“I’m Dr. Sanjay Gupta. And this is CNN.” That may be the most consequential promo for the global news network today. Arguably, Dr. Gupta is probably next only to Dr. Anthony Fauci that America listens to since the coronavirus outbreak at least two months ago.
A multiple Emmy winning neurosurgeon with the unassuming designation of Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Gupta has been on every news segment on CNN and CNN International, almost every day, providing information, advice and analysis about all things COVID-19.
He is America’s doctor during the most serious healthcare crisis the country has ever encountered.
Dr. Gupta, who began his career at CNN in 2001, just months before 9/11, is probably the most visible and internationally recognized medical correspondent. He may well be the most recognized ethnic Indian journalist in the world.
Not only is he tracking the spread of the virus, helping anxious Americans understand the way the Trump administration is working to ‘flatten the curve’ and reduce the spread of the disease, he is offering guidelines on how to follow social distancing and ways to cope with the pandemic. From advising Americans on how to make their own masks at home to demonstrating how to clean, sanitize and store groceries, Dr. Gupta has been working around the clock, demystifying the health scare.
Going by his calm demeanor on air, one can say that being in the spotlight hasn’t affected either his dedication to the field of medicine or his attitude or lifestyle.
Always appearing composed, however alarming or tense the situation is, the 50-year-old physician has earned the confidence of millions of Americans, as he, with his signature smile, gives the lowdown on America’s health.
Social media is another way Dr. Gupta gives opinions and medical advice. Considered among one of the most prominent public health influencers, he has over 2.37 million followers on Twitter, and over 137,000 followers on Facebook.
Dr. Gupta grew up in Novi, Michigan, located on the outskirts of Detroit. His parents, Subhash and Damayanti Gupta moved to the U.S. from India, and worked at the Ford Motor Company. His mother, who was 5 during the 1947 Partition, lived in a refugee camp before moving to India. She was the first female engineer hired by the auto manufacturing giant in August 1967.
Dr. Gupta is married to attorney Rebecca Olson Gupta. The couple lives in Atlanta, Georgia, and has three daughters – Soleil Asha, Sage Ayla and Sky Anjahi.
Blending Medical Training and Public Policy Experience
CNN says that it is Dr. Gupta’s medical training and public health policy experience that distinguish his reporting on a range of medical and scientific topics, including brain injury, disaster recovery, health care reform, fitness, military medicine, HIV/AIDS, and other areas.
A CNN profile of Dr. Gupta notes that from the 9/11 terror attacks, to the anthrax scare, to reporting live from war-torn Afghanistan or the earthquake-and tsunami-ravaged Japan or the hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico, Dr. Gupta has covered some of the most important health stories in the country and around the world. He is said to one of the first western reporter who traveled to Conakry, Guinea, to investigate the deadly Ebola outbreak in 2014.
Dr. Gupta first came into international limelight in 2003, when he went to Iraq as an embedded reporter with the Navy’s “Devil Docs” mobile surgical unit. Some reports said at the time that a few journalists had criticized Gupta for inserting himself into the news by performing brain surgery on a seriously injured Iraqi child. He performed life-saving brain surgeries five times in a desert operating room operated while he was with the medical unit.
Speaking by videophone to CNN anchor Bill Hemmer right after the first surgery, Dr. Gupta had said he felt a “medical moral obligation” to help. He said there were no other trained neurosurgeons available when the injured child arrived by helicopter for treatment. “It was not an elective operation,” Gupta had said. When the boy was brought in his injuries were such that he “probably had minutes to live.”
The following year he went to Sri Lanka to cover the tsunami and the year after that he was in Louisiana to report about the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina. Some of his other noteworthy assignments include the Lebanon War, rescue missions in Afghanistan, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Road to Medicine and More
In a blog on Guideposts, Dr. Gupta wrote about how his grandfather’s illness was a catalyst in him becoming a neurosurgeon. When his grandfather had a stroke and was hospitalized, Dr. Gupta recalls “sitting anxiously at his bedside,” as he watched the nurses to do their job – “checking his vitals and looking at the monitors attached to his body.” He wondered what he could do to make his grandfather feel better – “to bring back the warm, thoughtful man I knew.” He wrote about being fascinated by the neurosurgeons. “When they explained what they could do surgically to help, I thought, I want to be like them,” Dr. Gupta wrote in the blog. He wanted to know what they knew and have the ability to heal like they do. “Eventually my grandfather got better, and my path in life was started.”
In his final year at the Novi High School, Dr. Gupta was accepted into an eight-year medical program called Inteflex at the University of Michigan. Gupta received his undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan and a Doctorate of Medicine degree from the University of Michigan Medical School.
In the late 1980s, during his undergraduate studies, Dr. Gupta wrote for the university’s newspaper, reporting on health care issues. He also wrote several articles that were published in The Economist which discussed medical care in the U.S. and other countries.
The Encyclopedia Britannica, it its biography on Dr. Gupta, notes that among readers of Dr. Gupta’s articles in The Economist were Bill Clinton (then governor of Arkansas) and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, “both of whom Gupta met in 1989.”
In 1997, Gupta was one of 15 selected to be White House Fellows. During the year-long fellowship, he wrote healthcare speeches for First Lady Hillary Clinton. It was during his White House stint that his career path at CNN was paved.
After his fellowship ended, Dr. Gupta returned to the University of Michigan, and completed his medical degree in neurosurgery. He subsequently worked as a fellow at the university’s medical center and later as a fellow at the University of Tennessee.
In addition to his work for CNN, Dr. Gupta is an associate professor of neurosurgery at Emory University Hospital and associate chief of neurosurgery at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. When he’s not on air, he is either at home with his family, or at the hospital performing surgeries, or competing in triathlons. It’s widely reported that he likes to listen to Frank Sinatra and the Gipsy Kings while in the operating room.
The Many Avatars of Dr. Gupta
There is no doubt that Dr. Gupta wears many hats. Even at CNN, he’s worked on a wide range of topics and genres. Moving to a more narrative genre last year, Dr. Gupta began hosting “Chasing Life with Dr. Sanjay Gupta.” The CNN original series is based on Dr. Gupta’s first book “Chasing Life.” The six-episode miniseries follows his travels around the world in search of the secret to living longer, healthier and happier.
Three years ago, he launched “Fit Nation,” CNN’s multi-platform anti-obesity initiative, which, CNN says “inspires Americans to lead healthier, more active lives.”
Extensive research and interviews conducted on medical marijuana by Dr. Gupta gave birth to “Weed,” a series of five documentary films on the subject. It featured several medical marijuana patients and their journeys, as well as topics and issues around the benefits, business and legality of the emerging cannabis industry.
When the series first aired in 2013, Dr. Gupta, in an editorial on CNN, announced that he had changed his mind about marijuana’s risks and benefits. Dr. Gupta had previously criticized laws that allowed patient access to medical marijuana. “I am here to apologize,” he wrote. “I apologize because I didn’t look hard enough, until now. I didn’t look far enough. I didn’t review papers from smaller labs in other countries doing some remarkable research, and I was too dismissive of the loud chorus of legitimate patients whose symptoms improved on cannabis,” he wrote. In 2009, in an op-ed in Time magazine, Dr. Gupta had said he opposed the legalization of marijuana. He acknowledged some evidence of medical benefit, then wrote that he was “unimpressed with the (then) proposed legislation, which would legalize marijuana irrespective of any medical condition.”
Summarizing his multifold work, Dr. Gupta told the Philadelphia Inquirer: “Everything I do is still within the medical space.” In a February 2013 interview with the paper, Dr. Gupta said: “Even between news, television news, and something like this [a TV drama], I see myself as an educator, primarily. And I educate people in different ways. When I wrote the book, I originally thought that I wanted to show people how doctors ultimately learn.”
Apart from CNN, Dr. Gupta contributes to the CBS newsmagazine “60 Minutes.” He stars in the HBO Original Documentary “One Nation Under Stress,” which examines why life expectancy is declining in the United States.
He holds memberships in the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, Congress of Neurological Surgeons, and the Council on Foreign Relations. He serves as a diplomat of the American Board of Neurosurgery, is a certified medical investigator, and is a board member of the Lance Armstrong LiveStrong Foundation.
Gupta is also known for his work in the written word. Along with contributions to medical journals, he is the author of three best-selling books, “Chasing Life” (2007), “Cheating Death” (2009) and “Monday Mornings” (2012). His fourth book, “Keep Sharp: Building a Better Brain” is to be published later this year. He writes poetry as well. It is said that he proposed to his wife, Rebecca Olson Gupta, with one of his poems.
His book “Monday Morning,” which was an instant New York Times bestseller on its release in March 2012, was adapted as a television series in 2013, with David E. Kelley and Gupta serving as executive producers. The first episode aired on Feb. 4, 2013 on TNT. However, the series was cancelled after its first season. Deadline reported then that the medical drama “opened with an underwhelming 1.34 million viewers and ended its freshman run at the same level, with the finale drawing 1.37 million.” The book follows the professional and personal lives of five doctors at the fictional Chelsea General Hospital in Portland, Oregon. The name “Monday Morning” refers to the weekly peer-reviewed conferences held on Monday mornings, at which the surgeons receive both praise for their accomplishments and lambasting for their mistakes.
Last year, Dr. Gupta, in collaboration with TEDMED co-creator Marc Hodosh, announced a new event called “Life Itself,” which was set to launch this year, in partnership with CNN. Both Dr. Gupta and Hodosh will act as hosts of the show.
Bouquets and Brickbats
It was in Jan.6, 2009 that President Barack Obama announced his intention of appointing Dr. Gupta for the position of surgeon general. But not everyone was happy.
While some doctors said Dr. Gupta’s communication skills and high-profile would allow him to highlight medical issues and prioritize medical reform, others argued that he appeared to be the first surgeon general picked not for his public service but for his public image.
Gerard M. Farrell, executive director of the Commissioned Officers Association of the Public Health Service, told The New York Times that he and others had been hoping that Obama would pick someone who was already a commissioned health officer. “The best way to find a good leader and to depoliticize the office is to do what the military does: you pick leaders from within the service,” Farrell said.
Among those opposing Dr. Gupta’s nomination was Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.). One of the reasons for Conyer’s lack of support was the 2007 controversy where Dr. Gupta stated that Micheal Moore had “fudged facts” in “Sicko,” his 2007 documentary on America’s health care system. After a few television appearances by Moore and some on air argument with Dr. Gupta, CNN reportedly apologized for an error in their on-air report, “having stated that in the film Moore reported Cuba spends $25 per person for health care when the film actually gave that number as $251.” CNN, however, is said to have defended the rest of Gupta’s report.
Along with the opposition, there was support as well. According to The New York Times, public health advocates had told the paper that although Dr. Gupta was an unusual choice, it might be a good one. “The surgeon general’s role has been to be the country’s doctor, and having someone who is immediately recognizable to many people can be very helpful,” said Linda C. Degutis, immediate past president of the American Public Health Association.
Others who supported Dr. Gupta were liberal commentator Jane Hamsher, Creative Health Care Management’s Donna Wright, a regular commentator on medicine and politics, former surgeon general Joycelyn Elders, and Fred Sanfilippo, executive vice president for health affairs at Emory University. Dr. Gupta was endorsed by the American Council on Exercise as well. However, in March 2013, Gupta withdrew his name from the list.
Gupta has also received criticism from some journalists and journalism professors specializing in health care on the quality of his coverage. Trudy Lieberman, director of the health and medicine reporting program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, criticized Dr. Gupta’s reporting on the McCain health plan. “Gupta’s attempt to explain John McCain’s health plan offered a confusing and ultimately misleading picture of how the candidate’s proposals might work,” she wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review.
A Wikipedia post on Dr. Gupta observed that journalist Peter Aldhous had criticized Gupta’s “enthusiasm for many forms of medical screening – even when the scientific evidence indicates that it may not benefit patients.” Wikipedia said Aldhous and other medical journalists accused Dr. Gupta of” a pro-screening bias in promoting widespread electrocardiogram and prostate cancer screening, even though medical authorities like the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommend against it.”
There was a brief moment when Dr. Gupta dabbled in politics to help his younger brother, Suneel Gupta, an entrepreneur. In 2018, Suneel Gupta ran for a seat in the U.S. House to represent Michigan’s 11th Congressional District. According to news reports then, he lost in the primaries, coming at third place with over 5,000 votes behind the winner Haley Stevens. Gupta, now 40, received 18,873 votes or 21.3 percent in the Democratic primary.
In 2012, Dr. Gupta helped Suneel Gupta start Rise, a company that uses technology to reduce the cost of quality health-care. After the startup served over 1,000 patients, former first lady Michelle Obama asked Rise to be her team’s official technology partner.
Sexiest Man Alive
In 2003, Dr. Gupta was named one of People magazine’s “Sexiest Men Alive.” He told the magazine then that he is an emotional doctor. “I’ll sit right down next to them [the patient] on the bed and talk,” he said. The magazine said Dr. Gupta is “so sexy that he makes you forget he’s reporting on the flu, SARS or pesticide levels in farmed salmon.”
He also made it to USA Today’s “pop culture icon” list.
In 2003, Dr. Gupta also won the Humanitarian Award from the National Press Photographers Association. The following year, the Atlanta Press Club named him “Journalist of the Year.” A few years later, in 2009, he won both the first Health Communications Achievement Award from the American Medical Association’s Medical Communications Conference and the Mickey Leland Humanitarian Award from the National Association for Multi-ethnicity in Communications. In 2010, he was honored by John F. Kennedy University with its Laureate Award for leaders in health and wellness. A year later, Forbes magazine named him as one of the “Ten Most Influential Celebrities.”
In an interview with the Atlanta-based Khabar magazine in November 2006, Dr. Gupta spoke about his South Asian heritage. “I do think that being South Asian – and just being Indian – in any part of the world has served me well,” he said. Recalling his experiences in India and Pakistan, he told the magazine: “I think having a similar ethnic background does make people all over the world feel a little more comfortable [with you].”
His Indian heritage once again came into prominence during his marriage to Rebecca Olson. The couple got married at The Shell House At Ashley Hall in Charleston, South Carolina on May 15, 2004. Dr. Gupta told Khabar magazine that the ceremony was mostly Indian, with a Hindu priest officiating. There were a few Western customs as well. The Charleston Magazine featured a photo feature of their wedding. The bride wore a red lengha and choli, and the groom was dressed in a silk sherwani and turban. “We got exactly what we wanted—a traditional Indian wedding that managed to tie in the beauty and flair of Charleston,” Rebecca Olson Gupta told the Charleston Magazine.
In 2014, Dr. Gupta traveled to India and Pakistan with his family to find his roots. The journey, which was later made into a small documentary for CNN, took him to Pakistan, where his mother came from, as well as a few places in India including Rohtak and Haridwar, to trace his father’s beginnings. The family managed to trace their ancestors going back 40 generations. “As much as I thought I knew the story of my family, I really only had a few headlines,” he wrote on CNN. “I didn’t know the nuances, the details, the tidbits that painted a more complete picture of who we really are, ” he added. “To understand truly where you are going, it helps to understand from where you came.”
A year earlier, in a 2013 profile in Parade magazine, Dr. Gupta talked about facing prejudice and bullying in his small community in Novi. There was a brief time when he even wanted to change his name to Steve. His mother talked him out of it, telling him that a day would come when he’d be proud of his name and that one day everyone would know it because of the wonderful things he was going to do.
Needless to say, she was right. Today, Dr. Gupta is a name to reckon with. He is, after all, America’s doctor dependable.