Autumn 2009: Features

Sanjay Gupta in Chad, 2007

“Some of the greatest knowledge comes when everything seems futile and people are ready to give up.”

Jeff Hutchens/Special ©2008 Cable News Network, a Time Warner Company, All Rights Reserved

Being Dr. Gupta

Emory’s Sanjay Gupta has become the face of health for millions of CNN viewers—not to mention his own patients

By Holly Crenshaw 80G

Sanjay Gupta, perhaps the best-known medical journalist in the world, can trace the arc of his life to a single revelatory moment.

“Nobody in my family practiced medicine, and my grandfather had a stroke,” he remembers, his words slowing down as he summons the memory. “I was a kid at the time, and the doctors who cared for him were particularly generous with their time in terms of telling me what they were doing. At a point when you’re trying to figure out what you’re going to do with your life, to see somebody who goes in and takes care of your family member and makes them better and is just a great person on top of that—that’s what got me interested in medicine.”

An assistant professor of neurosurgery at Emory University School of Medicine and associate chief of neurosurgery service at Grady Memorial Hospital, Gupta can barely disguise the wonder he still feels when he ponders the complex circuitry of the human brain. And he can barely contain the wonder he feels when he is called upon to care for a patient, the way he saw doctors care for his grandfather.

“I love the intellectual challenge of it. I love the technical challenge of it. But at the end of the day—if someone comes in with a tumor or some kind of chronic pain issue that I can help in some way—that’s a remarkable feeling,” he says. “I operated all day Monday, and I walked home and told my wife all about my day, and it’s one of the most satisfying things I can do.”

Portrait of Sanjay Gupta

Sanjay Gupta

Mark Hill/Special ©2006 Cable News Network, a Time Warner Company, All Rights Reserved

Barely sixteen when he was accepted into an accelerated program to enter medical school, Gupta fast-tracked his career along parallel yet complementary paths. He wanted to be a great doctor and a great communicator. He wanted to heal patients, and he wanted to hear them.

Those interests synthesized when he joined CNN as its chief medical correspondent. With his straightforward yet reassuring manner, he has become the nation’s calm voice of medical reason—a doctor who possesses the rare ability to talk to the camera as if he were talking to a patient. He speaks, and somehow we believe he wouldn’t mind taking all the time in the world to help us separate facts from fears.

At CNN, he contributes to its daily medical coverage, hosts House Call with Dr. Sanjay Gupta, writes for its websites, and is featured in a weekly podcast called “Paging Dr. Gupta.” He has reported from Iraq, where he stopped in the middle of his journalism duties to perform emergency brain surgery. He has documented the health care horrors that followed Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the tsunami in south Asia. He has reported on the AIDS pandemic and investigated the genesis of the H1N1 virus. Along the way, he has earned broadcast news’ three highest honors—an Emmy, a Peabody, and a DuPont award.

Gupta also is a columnist for Time magazine and a contributor to CBS’s 60 Minutes and its Evening News with Katie Couric. He writes for scientific journals, and his first book, Chasing Life, became a New York Times best seller.

Despite his experience, when President Obama offered Gupta the job of surgeon general of the United States earlier this year, some critics tried to dismiss the brain surgeon as little more than a media darling. After all, wasn’t he named in 2003 as one of People magazine’s Sexiest Men Alive? Wasn’t his 2004 marriage to Rebecca Olson Gupta the subject of a splashy spread in In Style magazine?

Those close to Gupta, though, were quick to voice their support. Among them was Fred Sanfilippo, Emory’s executive vice president for health affairs. As soon as news of the possible nomination broke, he issued a statement that praised Gupta’s character, his training, his intelligence, and his communication skills. In many ways, he noted, Gupta was already serving as the nation’s “chief health educator” through his work at CNN.

As Gupta thinks back on those heady days and the ensuing media frenzy, he admits, “when you’re asked by the president of the United States to take a job like that, it is extremely flattering.” Still, he ultimately decided against it, partly because he worried it would rob too much time from his three young daughters. Obama—himself the father of two girls—understood.

Another factor figured into Gupta’s decision. At thirty-nine, he knew he was nowhere near ready to give up neurosurgery. “I’ve been doing this essentially since I was a kid, so it’s really a part of who I am now,” he says. “I just love what I do. I get to take care of people as a doctor, and there’s no other job that I’ve found that gives me the same sense of purpose. Journalism, in many ways, is an extension of that. Only instead of taking care of patients one by one, I’m taking care of much larger groups of people.”

The son of Indian immigrants, Gupta grew up in Novi, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. His parents, Subhash and Damyanti Gupta, moved to the United States in the 1960s with little money and with no friends or family to welcome them. Both were hired as engineers at Ford Motor Company, where his mother became Ford’s first female engineer.

Gupta still marvels at his parents’ willingness to leap into an unknown future with no safety net to catch them. “I don’t think I could have done that,” he says, “and I think my brother and I are the consequences of all their hard work.” Straight out of high school, he entered a six-year premedical and medical school program that culminated with an MD from the University of Michigan Medical Center.

In 1997, he was named a White House fellow and served as a special adviser to then First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. A few years earlier, she had unsuccessfully pushed to create a universal health care plan. Fast-forward to today, and health care reform is once again generating a heated national debate.

It’s a subject Gupta cares deeply about, yet one where he must tread lightly to maintain his journalistic objectivity. “What we’re talking about is trying to get health care to people who right now don’t have it,” he allows, “and I think that is exciting.”

On air, he assumes the role of a consumer advocate who encourages viewers to make informed decisions about what good health care means to them. As a doctor, he sees how devastating it can be to live without access to quality care. “The fact that there are so many people who go without health care insurance is something that we’re not proud of as a country,” he says.

Every Monday morning, Gupta makes his way through the predawn light and ventures deep inside the cavernous complex of Grady Memorial Hospital, where most of the patients he encounters lack proper medical coverage.

“I choose to work at Grady Hospital, where about eight out of ten of our patients are uninsured,” he says.

Daniel L. Barrow is chief of neurosurgery service at Emory University Hospital, director of Emory’s stroke center, and MBNA-Bowman professor and chair of neurosurgery at the School of Medicine. He met Gupta when he was still a White House fellow and immediately recognized him as someone to watch.

“He is an outstanding neurosurgeon who truly cares about people. He’s a very bright and very humble man in many ways, someone who’s very thoughtful and just a terrific guy,” Barrow says.

He also knows Gupta to be someone with a lifelong interest in health care policy, who has devoted an extraordinary amount of thought to how to best address the country’s health care needs. Still, one could easily spend hours with Gupta discussing a wide range of health care issues and still not know where he stands. “He holds his beliefs fairly close to his chest,” Barrow says.

When Barrow invited Gupta to join Emory’s Department of Neurosurgery in 2001, the offer included time to also work for CNN. Now, what Gupta modestly describes as his “busy life” is more like an efficiency expert’s dream. His eighty-hour workweeks are sliced into predetermined slots. That way, he knows in advance if he will spend the day in the operating room, or broadcasting health reports, or polishing scripts, or writing magazine articles, or seeing patients in his office. Add to that the chaos of breaking news and a steady stream of admirers who approach him in airports to say hello or grab some quick medical advice. “People come up to me all the time as if they know me,” he says. “Which in some ways is very flattering, because if they feel like they know you from television, that means you really are connecting with them.”

There’s another side to celebrity that Gupta has to deal with, as well. He is someone who champions fitness and reports on the nation’s obesity epidemic, so he knows that people will watch to see if he practices what he preaches. Fortunately, he was born without a slacker’s bone in his body. Instead, he sends out Twitter confessions if he eats too much ice cream. And he happily shares his trick for staying on track with exercise: treat it the way you would treat a mandatory meeting with your boss, like an appointment that cannot be broken.

“You have to give exercise that same degree of diligence,” he says. Even when he is relaxing with his family, he builds swimming, jogging, or hiking into their time together.

Part of his friendship with cycling legend Lance Armstrong is forged around the dedicated work ethic they share. The first time he saw Armstrong set out on his bike in the middle of the night, it reminded him of his own intensive training to become a neurosurgeon.

Gupta even uses a sports analogy to describe his role in the O.R. As music by the Gipsy Kings plays in the background, Gupta positions himself as the clearheaded quarterback of the team. It’s his job, he says, to make the quick calls that neurosurgery demands—and it’s his job to help Emory residents build enough confidence to make their own calls someday. Neurosurgery remains fascinating, he says, “because the field is so dynamic. We take care of things that are some of the most mysterious things in the body.”

His new book, Cheating Death: The Doctors and Medical Miracles that Are Saving Lives Against All Odds, examines a series of breakthroughs that may shift the already-mysterious line between life and death. With the suspense of a medical thriller, it explores everything from therapeutic hypothermia experiments to save stroke and heart attack victims, to the study of animal hibernation to help wounded soldiers—research that challenges doctors to rethink their preconceptions.

“Some of the greatest knowledge comes when everything seems futile and people are ready to give up,” Gupta says. “All of a sudden, someone will say, ‘Why don’t we try this?’ and it results in these sea changes in the world of medicine.”

It’s that kind of insatiable curiosity that inspires Gupta to keep his mind, his ears, and his heart open.

“Sanjay is very genuinely kind, and one of his greatest assets is that he listens very well to people,” Barrow says. “Many people who have as much knowledge and experience as he has just like to hear themselves talk, but Sanjay really listens.”

And in that sense, he is much like the doctors who shared their time with him three decades ago—the kind who try to explain the inexplicable and in doing so, make us better.

Holly Crenshaw 80G is an Atlanta-based writer and a former reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.