Doctor, Doctor

08.04.14

Sanjay Gupta, on the Ebola Front Lines

CNN’s chief medical correspondent on his plan to talk to Ebola-struck Dr. Kent Brantly in his isolation unit, his determination not to succumb to hype, his pinup status, and whether he wants the job of surgeon general.

Between live broadcasts from outside Emory University in Atlanta, where the first of two U.S. Ebola patients has been taken, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, is constantly being approached by passers-by.

“They say, ‘So, doctor, give me the real scoop. Do I need to be worried?’,” Gupta tells me on the phone from Atlanta.

These off-camera interactions neatly encapsulate the unique place of the TV doctor today: Telegenic and urbane, they are supposed to be a collective ur-doctor for us all and at this moment—when people fear a mass viral outbreak—one of the conduits the watching public trusts to convey the facts of a scary, complicated situation. CNN has such international reach, Gupta is the Ebola crisis’s global voice.

More crudely, the virus—especially with it being conveyed on to American soil for the first time with the arrival of the two patients at Emory—is what a swaggering 24-hour news operation like CNN, along with the likes of missing or downed airliners and the crisis in Gaza, likes to authoritatively own. Gupta has to entertain, as much as inform, around a gruesome situation.

Gupta, who joined CNN in 2001, has already reported from tsunami-hit Haiti and flooded Pakistan (2010), and earthquake- and tsunami-hit Japan (2011). While reporting from Iraq and Kuwait in 2003 he performed brain surgery in a desert operating room. In 2011, Forbes named him one of the “ten most influential celebrities.”

Expect to see a lot of Gupta in the coming days, especially as the 44-year-old neurosurgeon is also an assistant professor of neurosurgery at Emory’s School of Medicine. Being a member of staff and faculty there has fortuitously given Gupta a major “in” on one of the biggest medical stories of the year.

Indeed his next aim, he reveals to The Daily Beast, is to film the first U.S. patient, Dr. Kent Brantly, in the isolation unit he is in. “Yes, I would like to follow this every step of the way. To actually see it is really important.” Talks are underway to see if and when Gupta can report from the isolation unit, and speak to Brantly, who contracted Ebola in Monrovia, Liberia, in July.

“Think of him being inside a glass box within a glass box,” Gupta says. “There is a space between the boxes where people in protective garb can go in and out from. We would be outside the outer glass box and talk to him via an intercom system. Viewers will be able to see him and hear what he has to say.” Gupta has “no worries” for his own health. “Ebola is not airborne.” One would be safe “even if you are 10 feet away and there were no barriers.”

“In 13 years, I can’t remember an incident of a producer saying to me, ‘Nudge nudge, wink wink, let’s hype this story.’”

Brantly’s family seem on his side already. Representatives of Samaritan’s Purse, the Christian relief organization for whom Brantly and the second infected U.S. patient, Nancy Writebol, were both working, told Gupta on Saturday that Brantly’s family was watching the correspondent’s live reports from outside Emory as Brantly walked from the ambulance into the hospital. 

“They’ve been watching you all day long,” Gupta was told. “They didn’t know how he was, so what a dizzying thing to see on CNN that he was all right. They were watching with the rest of the world. Only a few hours before they didn’t know if he was going to live or die.”

If he speaks to Brantly, Gupta would first ask—naturally—how is he doing, then how he got infected. “He’s a health-care worker, he trained well, so what went wrong? He made a decision to isolate himself, so I would ask did he think he was going to die when he realized he was exposed? I would ask him if he would go back to Liberia. He doesn’t know, I am told, what a big deal this all is in the media.”

There is also the 14-year-old boy who survived Ebola thanks to Brantly’s care, and who returned to the hospital to donate his own blood; as a survivor it is thought his blood had antibodies in it, which might have proved key to Brantly’s own survival.

Gupta’s job is in some ways a tricky balancing act: He must appear authoritative and approachable, winning the confidence of the leading speakers within the medical community while communicating as honest a picture of a complicated situation to the watching millions. On Sunday, he told his colleague Fareed Zakaria on Zakraia’s CNN show, GPS, that “we are going to see Ebola around the world.” However, he thinks that in developed Western countries, like the United States and Britain, the methods of treatment should be enough to contain it. 

“There’s a little bit of compulsion around these things,” Gupta acknowledges of the demand to feed the news furnace. “But I’m a pretty compulsive person with my medical training. You want to make sure you have the story straight, so it’s not misunderstood, which means being right and being clear.”

Explaining the story on CNN is akin to talking to residents at Emory, “except to a larger audience. I’m comfortable in the role—I’ve spent a lot of time preparing for it. It’s OK to acknowledge people are fearful. You have to acknowledge it. Very thoughtful people can still have fears. But I’m a scientist, and facts do matter.”

The Emmy Award-winning Gupta “feels good” to bring a measure of objectivity to a story with such hoopla attached to it. “I can present it in a bit of a novel way to the audience. There’s a scientific layer to this story and a deeply personal one. The risk is really, really low. But it’s a fair point to say that the risk would be even lower if it [Ebola] had not been bought to the U.S.”

Gupta, who is also associate chief of neurosurgery at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, denies there is a demand, even implicit, for drama on the part of his producers. “Obviously you want people to watch. I feel a real sense of history with the viewers. There are a lot of remarkable things to explain, instead of hyping up a fear which is not well-grounded. You have to give people a reason to watch, but you can’t fall into the trap of losing your scientific credibility.”

There’s a “lot of pressure” in the news business, he says, “a lot of opinions, but maybe I’m fortunate. In 13 years, I can’t remember an incident of a producer saying to me, ‘Nudge, nudge, wink wink, let’s hype this story.’ I pitch my stories like anyone else, with a pretty good sell, without the need to hype.”

The mood at Emory is one of excitement, Gupta says. “Within the medical field there is a sense of ‘Yeah, this is what we know how to do.’ Having an Ebola patient in the U.S., they want to be part of it. Two intensive-care nurses were due to be on holiday and canceled it. Others have too. Instead of screaming and running out, the staff want to be there.”

This weekend, Gupta himself was supposed to be at a wedding in Colorado. “I didn’t go. My wife (Rebecca Olson Gupta) said, ‘I get it, you need to be here.’ And I heard they’ve been watching CNN at the wedding.”

To those people questioning him between shots on what he really thinks, Gupta tells them, “Do you really think I would go home every night to my wife and three kids if I thought there was any danger of giving it to them? There is virtually no chance that Ebola will affect you. Ebola doesn’t behave like Avian flu or SARS. It doesn’t jump between human and human in the same room. You’re in no way affected unless you make contact with their bodily fluid in some way. It’s such a profoundly interesting topic to explain in terms of science and physiology: how the disease is spread, what Ebola does to your body.”

Of Nancy Writebol, Gupta says he only knows that she is “stable, and ‘stable’ is a very generic term: it can mean stable-good, or stable-bad. She’s in good enough shape to take the flight.”

Gupta describes his life as “half-media, half-medicine,” juggling both broadcast and medical responsibilities. He grew up in Michigan; his parents, Subhash and Damyanti Gupta, had moved from India to America in the 1960s to work as engineers at Ford, where his mother was the company’s first female engineer. “I love medicine,” he says. "I wanted to be a neurosurgeon ever since I was 14. My wife will tell you I’m much more animated talking about medicine. If I had to give up one, I would stay with medicine. I get very excited about it still.”

No one in his family was a doctor, Gupta says, “but my grandfather had a stroke when I was 12. I spent a lot of time in the hospital with neurosurgeons. I remember they opened the carotid artery to his brain, and that’s when I first got hooked.”

He has three daughters, Sage, Sky, and Soleil (ages 9, 7, and 5 respectively). Sage runs around the family’s Atlanta home wearing his surgical masks, shouting, “Paging Doctor Sage.” The girls have only ever known him being a doctor and TV journalist, so when they meet other medical colleagues or friends of his, they assume all doctors have their own TV shows, and ask them, “What time is your program on?”

Gupta seems comfortable with fame if people approach him with “real questions about things I cover.” But it’s harder on his family if they are out; he and his wife keep their children at home “more than they might” if Gupta wasn’t as well known, he says. 

He is also extremely good looking. In the tradition of Arthur Kent and Rageh Omaar, who were christened the “Scud Studs” of the Gulf War and Iraqi conflicts, Gupta is--hmm--let’s call him the “Outbreak Beefcake.” In 2003 he was named one of People magazine’s “Sexiest Men Alive,” and the intervening 11 years haven’t dented his looks much. “When I was single that was the headline, now I am married with three children,” he demurs, laughing. “TV is a funny thing. I don’t think of myself as a pin-up. I don’t think I’m better looking than anyone else. It’s the magic of TV. I work to look presentable, but I’m not vain—it’s antithetical to my nature. My stock in trade is to be the trusted doctor who does his homework and presents the news.”

A past adviser to Hillary Clinton, in 2009 Gupta was offered the post of Surgeon General by President Obama but withdrew his name from consideration, saying, “This is more about my family and my surgical career. I think, for me, it really came down to sense of timing more than anything else. I just didn’t feel I should do that now.”

Of that decision, he told The Daily Beast: “I was quite honored. I had worked in public service before, and it was one of the most rewarding times in my life. I didn’t know that I wouldn’t be able to continue to practice surgery if I took the job. It was a bit ironic, given the job is ‘surgeon’ general. Regardless, leaving surgery for four years would have likely meant not being able to practice again in my life. I wasn’t ready to stop practicing medicine.”

Should Clinton run for president, and the job again be offered to him, would he accept it now? “I could definitely see myself getting back into public service, no matter who the president might be,” he writes in an email, adding in another that it’s all “very speculative, in terms of job, timing, etc. I haven’t had any more discussions since the ones with President Obama. Not sure if it would be surgeon general or something else within HHS (Health and Human Services). There are no specific plans around this issue right now.”

Gupta has faced criticism, most notably over his backing of Gardasil, a vaccine for HPV. Critics questioned his backing of the drug, as it was made by Merck, then a sponsor of a show he presented called Accent Health

“One part of the criticism was people saying vaccines caused autism,” Gupta says. "I looked at the scientific evidence as anyone should and concluded they didn’t. Would I get my children vaccinated? I did.”

Gupta also strenuously denies that there was any financial incentive for him to back Gardasil. There was “no connection” between Gupta and the company that makes Gardasil, he says emphatically. “I had nothing to do with it. I understand that people will think this way about these things, but the TV screens in the studio go blank during commercial breaks. (He means, presumably, he is not aware of which companies are advertising during the program.) I listen to criticism and if there’s any degree of truth to it, I fix it. If there’s nothing to it, like with Gardasil, if there’s no truth to it, there’s nothing to change there.”

We’re interrupted by a colleague of Gupta’s. He’s needed for another live report. He knows the public have seen movies like Outbreak and Contagion, that whatever the facts of Ebola transmission and methods to contain it, people worry it will somehow mushroom, and become a severe public health crisis. 

“A vacuum of knowledge breeds fear,” Gupta says, adding that it is his job to fill that vacuum with knowledge people can understand. You can’t reach or convince everyone, he says, “but look, this is not about reassurance for reassurance’s sake. There are things about this that are terrifying. Ebola is a deadly disease in West Africa. But we know how it transfers from one person to another.”

His role, Gupta says in farewell, is to provide “as clear and complete information as possible” to CNN’s viewers—and, of course, to those passers-by sidling up to him outside Emory, wanting the scoop when the cameras are off.