Dr. Sanjay Gupta may be CNN’s chief medical correspondent, but he’s a doctor first. That was evident recently in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, when the practicing neurosurgeon spent days working at a field hospital abandoned by a Belgian medical team, and even performed brain surgery on a 15-year-old girl aboard the USS Carl Vinson.
Gupta’s approach has made him the target of intermittent criticism from purists who think that doctor/reporters should stick to reporting when the cameras are rolling. He’s been exposed to incoming fire since 2003, when he embedded with a U.S. Navy medical unit in Iraq, executing delicate brain surgery on civilians and soldiers at a Baghdad field hospital.
“To me, it was absolutely instinctual, and medically and morally the right thing to do,” he says. “I was a little bit surprised that there was some concern about it. Now I’m not so naive as to believe that I can go in as a doc straddling those two worlds and not generate discussion.”
Much of the discussion regarding Gupta, however, centers on his commitment, his relative youth (he’s 40) and his telegenic charisma (he’s been featured in People’s “Sexiest Man Alive” issue), qualities that have made him a media star. He’s also a best-selling author (Cheating Death and Chasing Life), and a contributor to 60 Minutes and the CBS Evening News who boasts 1.2 million followers on Twitter. And when he’s not busy with his CNN duties, which include a weekly program, Sanjay Gupta, MD, he is a neurosurgeon at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital.
“He’s got a very fast brain,” says Roni Selig, senior executive producer/director of the health, wellness and medical unit at CNN. “He operates on many levels at once and does them all flawlessly.”
This year, six contestants will join Gupta— who’s also an avid runner and cyclist—to train for upcoming triathlons in New York and Washington; they will be featured on CNN’s Fit Nation cross-platform initiative. In April, Gupta’s Toxic Towns USA examines the tens of thousands of untested chemicals in our environment via the plight of the residents of Mossville, La., one of the most polluted communities in America.
Though medicine was not a tradition in the Gupta household—his parents, who emigrated from India in the 1960s, were engineers at Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, Mich.—Gupta’s introduction came in high school, when his grandfather fell ill.
“I spent a lot of time at the hospital with him,” Gupta says. “He and I were very close. I saw how his doctors cared for him. They were neurosurgeons, as it turns out. And I think I was hooked back then.”
Gupta went directly from high school in suburban Detroit to a six-year program at the University of Michigan Medical School, where he also did his residency. In 1997, he was selected as a White House Fellow, working closely with then-First Lady Hillary Clinton on her office’s health-care reform efforts. It was there that he met Tom Johnson, a Fellow alum and then the president of CNN. By 2001, Gupta was preparing to take a post at Grady when he crossed paths with Johnson again.
“We were looking for the finest M.D. that we could find,” Johnson recalls. “Not a person who [only] had television experience.”
Gupta says he still “cringes” at his early TV pieces. But it was his wife, Rebecca, who advised him to talk to the camera as if it were his patient: “And that made a lot of sense to me.”
If viewers have connected with Gupta, according to Johnson, “it’s because he is genuine. At a time when television news is attacked for sometimes being sensational or biased, Sanjay is completely authentic. And he has great compassion.”
Perhaps that’s why Gupta is still absorbing the shock of Haiti. At the dinner table with his family shortly after he returned, his daughter Sky threw rice on the floor for the family dog.
“My wife jokes that she’s never heard me raise my voice,” he says. “But it was so jarring to see that after watching people starving. It was one of those things where I felt like my dad, [saying], ‘Do you know how many people would love to get their hands on that rice?’ Something like that really changes your optics.”
Chief medical correspondent, CNN
B.S./M.D., University of Michigan Medical School, 1993
University of Michigan Medical Center, neurosurgery resident, 1993–2000; White House, fellow, 1997-1998; Emory University School of Medicine, assistant professor of neurosurgery, 2000-present; Grady Memorial Hospital, associate chief of neurosurgery, 2000-present; Time, columnist, 2001-present; 60 Minutes/CBS Evening News With Katie Couric, contributor, 2006-present; current position at CNN since 2001
b. Oct. 23, 1969; married to Rebecca; daughters Sage, 4, Sky 3; Soliel, 1