University News

‘Renaissance’ reporter mixes media and medicine

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, April 28, 2011

Sanjay Gupta is lucky, he says. He has always been good at telling stories.

It was a skill that came in handy far more often than many doctors might expect. From writing for the hospital drama “ER” to drafting policy speeches for former President Bill Clinton’s administration to his current job as CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Gupta has frequently found himself bridging the gap between medicine and media.

But it is a gap easier to bridge than most people think, Gupta told a packed Salomon 101 last night. Both in medicine and the media, you have to do a lot of reading, he said. You can “improve the quality of people’s lives.” You need to maintain your credibility. And you need to know and understand the people you work for — whether they make up your audience or your patients.

Once upon a time, Gupta said, doctors were “renaissance folks” — along with medicine, they were knowledgeable about politics, culture and writing.

“Nowadays, things have become so hyper-specialized,” Gupta said.

Gupta’s own journey to reporting was the result of a “strange confluence of events,” he said. As a student in the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor’s seven-year medical program, Gupta spent his free time writing about medicine and health care. After graduation, while completing his residency, Gupta worked as a White House Fellow, advising current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and writing speeches on health care.

It was at the White House in 1997 where Gupta met Tom Johnson, CEO of CNN at the time. Johnson wanted to create a medical unit on the news network and asked Gupta if he would help him. But Gupta, who did not quite understand what the job would entail, turned him down.

Then, four years later, he ran into Johnson at an airport. Johnson was still interested.

And this time, so was Gupta.

Since then, Gupta said he has earned the “dubious honor” of being CNN’s most traveled reporter. He has reported on Hurricane Katrina, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and most recently the tsunami in Japan.

And with each trip, he said, he learned that some things are universal — that compassion comes from “all sorts of different places” and that “hopes, dreams and aspirations are evenly distributed across the world.”

His worlds of media and medicine come “crashing together,” Gupta said. For example, when he was reporting in Iraq, the naval doctors he was with came to him with a marine who had been shot in the head. Originally declared dead, the man — named Jesus — was found to have a pulse.

They asked Gupta if he would step out of his role as a journalist, just for that moment.

“There (were) no tools to do what I needed to do,” Gupta said. But he was able to open Jesus’ skull, removing a blood clot and the shrapnel lodged inside.

After the procedure, he looked for something to clean the wound and protect it from infection. He used the only sterile thing they had — a used IV bag. He said he did not know if he would ever see Jesus again.

After he returned home, Gupta received a call from San Diego. It was Jesus’ doctor. Jesus was doing great, the doctor said, and he would love to see Gupta.

In 2009, Gupta was considered for the position of surgeon general. But he turned it down. The surgeon general cannot practice surgery, Gupta said, and if he left neurosurgery for four or even eight years, there was no guarantee he would be able to return to it. Medicine, Gupta said, is his first and primary love.

But still, Gupta said he is interested in health care reform. The current health care debate, which he characterized as “ideologically charged,” will go down as an “embarrassing chapter” in American history, he said. For now, he recommends that Americans look at health care “broadly,” perhaps redefining the culture of American health care.

Ultimately, though, he said it is most important to emphasize a “more healthy America.”

“We have an obligation to do what’s right by our bodies,” Gupta said.

The talk, hosted by the Brown Lecture Board, was followed by a question-and-answer session in which one student asked Gupta what gave him the confidence to apply for a job at CNN — especially when he had no prior experience in journalism.

“I’m pretty confident with failing,” Gupta said in response. “I enjoy having the dreams. I enjoy having the ambition.”

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