Editor’s Note: In a sit-down interview with The Michigan Daily, CNN personality Sanjay Gupta discusses his life as a Michigan student and his decision to turn down the surgeon general position. Gupta was the speaker at the Medical School’s commencement ceremony.
Zade: What is your fondest memory from your time at the University as a student?
Gupta: There (are) so many memories here. I was here for such a long time. It’s probably a good thing that it’s hard to distill it down to just one. But I think being at the football games was probably the thing that I remember the most because you look around and you’re immersed with all of these people who are just like you. They’re students — they’re curious, they want to be part of the larger world and there’s a very festive atmosphere, usually, if it was a good season.
I think that, and all of the surrounding parties around those games and the spirit of this place is something that I found is hard to find once you leave here.
Z: What skills did you acquire at the University that helped you be successful in life?
G: I think I really started to develop my writing skills here at Michigan, in part because people let me write. There wasn’t a conformist attitude or an idea that you had to walk in with a certain skill set to be able to really contribute in some way.
I think when I started writing I wasn’t particularly good at it but that didn’t seem to be a problem. I think people really helped me with that. And I think that writing, for me, has probably driven every other part of my life, including medicine. A lot of what we do in medicine is contributing to the larger knowledge of our field, so I began to write scientific papers, I worked at the White House. I went there and was writing speeches for the President and the First Lady — again, a lot of those skills having first started to germinate here at Michigan.
And now I’m a journalist, a reporter, in addition to being a doctor, and I take great pride in the fact that I write my own pieces and a lot of copy for all of our various mediums. So, I think the writing in some ways was the most surprising.
I got a world class education here, and I became a fully trained neurosurgeon here, but it was the writing that I think propelled me in directions that I would have never imagined.
Z: Did you have any role models as a student at the University?
G: (…) The person who I think had the most overall profound impact on my life here at Michigan was Dr. Julian Hoff, who was a chairman of neurosurgery at that point. He was one of those guys who I think in many ways emulated the Michigan tradition of “we’re going to teach you everything you need, you’re going to walk out of here as educated and trained as anywhere else in the world, we’re also going to open your mind in ways that you can’t even imagine.”
I think you come to college with some preconceived notions of what you want to do and who you want to be when you grow up, but when you just sort of let your mind be open to various things and ideas it’s really an awesome thing and I think people are better because of it.
Z: Can you discuss the process of how the position of the Surgeon General was offered to you, and what factors made you decide not to take it?
G: The way that was offered to me was I got a call from the President and he says, “Let’s talk about you being Surgeon General.” That was back in November, he had just been elected and he was in Chicago, so I flew to Chicago and we sat down and talked about everything related to health and health care in this country, and it was a great conversation to have. It was a real interesting insight into what the man who is going to be in charge of not only that but of the whole free world, (what) his focus was when it came to health care specifically.
I was extremely flattered by it and it was a really tough decision not to do it, but in the end for me it really came down to something personal. I didn’t want to be a commuting dad. My wife was pregnant at the time, that child is now six weeks old. I wanted (to) be around for those things and I didn’t want to only see my kids for a day or day and a half a week for several years. That was probably the biggest thing.
I also found out, which I didn’t know, because you learn things as you go through the process, that I wouldn’t be able to continue to practice surgery. And I’m still a relatively young surgeon, not as young as a lot, but you know I still have many years of surgery that I’d like to be able to practice, and I think when you walk away from a field like neurosurgery, for four years or eight years, depending on how long he’s president, you’re essentially saying bye to it, I don’t think I would have been able to go back to it.
Most of the people who have been Surgeon General in the past have taken the job closer to retirement, at a different phase in their life, and I think that those were really my primary reasons.