Dr Sanjay Gupta

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 December, 2008, 12:00am

FINDING INSPIRATION In my early teenage years, my grandfather had a stroke. I spent a lot of time at the hospital with him and got to know the doctors quite well. The neuro-surgeons who took care of him were the ones I particularly looked up to. As much as they could be to a 13-year-old, they were mentors to me. That was the first time I thought that this would be a pretty neat field to get into. But of course after that it was all about studying hard in school and then seeing if I could get into medical school.

COMING UP FOR AIRTIME I started with CNN in the summer of 2001. I came at it from a pretty non-traditional route. After med school, I was a domestic policy adviser at the White House during the Clinton administration. I was a White House fellow in 1997 and 98 and gained a good understanding of how to craft policy and deliver sound messages.

I had been a practising neurosurgeon for a few years when I literally ran into a CEO at CNN, who wanted to start a medical unit [for the channel]. The first time we talked about it I wasn't sure exactly what I would be doing on the job but over time I came to realise the kind of impact being a medical correspondent would have and it made sense to do it. So I went for it.

THE FIRING LINE During my coverage of the Iraq war, I was on the frontlines with the troops as an embedded reporter. I will never forget the first time they came to me and said, 'It's time to take off the journalist cap and put on your doctor cap.' I was asked to operate on [the soldiers] because there was no other neurosurgeon there. Jesus Vidana was the third [patient]. He had been left for dead after getting caught in cross- fire. I got a call a couple of months later, back in the States. It was a doctor from San Diego who said, 'Hey, Dr Gupta, I have an update on one of your patients.' Turns out, it was about Vidana, who had a little bit of weakness in his left hand but [otherwise] was doing great. I had only seen him covered in dust, battered and beaten so when I went to his home to see him, [I didn't recognise] this handsome guy. His mum gave me a big hug and his dad asked, 'Are you the guy who operated on my son?' Then he said, 'And you're a journalist!'

IF THE CAP FITS I had been covering this group of war doctors, then all of a sudden I was operating elbow-to-elbow with them. Two hours later, I was reporting on them again. I did start up quite a controversy with that. People asked, 'Are you a colleague or a reporter?' There is no question that saving a life is more important than being a reporter. I have no moral dilemma about that. The con-cern is not so much about saving lives but becoming close to your subjects.

LONG HAUL We travelled a lot for Planet in Peril: Battlelines. I did two trips to South America and a very long trip to Africa, where I visited four countries. The Vital Signs show also involves lots of travel. There is a major trip at least once a month.

Travelling the world I realised there are all these societies that live much better, longer and more functional lives than I was used to in the US. I thought to myself, 'What is it about these other ways of life that we could learn from?' That was the [premise for writing Chasing Life]. I met all these people with fantastic stories which I wanted to tell, seen through their own eyes, in book form.

THE IKIGAI WAY When I became a dad, I gained a sense of my own mortality. I wanted to be there for my kids when they had big events in their lives and I wanted to be alive and of sound mind and body. Everyone has a switch that goes off all of a sudden. People who haven't had the switch go off don't care about mortality. And if the switch has gone off, you are almost obsessed with it.

I've always exercised a lot. But the types of exercise I do and the way I exercise is different. Now my diet is really well-informed. My approach to life is similar to the people I met on the island of Okinawa. They have this beautiful word in Japanese, ikigai, which translates to 'purpose in life'. Spending a minute or two in the morning reminding yourself of that purpose makes you want to live longer and better.

LOOKING GOOD Ice cream is my vice. I'm a recovering ice-creamaholic. The strategy is that we don't ever keep it in the house. So the only way to get it is to walk a mile. I have two daughters, so I have to push them in a stroller and sometimes it's just easier not to go.

My wife was probably the most surprised person when I [was named one of the sexiest men by People magazine in 2003]. I think people feel they sort of know me, seeing me on television talking about their health. You develop a bond with your viewers and readers. It's a great little accolade for your grandkids one day. You could say, 'Hey you know your granddad, at one point, he kind of had it - he was OK.'

On CNN: Planet in Peril airs today at 9am and 2pm. Vital Signs airs on the last Saturday of every month at 8am and 6:30pm.