ATLANTA — It was 9:45 a.m. and Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, was 15 minutes late for his interview — with me.
Sanjay Gupta’s Favorites
• People to interview: Actor Michael J. Fox, President Bill Clinton, Cardiac Surgeon Michael DeBakey
• Story to report: 2010 Haiti earthquake
• Award received: Forbes Top 10 Influential Celebrity
• Ann Arbor restaurant: Palio’s on Main Street
• University class: Statistics with Prof. Ed Rothman
• Campus building: Michigan Union
One piece of advise for University of Michigan students:
“Read and write as much as possible. No matter how good or bad your writing is, simply the act of starting to record your thoughts makes you prioritize your life and your goals in a way that nothing else does.”
He had a good excuse, of course.
Gupta just got off the air talking about a trip he took to New Mexico to see Nick Charles, CNN’s first sports anchor, who was dying of bladder cancer. Though he had just recapped a depressing and heartbreaking story, Gupta walked through CNN’s medical unit floor at an energetic pace and greeted a fellow Wolverine he’d never met before like an old friend.
He welcomed me in his corner office overlooking Centennial Olympic Park, where giant steel torches remind tourists that Atlanta hosted the 1996 Summer Olympics. Though it was the middle of June, grey clouds spanned the sky and threatened rain. At first, Gupta’s mood reflected the odd summer weather as he told me about the segment he just finished about his longtime friend who was losing a battle with life. But as the subject turned to Michigan and the days he spent as a resident advisor in West Quad, the smile that got him named one of People’s “Sexiest Men Alive” made an appearance.
It’s also that smile that greets American Morning viewers at 7:30 a.m. to warn of the health risks of cell phones or announce groundbreaking medical discoveries like the cause of Lou Gerhig’s disease. It’s the smile that greets patients with life-threatening tumors to let them know they’re going to be OK. And it’s the smile that ignited after Michigan football games, when the Wolverines creamed Ohio State and Ann Arbor erupted in celebration.
And it’s that smile Gupta wore as he proudly talked of his college days: “I was pretty true blue. It would have taken a lot to get me not to go to Michigan.”
Gupta attended the University of Michigan starting in 1986. He remained there the next seven years as part of Inteflex — a now defunct program that combined pre-med and medical school and accepted students straight out of high school. While Gupta applied to several universities, he grew up watching Michigan sports with his dad, an alum, and fell in love with Ann Arbor at an early age.
“I was pretty confident I wanted to go there when I was in grade school,” he said.
At the University, he had mentors like Karin Muraszko, current chair of the Department of Neurosurgery, neurosurgeon Greg Thompson and Julian Hoff, the chair of the neurosurgery department at the time, who Gupta considered not only a role model, but a father figure.
It was these surgeons, and many others, who trained the man Forbes would name one of “the most influential celebrities” in 2011.
As a teen, Gupta suffered a significant head injury that was treated at the University Hospital. People mistakenly assume that sparked his decision to enter a career in neurosurgery.
But Gupta originally wanted to be a pediatrician. That changed when his grandfather had a stroke during his third year in Medical School. Gupta came to know his grandfather’s neurosurgeons who took time to answer questions the curious student posed about their field.
“I thought the idea that you’re working on a part of the body that is constantly changing in terms of what we know about it would make it a very dynamic field, that every operation was different in some way — I thought that was exciting,” Gupta said.
Fast forward to today, and Gupta suits up in scrubs at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, but not as the full-time neurosurgeon he thought he would be. On a pie chart of his career, the circle is split half medicine and half media.
So how did a neurosurgeon come to win an Emmy for Outstanding Feature Story, a Health Communications Achievement Award from the American Medical Association and title of “Journalist of the Year?” You could say it was all about timing — and meeting the right people.
His journalism career kicked off at The Michigan Daily where he wrote opinion pieces about public health policies. After graduation, Gupta continued to write on the subject for local newspapers and small magazines. He also collaborated with other writers on a series of 14 articles on health policy for The Economist. In 1997, he worked in Washington D.C. as a White House Fellow and wrote health care speeches for then First Lady Hillary Clinton.
Gupta described the experience as “quite daunting,” but can now laugh about the times he presented speeches to Clinton after sleepless nights filled with writing, checking grammar and checking it again.
“She would sit there reading it with you, and you would be there reading her face — does she like it, does she hate it, is she going to yell at me?” said Gupta, only half joking.
While trying to win approval from the First Lady, Gupta met CNN chair and CEO Tom Johnson, who was trying to start a medical unit at CNN. This was the late 90s, when newspapers and magazines covered health news well, but television didn’t, Gupta explained. Johnson wanted to change that by hiring Gupta.
“I had really no idea frankly what he was talking about or how I would help because I didn’t understand it,” Gupta said.
So he turned the offer down.
In 2001, Gupta ran into Johnson again. Johnson gave him a tour of the CNN newsroom that Gupta saw as a “really inspiring place filled with a lot of curious people.”
His own curious nature won him over, and Gupta accepted the job, thinking he would cover health policy. Six weeks later two planes struck the World Trade Center.
Gupta was called to the scene where he reported from New York and later led breaking news on the dangers of anthrax.
He then covered the War in Iraq. Haiti earthquake. Pakistan floods. Japan tsunami. Somalia famine.
“I evolved into this global health reporter as a result of what was happening in the world at the time,” Gupta explained.
CNN’s senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen described Gupta’s reporting amid war zones and natural disasters as “nothing short of outstanding.”
“He’s fearless, yet tells people’s stories so tenderly,” Cohen wrote in an e-mail interview. “He gets right to the heart of what’s happening in that region.”
With each deadly disaster, Gupta redefined health coverage and set the standard for medical reporting — mostly because no doctor had done it before.
“There was no sort of rule book for this … there was no sort of practicing surgeon who was on a 24 hour news network,” Gupta said.
Somehow, the neurosurgeon-journalist hybrid makes it all work. In the mornings and afternoons he’s on air. Every Thursday he sees patients. Every Monday he’s in the operating room — regardless of breaking news.
Instead of abandoning a patient when the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan in March, Gupta took a flight on a Tuesday.
“No one is going to die frankly if I’m not there 24 hours earlier,” he said. “Everyone (at CNN) sort of gets that.”
Dr. Dan Barrow, chair of the department of neurosurgery at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, hired Gupta for a part-time position at Grady Memorial Hospital after the chair of CNN called him up one day and asked for a favor — to hire a man who wouldn’t accept a CNN job if it meant giving up medicine.
Barrow had met Gupta when he was a White House Fellow, and the two kept in touch throughout the years. When Barrow heard it was Gupta he was asked to hire, he didn’t have to think twice.
Sitting in his office at 8 a.m. one Friday in July, clad in greenish-grey scrubs, Barrow explained how his colleague has a “remarkable ability to step out of the CNN Dr. Gupta and step into the role as the Emory physician Dr. Gupta very readily.”
“(He can) turn the switch and go from being a hardcore investigative reporter asking tough questions of people, to being a very compassionate physician,” Barrow said.
Barrow also joked that Gupta has secretly figured out a way to not have to sleep.
Gupta is one of two neurosurgeons at Grady, a hospital which covers the cost of patients from Fulton and DeKalb counties in Georgia who don’t have the means to pay for medical care. Because he sees drop-in and trauma patients in a clinic setting, Gupta isn’t obligated to see patients regularly like the 20 neurosurgeons at Emory Hospital. Barrow has also let him slide on taking emergency calls at night since he has to be on air before 8 a.m. for America Morning.
“We’ve made accommodations for him very willingly because he is an asset to the department in many many ways,” Barrow said.
Gupta mostly attends to injuries and accidents, and he’s never short of patients.
“I get a lot of referrals because people are like, ‘I want to see that guy. I see him on TV,’ which is kind of silly,” Gupta said. “I say, you know, ‘just because I’m on TV, doesn’t make me good.’ I mean, I think I’m good, but it’s not because I’m on TV.”
Muraszko, one of Gupta’s mentors from the University Hospital, says she’s proud of what Gupta has done with his career but thinks it’s tough for him to “live in two worlds.”
“He’s in a very unique set of circumstances in that he … tries to make sure that he stays valid as a neurosurgeon and not just be totally a health science reporter,” she said.
At this stage in his career, Gupta has made neurosurgery a priority. It’s a decision that became evident when he turned down President Barack Obama’s offer in 2009 to be the U.S. Surgeon General.
While sitting on a couch next to the upper body of a human skeleton, Gupta confidently explained that he made the right decision. “Everybody who knows me knows I don’t live in the world of regrets or second guessing,” he said.
If he had taken the job at age 39, he would have had to give up practicing medicine during the four-year term.
“It’s a bit ironic that the surgeon general can’t practice surgery,” he admitted.
Barrow was duck hunting with his father at 6 a.m. during the Thanksgiving holiday when his cell phone rang, and Gupta’s name flashed on the screen. Barrow thought there was an emergency, but was pleasantly surprised when Gupta confidentially told him about his nomination and sought advice on what to do.
“I was very torn because obviously I thought he would do a great job… on the other hand, I selfishly didn’t want him to leave,” Barrow said.
Ultimately, Gupta came to a decision. By the time the term ended, he would be too removed from the evolving field of neurosurgery to step back in the operating room. Plus, he had a wife — who he met at Palio on Main Street where she waitressed — two young daughters and one more on the way at the time.
At age 41, Gupta recognizes he’s still young, and there will be more chances to work in public service in the future.
For now, his career and family are all that matter. And when there’s time, the former Men’s Glee Club member likes to visit a “special place” he calls Ann Arbor. In his previous visits, he gave the 2009 Medical School commencement address and conducted the last interview with euthanasia activist Dr. Jack Kevorkian before he died in June.
His next return isn’t work-related. The self-proclaimed “true blue” Wolverine made sure to buy tickets months in advance to the first ever football night game against Notre Dame.
As he sat in his CNN office — as pristine as an OR — Gupta explained that when people look back on their life, they think of moments. If they’re asked what happened in 2009, they may think of one moment from that year. The point, he said, is when you’re having a moment, make it count.
“Make it something that you will talk about 15, 20 years from now,” he said. “I’m reminded of that because I’m really excited about going to this football game. I think it’s going to be one of those moments I will remember from 2011. That moment. Memorable moments. That’s how you look at your life.”