Gupta: The man, the icon
Sunday, April 16, 2006
By Susan J. Demas -- 768-4927

Jesus Vidana lay dead on the streets of Baghdad, a bullet buried in his brain.

At least that's what his fellow Marines thought until the "Devil Docs" -- the U.S. Navy medical unit -- found him days later with a flickering of a pulse.

Enter Sanjay Gupta, the Novi native who is a doctor and plays one on TV.

The CNN medical correspondent, who was embedded in the unit, performed emergency neurosurgery on Vidana, breaking out a drill bit to root out a blood clot on the then-25-year-old Marine's brain.

"This is one of the stories you can't get out of your mind," says Gupta, 36.

That was April 2003, just after the Baghdad blitz in the early days of the Iraq War. Two years later, Gupta was reunited in Los Angeles with his former patient, whose only ailments were a slight limp and weakness in his left hand.

"He was just a normal guy," Gupta recalls. "It was so amazing to see him like that at home with his family."

It's all in a day's work for the good doctor. Gupta has reported on the biggest news stories of the day -- the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Pakistan earthquake and Hurricane Katrina.

"I'm not a beat-on-your-chest guy who seeks out danger," he insists, adding his idea of thrill-seeking is water-skiing on Michigan's Great Lakes.

Still, ducking missiles and roadside bombs in the Iraqi desert must have seemed a million miles away from the mild congestion he endured while chugging down Jackson's Michigan Avenue.

Which is where Gupta joined his first medical practice just five years ago.

Yes, the fair city of 35,000, perhaps best known as the birthplace of the Republican Party and home to the world's largest walled prison, helped catapult Gupta to fame and fortune.

Jackson bound

Few people know Jackson was the last pit stop for Gupta before CNN came calling in 2001.

Before he donned the white lab coat for "House Call with Dr. Sanjay Gupta" or was crowned one of People magazine's "Sexiest Men Alive" in 2003, he was on staff at Foote Hospital and a partner in Dr. Harish Rawal's neurosurgery practice.

"He was a young and energetic surgeon," Foote CEO Georgia Fojtasek said of her meetings with the hospital's most celebrated alumnus.

"He's made quite a name for himself."

Barely 30, Gupta breezed into Jackson in the summer of 2000. His star was already rising. His piercing dark eyes and boyish grin earned him a slot in People's "100 Eligible Bachelors" and a "Faculty Hunk" award from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The "dreamy doc" had just enough time to adopt his 90-pound Weimaraner, Bosco, from a Jackson farmer -- whose name he can't recall -- and to set some of his 200 patients' hearts aflutter.

One of them was Erika Steiner, then 18, who was rushed to the Foote emergency room with a chipped backbone, four broken ribs and a punctured spleen after a freak jet-ski accident on Portage Lake.

Foote's newest surgeon just happened to be on call.

He removed Steiner's spleen and was "very caring," the former patient reported, checking in with her every day.

Steiner's aunt provided some comic relief by bringing the doctor's People magazine profile into the hospital and squealing, "Look, this is your doctor!"

The Baker College senior, now 23, occasionally catches a glimpse of Gupta on the small screen and smiles.

Splitting his time on staff at Foote, Chelsea Hospital and University of Michigan Health System, Gupta said he never had time to grab a bite at Daryl's Downtown or to take a jog through Ella Sharp Park.

He settled in Chelsea, buying a house on Cavanaugh Lake.

Wolverine State start

Gupta grew up an hour away from Jackson in the Detroit suburb of Novi, where his was one of a few families of color. Mom and dad immigrated from India in the 1960s to take jobs as engineers at Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, where they recently retired.

Gupta was accepted into UM Medical School right out of high school. He graduated in 1990 with a bachelor's degree in biomedical science and earned his medical degree three years later at the ripe age of 23.

In 1997, Gupta cut his teeth in politics, as one of 15 White House fellows, serving primarily as then-First Lady Hillary Clinton's speechwriter. It was there he met then-CNN president Tom Johnson, also a fellow.

Gupta walked away from his stint at the capital having caught the political bug from Clinton and "seeing the impact she had on people's lives."

He continued practicing neurosurgery at UM following graduation, where he met Rawal, a Jackson doctor who also had privileges at the university.

Rawal was looking to lure a partner to his practice in Jackson, and thought he'd found his man.

"He was a very intelligent young man," says Rawal, 57, who has practiced medicine in Jackson for 26 years. "But it takes time to mature as a neurosurgeon."

Their relationship soured in summer 2001.

Gupta's mentor claims he left him in a lurch.

At the time he left, Rawal was balancing a bustling practice while caring for three ill relatives.

Rawal said he wasn't surprised his protégé went on to become television's most famous physician -- he just wishes Gupta would have waited a while longer.

"Let's put it this way," says Rawal. "He's a media person. He's a media-savvy guy."

Gupta jets back from Atlanta to Michigan frequently to visit family, but he hasn't been spotted in Jackson any time lately.

"I might have passed through Jackson," he says hesitantly. "I'm not sure."

Today, Gupta juggles six jobs: CNN medical correspondent, Time magazine columnist, associate chief of neurosurgery at Grady Hospital, assistant professor of neurosurgery at Emory University, "E.R." storyline contributor and producer of a TNT movie based on his Iraq War reporting.

Gupta says he knew he'd end up being a doctor, but he's more modest about building his media empire.

When Johnson offered him the CNN gig, Gupta says he thought it would mostly be off-camera.

"I never envisioned myself on TV," he insists, adding he had only one suit to his name when he took the job. "I wore scrubs all the time."

Gupta's speeches alone net more than $50,000 a pop, according to the All-American Talent and Celebrity Network Web site.

But the doc insists he has not gone Hollywood. Even though he has frenzied fans who run Web sites like, featuring "pretty pictures" of a dripping-wet Gupta poolside.

Gupta's groupies

They call themselves the "Gupta Girls." And the good doctor does not like to talk about them.

"It's the magic of TV," he says. "People think they know you."

He'd rather chat about "Fit Nation" -- his six-week crusade against obesity across college campuses. He's enlisted famous friends like Lance Armstrong and California First Lady Maria Shriver to help brainstorm ways to get Americans to slim down.

Gupta's also eager to talk about his first book, "Chasing Life," due out in early 2007, which takes on the "modern-day quest for immortality."

But don't mention the Chronicle of Higher Education or People magazine spreads.

The worst moment, he says, was when his old boss, former President Clinton, needled him during his "Fit Nation" show in Philadelphia last month.

"He introduced me as Grady's associate chief of neurosurgery, the (Atlanta) Press Club's Journalist of the Year ... and then 'Sexiest Man Alive!'" Gupta said, sighing.

"It's kind of like, 'Come on.'"

The brawny brain surgeon also is a married man. He and attorney Rebecca Olson Gupta, a fellow UM grad, have a 9-month-old daughter, Sage.

Gupta hopes to have three or four children. But he admits whipping around in his BMW 645 convertible with a car seat in the back has slowed him down a bit -- and probably hurt his sexy surgeon image.

That might not be a bad thing, he adds.

Political plans?

"Fit Nation" brought Gupta back to Michigan in March, and the homecoming made the native son think about settling back here for good. As a skilled skier and snowmobiler, he

doesn't even mind the winter weather.

"It definitely feels like home," he said.

Gupta teamed up with Gov. Jennifer Granholm for the initiative, inviting the state's first surgeon general, Kimberlydawn Wisdom, to his alma mater for the taping.

The photogenic physician has made no bones about his own political ambitions.

"With CNN, it's a media company that has a global impact every day," Gupta notes. "That said, there's nothing like being a public official and having that bully pulpit."

For now, he's coy about his politics, though he's worked for and contributed only to Democrats, such as $200 in 2000 to state Rep. Dianne Byrum, D-Onondaga. He also volunteered for Sen. Debbie Stabenow's campaign that year.

So what job could tempt one of the Sexiest Men Alive?

His old mentor, Rawal, has an idea.

He says it doesn't take a brain surgeon to see Gupta wants to become Michigan's first Indian-American governor.

That's a move Gupta seems to be mulling over -- he'd be 41 in 2010.

Granholm and Gupta form a mutual admiration society, with the state's first female governor calling the doctor "a brilliant and talented individual."

"The governor has a great job. She'd probably laugh to read that," he says and pauses.

"I wouldn't rule out a run."