FYI WIRZ: CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta Talks Neurosurgery, Journalism and NASCAR

Dwight DrumCorrespondent IIIFebruary 8, 2012

Dr. Sanja Gupta smiles for CNN viewers.  Photo  credit: Mark Hill/CNN
Dr. Sanja Gupta smiles for CNN viewers. Photo credit: Mark Hill/CNN

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, is a practicing neurosurgeon and journalist. Those sophisticated roles might be plenty for two humans, but Gupta manages to pack both into his busy agenda.

His most recent CNN documentary 'Big Hits, Broken Dreams' spotlighted the case of Jaquan Waller, a 16-year-old football player from Greenville, N.C., a concussion fatality. That program will replay Feb. 18 at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m ET. For late night viewers it will also replay at 2 a.m ET Feb. 19 on CNN.

For those who wonder about how multi-talented Gupta performs his many tasks, reading his comments on his dual occupations might reveal meaning.

This reporter thanks CNN for this special interview opportunity with Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Dr. Gupta eagerly shared behind-the-scene examples of how things get done in his television world and especially his focus on concussions.

“We have a whole editorial process here," Gupta said. "For the documentaries for example, this is something I was very passionate about certainly as a neurosurgeon but also as a sports fan and a dad."

“I've been keeping on top of what was happening in this area of research for some time.”

CNN’s documentaries often take him and his production team to various venues in distant parts of the world. His sports focus encompasses a variety similar to his global travels. When asked about his investigation of NASCAR drivers and concussions, he explained in detail.

Dr. Sanja Gupta makes a point while filming on a football field.  Photo credit:Courtesy of CNN
Dr. Sanja Gupta makes a point while filming on a football field. Photo credit:Courtesy of CNN

“I love that,” Gupta said. “I did a whole documentary on this and one of the focuses in that documentary--Are drivers athletes? Do you need to be an athlete to be a driver? As part of making that documentary we learned a lot, as well."

Dr. Gupta has extraordinary skills as a neurosurgeon, but his ability to describe medical events sets him apart from even seasoned communicators.

“One of the parallels that I’ll draw for you, when you think about football and NASCAR for example, because of the similarities one of the things that people don't always realize that in a football game when someone takes a hard hit, the helmet does a pretty good job of protecting the skull from getting a skull fracture. But what is really happening when someone is running down the field and all the sudden they get hit—the brain keeps moving inside the skull.

“So think about it as a yolk inside an egg shell, the egg yolk is moving and it hits the front of the egg shell. It bounces back and hits the back of the egg shell and goes back and forth. The same thing is happening to your brain. So it's not so much the hit, although that it is very important.  What is really causing the problem is what is known as acceleration/deceleration.

“So the brain is accelerating as you are moving down the field, and then suddenly it decelerates and that's what causes concussion.

“Same thing in NASCAR. When you look at these wrecks for example where a car is careening over the track topsy-turvy and it's moving. It looks awful as opposed to the accident where the guy just hits the wall.

“Quick comparison, Dale Earnhardt hits the wall. They didn't look so bad—where he hits the wall and stops-–that is exponentially worse. Why?—because he cannot slow down over space. The key is you want the brain, the body to slow down over the longest distance possible. When Dale Earnhardt hit the wall back in 2001, his brain didn't get to slow down, didn't have any space at all. And that's probably what killed him.”


Dr. Gupta’s past was good preparation for his present roles as neurosurgeon and journalist. He explained.

“You know, I think I’m the only one who is doing it at least in the United States. It's working pretty well for me.

“I was a writer for a long time, long before I did any television. I worked at the White House for a while, primarily writing speeches on health care related topics.

“So, I've always been interested in how we transmit health messages whether it be specific things you can do to improve your own life or a larger societal messages in terms of where we are in our healthcare society. I was always interested in that.”

His path to the TV screen was not a chosen journey.

“I never saw myself doing TV,” Gupta said. “And when I did it, I thought I'd be primarily doing health policy. I started television in the summer of 2001. I started just a little bit of time before the attacks of 9/11. When those attacks happened, the world changed. My job and everybody's job as a journalist changed then. So I went from potentially being a healthcare policy reporter to a person who was in Afghanistan, then Iraq covering anthrax. I traveled all over the world covering global health stories.

“I like it. It's a pretty good balance for me.”

Dr. Gupta expanded on his life plans and what gives him the most satisfaction as a professional.

“I still like being a doctor,” Gupta said. “Of course my family, I have three kids now. When I was a single guy and people always talked about their wives and kids and how much meaning they gave to their lives, I think I had no context for that. But now that I have three kids of my own, they clearly are the most. It's not about me anymore. I guess it's the best way I can put that.


“Professionally, I think I still like being a doctor the most. It's so concrete to me to be a doctor. I get to take care of patients one-on-one, and I think it's self-feeding. Every other Friday I operate. Those days I wake up in the morning, I know exactly what my job on Earth is that day. It's a nice feeling. There's no nuance. From a meaning standpoint, from a mission standpoint, being a doctor, seeing patients one-on-one is still the best.”

In conclusion to this two-part interview, Dr. Gupta talked about becoming and being a Neurosurgeon.

“It’s a competitive field,” Gupta said. “I think about a 100 neurosurgeons are trained every year in the United States, so it’s competitive to get into the training.

“We always joke—it's the basketball coaches in America who gave neurosurgeons the sense of folklore. They were the ones always screaming at their players, ‘It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure this out.' They don't say rheumatologists, they say brain surgeons, so we give credit to basketball coaches.”

And we in the media give credit to Dr. Sanjay Gupta for his extraordinary ability to combine medicine and television, and being so gracious with his time.

FYI WIRZ is the select presentation of motorsports topics by Dwight Drum at Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained from personal interviews or official release materials provided by sanctions, teams or track representatives.