When the first Iraqi counterattack missile flew over his head in Kuwait last year, it took CNN correspondent Sanjay Gupta a few minutes to figure out what was happening.

“During the months of drills, there started to be some complacency. But when it happens for real, there is no complacency,” says Gupta, who was waiting in a staging area when hostilities began. “We were in the bunker right after that. We were in our protective suits in nine seconds flat. We were all scared. You never knew if you’d been ‘slimed’ with chemical or biological agents.”

Gupta, an Emory neurosurgeon who covers medical affairs for CNN, was in Kuwait to document the work of the U.S. Navy’s front-line medical unit, the “Devil Docs.” He received national attention when he operated on an injured Iraqi child.

“I didn’t intend to work as a doctor while there, but there was no neurosurgeon in the field,” Gupta says. “So they started saying, ‘If someone gets shot in the head, we’ll just call Sanjay.’ Then it happened–five times.”

The first was a two-year-old Iraqi boy, who was wounded at a marine checkpoint south of Baghdad. Despite Gupta’s efforts, the boy died. “Children are always the hardest,” he says. “They are clearly the innocent bystanders in all this.”

He also operated on two Iraqi combatants, and two coalition force members. One, a 25-year-old marine, had been shot in the head in Baghdad.

“When they brought him in, one of the Devil Docs detected a weak pulse. He had a horrible gunshot wound and was a mess–all sandy and dirty. I removed the bullet, cleaned up the blood, and put him back together as best I could,” Gupta said. “Then he was shipped out to Germany.”

Later, when a reporter from the marine’s hometown paper called to say she was doing a feature article on him, Gupta discovered that he was alive and well.

“He’s doing great. He’s a totally cool kid back in L.A. I just spent a few days with him and his family,” says Gupta. “There’s a little bit of left-side weakness but that’s it.”

Back in Atlanta, Gupta, assistant professor of neurosurgery at Emory and chief of neurosurgery at Grady Memorial Hospital, performs brain surgery every week. He faces tumors and aneurisms, blunt trauma from car accidents, penetrating traumas from gunshot wounds and stabbings.

“Being a doctor is my greatest passion and brings me the most satisfaction,” says the thirty-four-year-old Gupta. “I’ve spent half my life training to be a neurosurgeon.”

But he also values his role as a medical correspondent for the health news unit at CNN, where he reports on breaking medical news and is featured in such segments as Paging Dr. Gupta, Weekend House Call, and Your Health.

“At first, I was really terrible, but I have grown into it,” Gupta says. “Being on air allows me a unique opportunity to provide a public health service. Now, when people come up to me on the street and say things like, ‘I saw your segment on LASIK surgery and decided to have it,’ I realize I’ve developed a relationship with my regular viewers.”

In fact, Gupta has become a celebrity of sorts, with an “unauthorized” website devoted to photos and news clips about him maintained by fans who call themselves the “Gupta girls.” He also was featured in People magazine’s “Sexiest Men” issue last year.

“The celebrity is hard to prepare for,” says Gupta, who at first turned down the offer to be listed among such heartthrobs as Johnny Depp and Colin Farrell. “It is what it is.”

Gupta stays in shape by jogging with his seventy-five-pound Weimaraner, Bosco, and enjoys driving his Jaguar XK8. He has written a pilot for a television series about his experiences in Iraq that he just sold to ABC. The series, he says, is “M.A.S.H. on speed.”

Before joining Emory and CNN, Gupta was a neurosurgeon at the University of Tennessee’s Semmes-Murphy Clinic. While serving as a White House Fellow in Hillary Clinton’s office in 1997, he was asked by former CNN president Tom Johnson (also a fellow) to join the network.

Gupta says the breadth of his experiences, from reporting on anthrax and SARS to operating on casualties of war in tents, has enhanced his perspective.

“I’ve gone from seeing things through a microscope–quite literally, during surgery–to a telescope,” he says. “Now I can see the larger picture and broader horizons.”–M.J.L.



© 2004 Emory University