'The value of story'

Doctor, journalist Gupta talks at fifth Speakers Series event

On March 27, 2014

  • Dr. Sanjay Gupta uses stories to connect his two passions. medicine and journalism. The Emmy-winning journalist and world-renowned neurosurgeon spoke at Alumni Arena Wednesday as part of the Distinguished Speakers Series.

For Dr. Sanjay Gupta, being a television journalist didn't come easy. In fact, by his own admission, he was bad at it.

He had pitched an idea to CNN in 2001 to talk about health issues on television, and though he was a doctor with no television experience, they still gave him a shot. Initially, he didn't feel he was successful.

"I wasn't very good at this - I wasn't very good at doing television. And I am not saying that to be falsely humble or anything like that," Gupta said. "It didn't feel natural. But one day, my wife gave me a great piece of advice. She said, 'Imagine the camera like it was a patient.' And that clicked; that made sense to me."

Gupta, now an Emmy-winning medical correspondent for CNN and world-renowned neurosurgeon, spoke about his experiences in both fields to an audience of 4,000 in Alumni Arena Wednesday.

He discussed balancing medicine and journalism. Gupta, who continues to practice medicine as associate chief of neurosurgery at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Ga., found the 'value of story' was a way for him to connect the two fields. And that point was made clear throughout his talk, as he delivered several anecdotes about the many topics he has covered - war, natural disasters, personal triumphs and tragedies, and many more.

"Medicine and media, people think of these as very disparate things," Gupta said. "Whatever it is, when you are thinking about adding something new to your life, one of things that I found as very important is, you have to think about what ties these things together rather than what distinguishes them apart."

He told a story about Jesus Vidana, a marine who was struck in the head by a sniper's bullet while in Iraq. He was pronounced dead on two occasions. When paramedics brought his body back to camp, they found a pulse. They asked Gupta, who was with the camp as a war correspondent, if he could help.

Gupta told the audience he had to "literally take off [his] journalist cap and put on [his] surgeon's cap." He used a drill, with a bit he sterilized himself, to remove part of Vidana's head and removed the blood clot and the bullet. Gupta used the inside of an IV bag to "essentially recreate the outer layers of the brain."

A few years later, Gupta received a phone call from San Diego. It was Vidana, who asked Gupta if he remembered the patient from Iraq. Gupta joked, "How do you forget about operating on Jesus in the middle of the desert?"

Gupta used this, and many other anecdotes, to prove his initial point: Individual stories, in the right context, are important in making people care about news. He said it's in our nature to care about fellow humans.

"What I believe is that people are inherently compassionate. That is our default position," Gupta said. "If we get rid of all the noise and all the other things that affect our decision making on any given day and listen to ourselves and what gives us joy and makes us feel good, we are compassionate. In fact, I would say human beings are hardwired to be altruistic."

He backed up his assertion with a study. He said researchers gave two groups of people two fake scenarios and measured the participants' brain functions. The first group was told they won $100,000 - and readings determined the part of the brain that expresses joy was at work. The other was told they won $100,000, but they must give the money to people who could benefit from having the money. They found that, even in this scenario, those primitive parts of the brain lit up.

"The crucial point I think the study was making is that being altruistic toward one another, being compassionate to one another, could be this universal thing that triggers joy in all human beings," Gupta said. "If you were looking for a universal reward, that may be it. It wasn't about rugged individualism; it was about reciprocal altruism that eventually allowed us to thrive and survive as a species. I think this concept is important."

He said understanding this fact could be a prescription for great journalists and great doctors.

"Hopes and dreams and aspirations - those things are evenly distributed throughout the world," Gupta said. "What is not evenly distributed are opportunities, working systems and justice."

Gupta continued with anecdotes. He told the story of when he was in tsunami-torn Sri Lanka shortly after the 2004 earthquake and tsunami.

As he prepared for a live report with the satellite live feed, he remembers sitting and trying to take it all in. He was attempting to figure out how he was going to best convey the story and take the viewers along on the journey.

He then saw a family in a battered house close to the shot. He walked toward them and distinctly remembers the mother fixing her son's hair as Gupta approached. Amidst all the wreckage, they still wanted to look presentable. It was a very powerful moment to him, he said.

After he was finishing up his live report, he saw the boy inching closer and closer to the broadcast. When the cameras turned off, Gupta noticed the boy had crackers in his hand. He saw the mother, who was farther behind the boy, give the universal signal to eat.

"They didn't have anything left - they lost everything," Gupta said. "And what little they had, they were giving to me."

While he was trying to give that transformative experience to the viewers at home, Gupta was having one himself. And those are the stories he loves, he said.

Gupta, who attended the University of Michigan for undergraduate and medical school, has contributed to multiple Peabody-Award winning pieces of coverage, like his reporting on Hurricane Katrina in 2006 and the BP oil spill in 2010. The Atlanta Press Club named him "Journalist of the Year" in 2004, and Forbes magazine named him as one of the "10 Most Influential Celebrities" in 2011.

Shortly after President Barack Obama was elected in 2008, Gupta received a call from then Chief of Staff John Podesta. At the time, Gupta was watching The Ohio State/Michigan football game and eating a cheeseburger. When Podesta asked him if he was interested in being the Surgeon General, Gupta joked that he put down the burger.

He turned down the consideration because it would have meant that he wouldn't be able to practice medicine and surgery - something he found ironic.

Though he has received many more journalistic accolades, he stressed the fact he is a doctor before a journalist, but he strongly believes journalism and medicine are related.

In 2009, he received 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.

"This idea of nurturing and fostering conversations ... that in many ways is what I do - it's my job," he said.


email: news@ubspectrum.com

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