Meliora Weekend was launched with a keynote address on Saturday, Oct. 16, by reputable neurosurgeon, Emmy-award winning Chief Medical Correspondent for CNN and one of People magazine’s “sexiest men alive,” Dr. Sanjay Gupta. In his one-hour address, Gupta took UR students, faculty and alumni on a journey through his life as a practicing physician and media figure.
Gupta discussed the lessons he has learned through his unique position of having a dual career in media and medicine. To Gupta, the two professions, while seemingly unrelated and disparate, have a lot in common. Both require constant reading, homework and recognition of the quality of peoples’ lives, whether he is speaking directly to his patients or to a national television audience.
When asked if he could choose only one profession, either medicine or media, the answer for him is clear.
“I was a doctor first and medicine was my first love,” Gupta said. “And it remains my true love.”
Such a passion for medicine played a critical role in the difficult decision-making process he had to undergo before declining the position for Surgeon General under President Barack Obama, since the Surgeon General cannot practice surgery.
Gupta also shared heartwrenching anecdotes about his experiences reporting from Sri Lanka, New Orleans and Haiti.
“I learned that hopes, dreams and aspirations are spread evenly throughout the world, but what is not are opportunities, working systems and justice,” Gupta said, as he reflected upon his experiences reporting from the sites of war zones and natural disasters as a medical and global health reporter.
Gupta explained how a reporter tries to grasp where he is and what is happening and then he judges how to convey all his heightened sensory observations to the viewers. He spoke about how difficult it is to take his viewers on a truthful journey that captures all that he experiences when he is reporting.
“I’m lucky because I’ve always been good at telling stories,” Gupta said. “Since I was a little kid, I got the concept of a story.”
Gupta also relived some of his most poignant memories overseas in the address. He described seeing Haitian kids run desperately alongside trucks filled with bodies to see if loved ones had been found after the devastating earthquake and to say their final goodbyes. He reminisced about a Sri Lankan family’s selfless gesture of offering him a package of crackers after having their lives destroyed by a tsunami.
He painted for the audience a picture of world compassion, exhibiting how the inherent circuitry of compassion, altruism and generosity he has seen in humanity binds us together. He shared with his listeners the way in which he felt obliged to give back to those he met on his travels.
“I return a smile to every child I see,” Gupta said. “Because amongst the squalor, poverty, pain and dreams not realized, a child is still smiling.”
Gupta also shocked the audience with a tale of how he, while reporting from the battlefield in Iraq with the U.S. Navy’s “Devil Docs” medical unit, was asked to take off his journalism cap and put on a surgeon cap to save the life of a critically injured solider using just a drill, drill bits and a plastic I.D. card that were available inside an unsterile desert tent.
Gupta also spoke of his passion for health care policy, marveling at how the discussion that he began engaging in over 20 years ago as a college student had now materialized — after 100 years of debate — into a plan of action. He expects the plan will, to some degree, alleviate the problems of access and distribution of health care in America. As a physician, he commented on the capacity for the new Patient Protection Affordable Care Act to address the unwarranted reality that patients were dying due to the lack of health insurance.
“I do think that the whole metric of using the number of insured people compared to the number of uninsured as the sole metric of success for reform is inaccurate,” Gupta said. “People with terrific health insurance are terribly unhealthy.”
Gupta ended the morning by reiterating how he manages to mix media and medicine on a daily basis, which makes his two separate worlds merge in a remarkable and gratifying way.
Gupta gave UR a glimpse of a career in which he has flown to some of the most dangerous locales on the planet, reported on a plethora of global issues and continues to influence global health as both a physician and as a television personality.
“I am able to make a huge impact and I am profoundly honored,” Gupta concluded.
Venkateswaran is a member of the class of 2011.