, nationalities and backgrounds. I have a strong connection to my Indian heritage, but I also have a very, very diverse social circle."

He got married to attorney Rebecca Olson, also a Michigan native, in 2004. He'd proposed to her in a poem, no less, according to at least one source. Their grand wedding ceremony, which drew guests from all over the world, took place in the historic city of Charleston, South Carolina, where it attracted the attention of the local media. The Charleston magazine, for instance, did a lavish photo spread and included some gushing comments. The ceremony was mostly Indian, with a Hindu priest officiating, though the bride's heritage was also honored with some Western touches. Skipping the traditional white dress, she wore a red lengha and choli, whereas Dr. Gupta's outfit consisted of a silk sherwani and turban. During the noisy baraat, when the groom was arriving on a horse, a policeman suddenly approached the wedding party, causing some nervousness. As it turned out, he just wanted to take a picture!

"I do think that being South Asian – and just being Indian – in any part of the world has served me well," Dr. Gupta says. "The country of India and the people of India are widely respected. I say this in full faith?I mean, obviously there are problems in some parts of the world. But even in Pakistan, when I was reporting on the earthquake there, people had a kinship with me because I took the time to try and speak the language and learn the culture. I think having a similar ethnic background does make people all over the world feel a little more comfortable [with you]."

After graduating from the University of Michigan, where he earned a bachelor's in biomedical sciences and a doctorate of medicine, Dr. Gupta practiced surgery in his home state and wrote for various publications. He caught the attention of the Clinton Administration, which picked him in 1997 as one of 15 White House fellows that year. Given Hillary Clinton's active interest in healthcare issues, it's not surprising that Dr. Gupta ended up working for her, mainly as an advisor and speechwriter. It was there that he made contact with a CNN executive, another White House fellow, who would later ask Dr. Gupta to join the network. In the meantime, after his stint in Washington, Dr. Gupta joined a private practice in Jackson, another small town in Michigan. Ironically, considering that Dr. Gupta had just worked for the Democrats, Jackson is known as the birthplace of the Republican Party. By now, he'd also been employed at the University of Michigan Medical Center and the University of Tennessee's Semmes-Murphy clinic.

The Making of Dr. Sanjay Gupta

Dr. Gupta led a busy but low-profile life until, in the summer of 2001, he got a call from CNN. The timing couldn't have been better. One of the biggest stories of our time – 9/11 – was just round the corner. Given his background, he'd expected an off-camera job as a medical consultant, but CNN had other plans for him. Dr. Gupta's personable manner, and an ability to explain complex medical issues in layman's terms, helped him to quickly establish himself as a credible and fearless reporter who didn't shy away from difficult situations. His coverage of other major stories – anthrax scare, SARS, Iraq war, Asian tsunami, Kashmir earthquake, Hurricane Katrina, Israel-Hezbollah conflict – over the years cemented his reputation, turning him into the most seen Indian-American on television. There is little exaggeration in saying that no other Indian-American is more widely known either as a doctor or a correspondent. During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Dr. Gupta realized that his surgical skills were in greater demand than his ability to report objectively from the frontlines of a very controversial war. His medical background, and the fact that he was embedded with a U.S. Naval team called Devil Docs, made the situation unique.

"Iraq was a special circumstance in that there were no neurosurgeons in the unit I was traveling with," he says. "So there was really nobody else who could do what I could do." He operated on marines five times, the most spectacular case involving Jesus Vidana, who was originally thought to be dead on the streets of Baghdad. He made a miraculous recovery after Dr. Gupta and his team removed a blood clot. When Dr. Gupta visited Los Angeles two years later, he was amazed to see Vidana leading a normal life with his family. Dr. Gupta also operated on a badly injured Iraqi boy, who unfortunately, did not survive.

Even in 2003, the media coverage of Iraq was criticized from all sides of the ideological spectrum. "There's almost nothing in war, it seems, that cannot be exploited as a network promo," was columnist Frank Rich's scathing assessment in The New York Times. "Fox's anchors trumpeted an idle news-briefing remark by Gen. Richard B. Myers that ‘reporters just have to be fair and balanced, that's all' as an official endorsement of the network's ‘fair and balanced' advertising slogan. At CNN, a noble effort by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, an embedded medical reporter, to rescue an injured 2-year-old Iraqi boy by performing on-the-scene brain surgery was milked for live reports." Furthermore, a few critics questioned whether journalists should be participating in the stories they cover.

"I think people make it more complicated than it needs to be," says a bemused Dr. Gupta. "For the most part, CNN and most news organizations do a good job of hiring people who are just intellectually curious about the world around them. They can see things and describe things in a way that can make audiences feel connected to the story in some way. Are there instances when we should intervene? Yes, when somebody is dying, or when something terrible is happening and you're in a position to prevent it from happening. And you'd do that in any job. I never really fully understood why people always say that journalists aren't allowed to help people out. I think it's fortunate that, in some ways, I'm relatively new to this field. I approach it as a human being."

Many observers, even in the media, agree with Dr. Gupta. "Saving a life is a moral imperative," writes Bob Steele, a Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism. "A journalist – be he a neurosurgeon or not – has a personal duty to step forth and help if someone's life is at profound risk." Yet Steele does wonder how Dr. Gupta reconciles his competing roles – and obligations – as a physician and correspondent. As he puts it, "Does the Hippocratic oath duty always trump the journalistic responsibility to gather information and report stories?"

"I think it's a very important point," Dr. Gupta says. "You cannot go too far. Can people start injecting themselves into the story or let their objectivity be tainted? Yes, it can happen. And that means the person is not a good reporter. It's like any profession – some are good at it and some aren't so good or just na�ve."

Dr. Gupta's exploits as a surgeon in the rough-and-tumble conditions of Iraq brought him not just recognition, but also the kind of celebrity that's usually associated with movie stars. This happened especially after People magazine, known to be a trendsetter in popular culture, anointed Dr. Gupta as one of the "sexiest men of 2003." There was more publicity and there is even a fan website – famously dubbed the Gupta Girls – devoted to him. The hoopla surrounding his newly acquired glamour and status didn't escape the notice of CNN executives. In a 2004 marketing campaign, Dr. Gupta had a starring role in one of the network's commercials. The ads generated a lot of interest, but there was also pointed criticism. "In one spot, Christiane Amanpour schoolmarmishly corrects a woman who can't pronounce Iraq and Iran, even after giving it several tries," commented Seth Stevenson in Slate magazine. "In another, a woman ignores Lou Dobbs when she's distracted by Dr. Sanjay Gupta's cute, toothy smile. Shouldn't the campaign praise CNN viewers for being incredibly smart and well-informed?"

Dr. Gupta remains composed in the occasionally harsh glare of the spotlight, which seems to have had little effect on his attitude or lifestyle. He has remarked that perfect strangers think they know him just because they've seen him on TV. The fussy scrutiny of viewers is something he either accepts or shrugs off, knowing that it comes with such a high-profile job in a celebrity-obsessed culture. His focus, as always, is on his work and family, which now includes a daughter. "I lead a quiet life," he says. "I come from a small town and my wife and I are fairly private people, even in Atlanta." Despite his many responsibilities and hectic schedule, Dr. Gupta is candid about what he's able to achieve on a daily basis. "Like anybody who is juggling jobs – be it medicine or media, which are my career choices – it's very important to be realistic about what you can accomplish. And that's a large part of how I juggle – by being realistic. It's difficult, no question about it. I do a lot of work – writing and some of the television work as well – at home. But being a relatively new father yourself, you know that it's not so much about the amount of time as the quality of time. I have a lot of friends who are home but their mind is always elsewhere. We try and spend long weekends together and go away whenever we can. I turn off the BlackBerry. It's very important to spend time with my family."

Spreading the Word

Dr. Gupta is primarily a neurosurgeon, no doubt, and it's in that capacity he has personally saved lives; yet he stresses that his CNN job can be just as important. "Down in New Orleans, for example, we were the first to report that Charity Hospital – one of the big county hospitals in New Orleans – had not been evacuated [after Hurricane Katrina]. And there were 200 patients. They had no power, no water, no food. And some of the patients there were critically ill and on breathing machines. When we went in and started reporting that, immediately helicopters started landing and taking them out. It's a very gratifying thing for a journalist." For their life-saving efforts, Dr. Gupta and his crew received an Emmy.

Even when these calamities occur in other nations, Dr. Gupta has sometimes found, his ability to report the news quickly is more useful than his skills as a doctor. "For example, when I was in Sri Lanka during the tsunami, the problem wasn't the lack of doctors," he says. "There were doctors there, and as you may know, they're very good doctors. It wasn't necessary for me to jump in because the problem was really the lack of resources. What could I best do at that point to inform the world about what was needed there? I could do a lot more as a journalist, telling people what we needed: water, antibiotics, infrastructure, etc. So I think it's doing what's necessary."

In Atlanta, however, it's as a surgeon that Dr. Gupta has made his mark at Grady and Emory. He deals with his fair share of tumors and traumas as well as clots and concussions. One well-publicized case involved Dan Snyder, an Atlanta Thrashers player who was injured when Dany Heatley, his teammate, crashed the car they were traveling in. Dr. Gupta and his team did an emergency operation on him at Grady, but the unconscious Snyder didn't recover. Dr. Gupta has received a Gold Award from the National Health Care Communicators, and in 2004, the Atlanta Press Club named him ‘Journalist of the Year.' This year was the first time the National Headliner Awards honored medical journalism separately; it was Dr. Gupta who swept all three awards in that category.

Realizing that medical reporting has its limitations, Dr. Gupta thinks more can by done by somebody like him. Informing the public, though helpful and educative, is not enough when it involves health issues that affect large sections of the population. As a physician, he doesn't want to be restricted by the television studio. The ‘Fit Nation' campaign, launched at Spelman College earlier this year, was one example of his more pro-active role. After a national tour that took him to several campuses, Dr. Gupta did a one-hour program on CNN. "We always talk about problems with obesity," he says. "Everyone knows that our nation is not doing well in terms of our weight. But for me, as a medical doctor and a medical journalist, I was getting a little frustrated by just talking about it on TV all the time. How do we do something more? People understand there is a problem, but what we wanted to do was to really take the show on the road, travel around the country and visit college students to see how we can fix this problem. We invited special guests to go with us – former President Clinton, Lance Armstrong, Maria Shriver, Senator Hillary Clinton went on the tour with us. It was an opportunity to pair these students with people who can actually do something about the problem."

South Asian Americans also should take this problem more seriously, he feels. "There are studies that show certain segments of the South Asian population have a higher risk when it comes to diabetes. South Asians do have a lot of doctors in the community, but it doesn't mean we're the best patients. No matter where you're from, you need to make sure you have good health habits, because your doctor doesn't make you immune [Laughs]. There are some things about the South Asian diet that are very healthy, but because so much of our social life revolves around food we need to be conscientious about cooking our foods in more healthy ways. The next generation is going to develop the same habits that we have. If we have good habits, they'll have good habits as well."

On the Road as Dr. Correspondent

The well-traveled Dr. Gupta has a cosmopolitan outlook, although he readily admits that his ethnicity can set him apart at times. The experience has been positive for him. "It's a proud thing, you know, to go around the country and tell people that you're Indian. They know you're Indian, know somebody who's Indian, or they love Indian food." Given his visibility and the experience he has had at the White House, do we have another Indian-American politician – say, a Bobby Jindal for the Democrats – in the making? "I don't know if I'd necessarily be in electoral politics," he responds. "But I've grown convinced that I'd like to be involved in the public discourse on issues that I'm passionate about, specifically healthcare. We'll see what happens. At some point there may be a position where I'd be able to make a significant contribution."

When Dr. Gupta is not practicing surgery at Grady or teaching at Emory or reporting from the CNN studio in Atlanta, he continues to rove as a Dr. Correspondent who brings breaking news from distant and troubled spots in the world. One story not long ago took place in Haifa, Israel, during the conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

"That was one of the scariest stories I covered," he admits. "You're in a place where Petrushka rockets are constantly landing?totally random. They didn't appear to be firing at anything in particular. You'd be standing there and doing something and all of a sudden a siren would go off. And you basically had 30 seconds – between 20 seconds and a minute – to hide, to try and get down somewhere. And you realize that if you pick the wrong place to hide, you'd die, with shrapnel all the way through your body, with your arm cut off?like Swiss cheese. I saw this happen. It was scary for me but I couldn't help thinking that for a lot of people there, this is just a way of life. Sometimes you almost feel guilty when you leave those places and come home."

The carnage Dr. Gupta sees – not just as a journalist in a hot spot, but also as a surgeon who attends to life-threatening wounds caused by gunshots and accidents – is immense and the suffering it causes can shake the faith of strong people. How does he cope? Has he not questioned his beliefs?

"Being a person of faith implies that you're always a person of faith," Dr. Gupta says. "You're not looking for reasons to challenge your faith, as a typical rule. It's not as if I go to these places – whether it's Haifa or Sri Lanka or Iraq or wherever – and say I'm no longer a man of faith. It hasn't made me question my faith at all. I will say, though, that when you see how bad things can get, when you see a regular family – just like yours with a 2-year-old – and they have a car and a house and they want a better way of life just like any other parents?and they get killed for it. They're killed just because of this. That makes you realize that there are a lot of miserable things in this world. And it also makes me realize that I'm not being attacked every day when I go to work. Who is going to launch a rocket at me? I'm probably not going to be shot and killed, but we just take it for granted. That's just not the way it is in many parts of the world. I don't think it makes me question my faith, but it makes me realize how lucky and fortunate I'm to be where I'm at this time and place in my life."

By MURALI KAMMA


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