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A Season of Miracles

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Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s groundbreaking medical reporting continues with a new book and documentary

As a practicing neurosurgeon, associate chief of neurosurgery at Grady Memorial Hospital and assistant professor of neurosurgery at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, Dr. Sanjay Gupta has his skilled hands indubitably full. But because of his great passion to deliver news of medical and health innovations to the public, Gupta also relishes his role as a well-respected journalist.
As chief medical correspondent for the health and medical unit at CNN, Gupta plays an integral role in reporting breaking medical news and regular health and medical updates, while also anchoring the weekend medical affairs program House Call With Dr. Sanjay Gupta and reporting for CNN documentaries. Gupta’s topnotch reporting has earned him myriad awards and accolades, including an Emmy for the story
“Charity Hospital,” which revealed that more than 200 patients remained at the hospital for five days after Hurricane Katrina hit; his coverage of the hurricane and its aftermath contributed to CNN’s winning a Peabody Award.
Gupta doesn’t view New Orleans as just another place he’s reported on. The good doctor has a true affinity for the Crescent City and its well-being and is personally involved in taking measures to help the community in several different health and medical aspects. Gupta graciously found time to share his personal and professional experiences in New Orleans with New Orleans Living magazine, including the reporting he did from Charity Hospital during Katrina, plus his generous involvement in rebuilding and upgrading Pontiff Playground in Metairie after the storm. Plus, he promises to stay focused on the future of New Orleans. We also got the lowdown on Gupta’s latest book, Cheating Death: The Doctors and Medical Miracles That Are Saving Lives Against All Odds and its companion documentary, Another Day: Cheating Death, which promises readers and viewers an in-depth look into some absolutely astounding medical miracles happening in the world today, perfect for a season that’s rife with hope.
Congratulations, Dr. Gupta, on your latest book, Cheating Death, and its companion documentary, an interesting collection of stories about miracles in the medical field!
I thank you for that, Christine. It’s funny, I think many people in the health-care field don’t like to use the term “miracle,” but we hear about miracles–or outliers, things that fall outside the norm–all the time. It might make a headline and people will read about it, but what I really wanted to do is look at those miracles and try to figure out why they happened–why that person lived when no one thought they would–and how we can apply those lessons to everybody else. That’s how we move science forward.
One amazing medical innovation you write about in your book regards rapid chest compressions and the changes in CPR protocol that were made in Arizona to deemphasize mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, which has proven to save more lives. This is profound stuff. Don’t you think other states should take a serious look at this?
Yes, I do. The chest compressions work better than stopping to do mouth-to-mouth and more people are likely to do it instead, and if you do it and move blood through the body, you get a much better result and it could save more lives. The traditional way information has been transmitted to doctors and the public has been through scientific journals. But because I’m a doctor and also a reporter, I can write a book like
this and talk about it, and people read about it or read about it in a magazine like yours and it ultimately does get out there. But it’s still quite a laborious process to get these messages widespread.
Another interesting story in your book concerns the Norwegian skier who was basically frozen to death for three hours after an accident, but wound up making a full recovery. Hypothermia and “cooling” the human body came into play, and if the body slows down, the window of opportunity for survival can be lengthened.
It buys time, no question. Your heart stops working, and you boil down all the science around that principal, and it comes down to one of two things having to happen: You either have to get the heart working again, or you have to decrease the demand of the rest of the body for blood. You’ve got to make it so that the body doesn’t need as much oxygen in its blood anymore, so you either increase supply or decrease demand. And if the heart isn’t working and you can’t get it working, you have to somehow quiet the body down, and it turns out hypothermia is a very good tool for that. It almost puts the human body into a hibernation-like state, but it’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, making someone really cold can be very dangerous; on the other, it can be very protective.
After hearing about cases where people were deemed clinically dead but were somehow revived, I must ask if you believe that health-care professionals should go much further in trying to bring people back from being technically dead.
You know, Christine, it’s a thin line because for the most part, I think the medical establishment does a fine job walking that line between life and death; it’s extremely uncomfortable when health-care workers have to declare someone dead. On the other hand, there are people who survived when no one thought they would, and people are surviving now that wouldn’t have 20 years ago. Twenty years from now, things that we think are hopeless will not be hopeless. It just becomes a question of what moves the line. If you look at the history of medicine, you find incremental gains here and there, medicine remains the same for a long period of time, then all of a sudden there’s this huge change, and it was because in the face of adversity and seemingly overwhelming odds, somebody tried something brand new, bold and audacious and it worked. So in that sense, we shouldn’t give up on people who are given a terminal diagnosis of brain cancer or who’ve had a terrible head injury or cardiac arrest patients, because someone tries something new and it’s like, Whoa, they’re all living!
You were the first reporter to break the news that officials had incorrectly reported that Charity Hospital in New Orleans had been completely evacuated during Katrina. How did being in such close proximity to these events affect you?
That’s a good question. Katrina in general and Charity in particular has had a huge effect on me. I think the images of all those patients on the parking deck waiting to be evacuated in the hot August sun, with doctors and nurses using those ventilation bags blowing air into their lungs for hours if not days on end, that’s a pretty haunting image. They were literally canoeing about 200 patients from the hospital to the parking deck because it was flooded. They would carry these patients up on backboards because you couldn’t go up the stairways because they were too narrow, so they would walk up the way a car drives up carrying people on their back. Everyday they would carry these patients up, canoe across the flood, carry them up and wait–and help didn’t come. So then they would carry them back down and canoe them back over to the
hospital, and they kept doing this because it was reported by the governor’s office that it had been evacuated, but the choppers weren’t coming. They didn’t know to come! So when I got there and saw all this, I was the first person to literally be able to pick up the microphone and turn to our TV cameras and say, “They’re still here, look!” So that was a pretty powerful thing.
On a more personal level, Charity Hospital is a hospital that cares for the indigent population in New Orleans, and I operate at Grady Hospital, a similar hospital in Atlanta, which is a sister hospital to Charity, and I think I have an affinity for these types of hospitals. I do think it was an injustice that Charity wasn’t evacuated; these people were poor and they got left behind, and some died when they didn’t have to because of that. It’s a long answer to your question, but it’s had a profound impact on me.
You’ve reported a number of times on the increase of mental health afflictions in the New Orleans area and the decrease in providing for these people since Katrina. But are you hopeful about the future of health care here in New Orleans?
It’s a situation where the city is constantly on the brink. As one of the ER directors at University Hospital put it to me, they’re one bus accident from a total catastrophe in New Orleans because they just don’t have the beds to take care of these patients. But I’m a hopeful person by nature. I’m disappointed that almost five years later, it isn’t really much better. In some ways it may have gotten even worse, because people who are truly feeling desperate don’t have a place to go. There are lots of remarkable people who are stepping up on their own, creating clinics and trying to fill in mental health gaps, but it is going to take a more concerted effort by the leadership of Louisiana to make sure that people have the medical and mental health resources that they need.

You love New Orleans! Tell us why.
I do love it! I used to visit New Orleans a lot before Katrina. It’s such a colorful city that it’s easy to see why John Kennedy Toole wrote about it. It’s got a resilient nature, and it’s a deeply texturized place, and that will ultimately help the city bounce back. My wife has lots of family there, so we spend time with them and visit the places where they worship. It’s a beautiful city to tour around. We also go to the area around the French Quarter, which I’ve been visiting since I was a kid. I’m a big jazz fan, so I love going to listen to music. It’s just one of those cities you can immerse yourself in.

You’re an avid runner, and people have told me that they’ve seen you running around the river. I guess you’re working off all that New Orleans–style food!
Yeah, I like the café au lait, gumbo and various seafood. I try to exercise when I’m down there. I’ve been to New Orleans and Metairie to talk about diet and exercise. It’s one of those fine lines again, because it is part of the culture of that part of the country. But there is an issue with people being overweight. You want to encourage people to have healthy behaviors, but you don’t want to strip away some of the beautiful things about their city.
Everything in moderation! And speaking of Metairie, you had a big hand in the rebuilding of the Pontiff Playground in Metairie after Katrina. This must be directly correlated to your passion for inspiring Americans and particularly children to lead healthier, more active lives through Fit Nation, CNN’s multi-platform grassroots initiative against obesity.
Yeah, that’s one of the things I’m most proud of in terms of my time with CNN and with Fit Nation. There’s enough data that shows that if kids have a playground within walking distance of their home, they will be dramatically more active than if they don’t. And KaBOOM!, which is an organization that ultimately wants to put a playground within walking distance for every child in America, partnered with us on this particular project and we built a playground. And it was great! We had no idea what the response was going to be, but people showed up from all over the place to help. There was no controversy because it wasn’t political; we just wanted to build a playground for kids and everybody really got in to it. So that was a lot of fun.
What can we do to avoid weight gain during the delicious holidays?
The same rules that we’ve had all year long apply during the holidays; there are just many more temptations you’ll have. My family does physical activity together on a daily basis, even if it’s just taking a walk. Going out to eat or cooking a huge dinner will happen, and that’s fine, but be sure you include physical activity as well, which is also a great chance to bond. Staying well hydrated over the holidays is important, because people can get dehydrated if they stay indoors a lot, and people often misinterpret thirst for hunger. So if you stay hydrated, you tend not to eat as much at those big dinners. In our house, we put plenty of healthy munchies out because with kids and relatives around, if you put carrots and cut-up fruit out instead of candy, they’ll eat it. People eat what’s in front of them.
Great! I have cut up carrots on my counter right now! You’ve received many awards and accolades for your work. But being named one of People magazine’s Sexiest Men Alive in 2003 must have been one of your proudest moments!
[Laughs] Ha, ha! That was a short list that year, that’s what I think! I … I don’t know what to say; it’s one of those things that … well, it will be great to show the grandkids one day when I’m older–Hey, look, at one point somebody thought I was all right looking! [Laughs]
As both a doctor and a reporter, it must be extremely rewarding to share your insights about medical innovations with so many. We hope to see many more enlightening stories coming from you in the future.
It’s a great privilege, but it mandates me to get it absolutely right. Medical news is different than other types of news, because people may change their life based on what they’re hearing. I don’t ever want to be misleading; I take it very seriously. And I promise you, I will work tirelessly to keep people informed. We’re coming up on the fifth anniversary of Katrina, and I am working on some special projects that are a combination of what I do as a doctor and as a journalist. I have some ideas to galvanize health-care professionals from around the country to come to New Orleans and really help people out. That’s what we’re working on for next year.