Sanjay Gupta: TV’s Most Respected Doctor

CNN’s resident doc talks COVID-19 and why there’s no shortcut to health.

By Sondra Barr

Do doctors still make house calls? Well, if you’re Dr. Sanjay Gupta, arguably one of America’s most respected doctors, you make it your mission. As the multiple Emmy-award winning chief medical correspondent for CNN, the celebrated neurologist makes virtual house calls to millions of homes, educating the nation on many of the most pressing health issues both at home and abroad.

Especially during the age of COVID-19, the 50-year-old’s measured demeanor on television amidst a cacophony of conflicting voices spouting off against the virus has proven to be a reassuring balm. His calm approach when covering the pandemic has been something of an extinguisher, quelling the flames of the international dumpster fire the virus has wrought.

The ever-achieving Gupta is no stranger to chaos and uncertainty. Embedded in 2003 with the Devil Docs, a group of naval doctors, Gupta needed to remove a bone out of a solider’s head who’d gotten shot by a sniper. No surgical tools at hand, Gupta spied a Black & Decker drill and without hesitation repurposed it to drill a hole in the man’s skull and extract the bone. It was not the first time the quick-thinking doc operated out in the field during his reporting from Iraq and Kuwait.

Gupta’s been equally collected while reporting on location from other scenes of devastation including the Sri Lanka tsunami, New Orleans’s Hurricane Katrina, earthquake- and tsunami-ravaged Japan, and Conakry, Guinea, during a deadly Ebola outbreak.

In addition to his CNN gig, Gupta is an associate professor of neurosurgery at Emory University Hospital and associate chief of neurosurgery at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, where he still sees patients and performs surgery during the week. He also serves as a diplomate of the American Board of Neurosurgery and was elected to the National Academy of Medicine, considered one of the highest honors in the medical field. If that weren’t enough, Gupta has also written four books: Chasing Life, Cheating Death, Monday Mornings: A Novel, and Keep Sharp.

Playboy’s David Hochman asked Gupta during a 2015 interview, “Which is tougher, brain surgery or the news business?” “It’s funny,” Gupta responded. “When I did my residency in neurosurgery, I couldn’t imagine anything more demanding or physically exhausting. But now I have weeks at CNN when I’ll go five days on three-and-a-half hours of sleep a night if there’s breaking health news. They’re both extremely busy, intense jobs.”

It’s no surprise that Gupta gravitates towards the complexity of juggling multiple exacting roles. Raised outside of Detroit by hardworking immigrant Indian parents who were both engineers for Ford Motor Company, Gupta chose to pursue medicine at 13 after his grandfather suffered a stroke. He approached the endeavor with his characteristic inquisitiveness and intensity.

“I watched as those doctors were able to return my grandfather to good health after opening up his carotid artery to restore the blood flow to his brain and prevent future strokes,” wrote Gupta in a 2020 article for AARP.

“I started reading everything I could about medicine and the human body. Before long, I was fixated on the brain and, specifically, memory…For me, those early explorations into the world of brain biology were at once demystifying and magical.”

Accepted into a medical school program at the age of 16, Gupta received his undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan and a Doctorate of Medicine degree from the University of Michigan Medical School and by his early 20s was practicing neurosurgery. In 2001, he started at CNN, just weeks before reporting from New York following the 9/11 terror attacks.

Once again, Gupta is tasked with presenting the facts behind a natural disaster. If anyone is up to the task, it’s Gupta. “It’s why I got into the news business, actually––to help people make sense of the immense amount of information out there,” he said to Hochman. “News gets out and it’s not easy for people who aren’t scientist to parse the information in a meaningful way––that’s my main responsibility as a journalist.”

Gupta stresses that in the case of COVID-19, as with any health issue, you have to look at quality data to make informed decisions. For instance, in the case of sending kids back to school, the father of three teen and preteen girls, Gupta and his wife decided not to send their daughters back to school for the time being. “This was not an easy decision, but one that we believe best respects the science, decreases the risk of further spread and follows the task force criteria,” he said.

“The cure is not worse than the disease; the cure keeps the disease from becoming worse,” he’s reiterated on air.

The best cure, of course, is to avoid catching the disease. Not only is Gupta a strong proponent of masks, he also believes it’s important to continue social distancing and other measures to stop the spread. “It seems to be primarily person-to-person contact. So it’s the distance, but it’s also duration. You’d be six feet away from somebody for two hours, that’s worse than being six feet away from someone for five minutes. There’s also the type of activity that’s going on. So there’s lots of different considerations,” he said.

While Gupta is optimistic there will be a return to normalcy at some point, he doesn’t know how long it will take.

Pandemic or not, there’s no shortcut to health, which is why Gupta cautions against false hope of a quick fix. Rather, he recommends taking this time to focus on your health for the long term––eat less sugar, avoid fried foods, exercise, get a good night’s sleep, etc., to make it more difficult for your immune system to be compromised.