Successful multi-tasking has become a way of life for CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta - who appeared March 21 before more than 300 students, faculty and community members at The University of Texas-Pan American as the third speaker in the 2005-2006 Distinguished Speakers Series at the University.
In an hour-long presentation, Gupta discussed his experiences as the senior medical correspondent for the health and medical unit at CNN, where he provides daily news packages, a half-hour weekend show, "House Call with Dr. Sanjay Gupta," and coverage of breaking news while still maintaining his career as a practicing neurosurgeon performing weekly operations and a member of the staff and faculty of the department of neurosurgery at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. Gupta also writes health news stories for CNN.com and a column for TIME Magazine in addition to other journalistic endeavors and speaking engagements. In addition, the 36 year old is a husband and the father of a nine-month-old daughter.
Over the past few years in working at CNN, Gupta said one of the most significant things he has learned as a journalist is the importance of finding and pursuing the right stories.
"I'm proud that I have been able to find and stay true to the stories that have mattered to the country and the world. I've also learned you should be yourself in front of a camera and to know your material," said Gupta, who grew up in a small town of 4,000 in Michigan, the son of first-generation immigrants from India.
His evolution to juggling the roles of doctor and journalist started with an early interest while a student at the University of Michigan in investigating and writing about health care policies and issues. Gupta said this interest was encouraged by a medical school mentor.
"Don't exclude other interests in life as med students often do. He said to me, 'let's find ways to foster that interest,'" said Gupta, who graduated from medical school in 1993. His published work caught the eye of public officials and led to a 1997 position as a White House Fellow, advising and writing speeches for the then First Lady Hillary Clinton.
Joining CNN in 2001, just before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Gupta was immediately immersed in network coverage reporting extensively on anthrax and its effects. In 2003, he reported from Iraq as an embedded correspondent during the war with the U.S. Navy's medical unit, known as the "Devil Docs," who provide surgical care at the front lines to injured soldiers. Gupta said as a person watching the 1991 Gulf War coverage on TV, he didn't understand the important role reporters played there and why they were risking their lives to tell the story until he filled this role himself in the Iraq War.
"It was the most frightening experience of my life," he admitted, but upon being told by a fellow "Devil Doc" there to write a letter to his family in case he was killed, he found it an occasion that "recalibrated his life."
While embedded, Gupta provided TV viewers with exclusive reports from his unit providing at one time live coverage from a desert operating room of the first operation performed during the war. Gupta said he performed brain surgery five times on injured soldiers but received some criticism from fellow reporters for abandoning his journalist role.
"At that time it was more important to me to be a doctor than anything else," he said. "Putting a press badge on does not bar you from humanity."
Gupta has subsequently reported in 2004 on the AIDS epidemic from Bangkok, Thailand and the devastating effects of the tsunami from Sri Lanka where he met a young boy whose family had lost everything but still offered him some crackers to eat.
"Here are people who truly had nothing at all but who offered me all that they had. How many times have I walked in this country where people have everything in the world and they won't give you the time of day," he said, adding that he donates the money he receives from speaking engagements to an organization he founded in Sri Lanka that helps orphaned children there.
Touching upon his most challenging story to cover since he began his work at CNN - the bird flu - Gupta said it is a virus that is currently affecting a small number of people but killing half the people affected.
"How do we tell people the story without scaring them unnecessarily? It is a challenge we take very seriously every day in terms of health coverage at the whole Time Warner family. We want to bring all the stories to all our viewers in a way that is responsible," he said.
In response to questions from the audience, Gupta described one of his shows that will air this weekend that addresses the issue of sleeplessness in the United States and a series on diabetes titled "Sugar and Tears" that will air this fall. Gupta is also engaged in an eight-city college campus tour in eight weeks called "Fit Nation," focusing on the issue of obesity in America. The tour will end at The University of Texas at Austin on April 20.
Prior to his presentation, Gupta dined with student leaders, particularly those majoring in health related fields, as well as with UTPA President Blandina Cárdenas, who also welcomed him to campus prior to his presentation in the Student Union Theater. She jokingly referred to India Today magazine's description of Gupta as a "medical correspondent, war reporter and sex symbol at large," based on his 2003 selection as one of the "Sexiest Men Alive" by PEOPLE magazine.
For a couple of students attending the event, Gupta's multi-tasking abilities were reassuring and inspiring.
"As a pre-med student I worry about my future life as a doctor and the ability to balance a career in medicine with a personal life. It was inspiring to see him juggle even more than that," said Hilda Loria, a junior at UTPA majoring in biology.
"He was charismatic yet humble," Lynda Laurin, a senior communication major in journalism-advertising said. "I could relate to him because I want to do a lot of things in my life; I hope I can prioritize like he does."
Hari Namboodiri, administrator of the McAllen Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, said he felt fortunate to be able to attend the presentation of such a world-renowned physician and journalist.
"Dr. Gupta's speech was inspirational and thought provoking. I learned about three key elements of leadership - passion, profession, and performance. He is truly the personification of the American dream," he said.
The final series speaker scheduled for April 18 is Dr. Sarah Weddington, an attorney, legislator, presidential adviser and professor, who is known for successfully arguing the landmark Roe vs. Wade case before the Supreme Court in 1973.
For special accommodations or more information, contact Samuel A. Smith, assistant dean of students and Distinguished Speakers Committee chair, at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 956/316-7989.