Published March 27, 2014
Television audiences know Sanjay Gupta as the Emmy Award-winning CNN correspondent who covers health care under the most-dire circumstances — on the battlefield and in the aftermath of natural disasters. But that wasn’t the path he had expected to take, he told the crowd in Alumni Arena at last night’s Distinguished Speakers Series lecture.
When he started working at CNN in 2001, the practicing neurosurgeon expected to be covering health policy issues.
“Then the 9/11 attacks happened and everybody’s world changed.”
Instead of covering the health policy of President George W. Bush, he found himself doing stories about people who had been injured in the attacks, covering the subsequent anthrax attacks and then working as a war correspondent in Afghanistan and Iraq.
He found himself getting all kinds of advice about how to prepare for being in a war zone. “People told me: ‘Smile a lot. Don’t look threatening or suspicious. Don’t wear pants with belt loops because they can be used to grab you. Don’t sit with your back to the street. If you do get captured, ask for something every day, something small like a pillow. Your captors are likely to say no, but when push comes to shove, it’s possible they may feel sorry for you,’” Gupta said.
“They told me to bring duct tape and to duct tape my money and passport to my body. War is very chaotic, so if you need to, you can just run.”
The advice came in handy. But Gupta wasn’t prepared for the generosity of people living in war zones or in the aftermath of disasters. He mentioned arriving in a small village in Sri Lanka that had been decimated by the 2004 tsunami. Hardly anything was left, he said, but a family had survived — a mother, father and a son.
The CNN crew did some live shots. When it was over, the boy began walking up to Gupta, who was concerned because the boy was barefoot and there were sharp things on the ground. He was carrying a package of crackers and he walked over and gave it to Gupta. The mother made a gesture that signaled to Gupta that he should eat.
These people had lost everything, Gupta said, and yet what little they had they wanted to give to him.
“People are inherently compassionate,” he said. “That’s our default. Humans are hardwired to be altruistic.”
He mentioned a fascinating brain imaging study in which people were told immediately before the image test that they were going to be given $100,000; members of one group were told they could spend it any way they wished; members of the other group were told they had to give it all away.
“In the first group, some of the brain’s reward centers lit up, but there was lots of executive function, lots of planning,” he said. “But in the second group, the most primitive areas of the brain lit up very brightly. It’s being altruistic toward one another that triggers joy.”
Gupta recounted some of his most memorable experiences on the battlefield.
In 2003, he was embedded in Iraq with the Navy’s elite Devil Docs group, which erects sophisticated surgical suites just behind front-line troops; its purpose was to cut the amount of time it took to get medical care to critically injured soldiers.
“I got a summons. A marine named Jesus (pronounced hay-sous) Vidana had been shot in the head. He was thought to be dead, but when they brought him back, he had a pulse. They asked me, would I put my surgeon’s cap on?”
Gupta took a drill that had been used to erect the tents to remove the bullet from the man’s brain. He fileted open an IV bag and used it to help recreate the layers of his brain. Vidana had been saved.
A few months later, Gupta received a call from the San Diego area. The caller said he had an update on one of Gupta’s patients. Did he remember operating on someone named Jesus Vidana? “I said, ‘how could I forget operating on Jesus in the middle of the desert?’”
Gupta recounted his visit to see Vidana in San Diego. It underscored the irony of his dual-career life. He was greeted at the door by Vidana’s very thankful mother and his father, who blurted out: “Are you the guy who operated on my son? And you’re a journalist?”
Gupta noted that he has sometimes taken criticism from other journalists who take issue with him crossing the line from journalist to participant. He says he understands the need for those divisions.
“But I’m a doctor first,” he says. “And it’s not just for doctors. If you can save a life, then you put down your camera and you save a life.”