In April 2003, respected neurosurgeon Dr. Sanjay Gupta was just outside of Baghdad embedded with the Devil Docs, a Navy medical unit he was reporting on as a CNN correspondent. Sandstorms obstructed visibility and air support was limited. While on patrol, a 23-year-old U.S. Marine named Jesus Vidana was shot in the back of the head by a sniper.
“They thought he was dead,” Gupta recalled on Saturday at the Center for Leadership and Service in H Quad.
But Vidana was still alive. Barely. The Devil Docs turned to Gupta and asked him to help because they had no neurosurgeons nearby. Gupta quickly agreed, but the medical tent Vidana was in, while high-tech, was not properly equipped for neurosurgery.
“So I took a Black and Decker drill that we had used to put up our tents,” Gupta said. “Sterilized the bit, and actually removed the back of his skull to try and decompress his brain.”
With part of Vidana’s skull removed, Gupta extracted the bullet – lodged near the brain stem – and used a cut open sterile IV bag to protect Vidana’s brain from the elements. Soon after, Vidana was air-vacced and ultimately survived with little lasting physical damage.
This tale of brain surgery in a desert war zone with a handyman’s drill was just one of many captivating anecdotes Gupta recounted in a talk organized by the Graduate Student Organization (GSO) for their annual lecture series. Gupta spoke on his career, health policy and the media, all while cracking jokes and relaying the best advice he ever received.
“Do something that scares you everyday,” he told the crowd of about 500 students, faculty and alumni. “With regard to the tweaking, if you will, the fine tuning, how we look at the world – a lot of that happens when we’re pushed slightly outside of our comfort zone.”
According to GSO President Vahideh Rasekhi, the organization brought Gupta to campus for the price of $77,500, for being both an entertaining and informative speaker. The lecture series, in its third year, previously brought Neil deGrasse Tyson and Trevor Noah to campus.
“We wanted somebody who has enough celebrity to draw students, but is also going to talk about something engaging,” GSO Treasurer Joseph Verardo said. Gupta fulfilled both those credentials, although he did not draw as big a crowd as the previous two lecturers who filled IFCU Arena.
Gupta, a cable news stalwart for the better part of 20 years, has made a career off being engaging when discussing subjects in his “blended life of medicine and media.” He graduated medical school in 1993, and by 1997, before he had even finished his neurological surgery residency, he received a fellowship for a year at the White House, writing healthcare speeches for the Clintons.
In August of 2001, he signed on with CNN to talk about healthcare.
“Three weeks later, the attacks of 9/11 happened,” Gupta said. “I went from being a guy who was going to be a health policy wonk on television to the only doctor at an international news network in the middle of [a war].”
It was an earlier war, however, that had rooted an idea in Gupta’s head that would make him one of the medical world’s most recognizable faces.
“I remember watching the Gulf War on television,” Gupta said. He was in college then, still studying medicine. “I remember seeing these green flashes on screen. I couldn’t even tell if it was a missile going up or a bomb coming down, but you always knew somebody was going to get injured.”
Gupta wanted to tell the stories of those injured, and the medical professionals who went in and helped them after the green flashes faded away.
A few months after Gupta treated Vidana near Baghdad, he was back in the U.S. and received a phone call. The person on the other end of the line said they had an update on one of Gupta’s patients.
“Do you remember operating on Jesus Vidana?” the voice on the phone asked.
Of course, Gupta remembered.
“How could you forget operating on Jesus in the middle of the desert?” Gupta joked on Saturday.
Vidana had nearly recovered in full and was rehabilitating in southern California. A little while later, Gupta was in California and stopped by to visit.
“We sat down and started to talk, all of us. Jesus, his parents, and I,” Gupta said. “What was extraordinary to me was that, I realized, they had never really talked about it.”
Life goes on, Gupta conceded. People do not want to talk about what scares them or what causes them pain. On the day Gupta visited his once-patient, they did talk about Iraq and the shooting and the messy intricacies that lay beneath the surface.
“I’m not sure that it made this huge difference in their lives, but I think it is a lesson that we can all learn,” Gupta concluded as he wrapped up his talk. “Do something that scares you every day in an effort to try and learn more about yourself and hopefully make the world a better place. It’s worked for me, and I hope it works for you.”
Then, with his made-for-TV grin, Gupta walked off the stage to go find something that scares him.
Update: A previous version of this article characterized the cost of Sanjay Gupta’s campus visit as follows, “According to GSO President Vahideh Rasekhi, the organization brought Gupta to campus for the low price of $77,500 (a comparison: Michelle Obama would have cost $2 million)…” Upon further investigation, the previous comparison has been deemed unverifiable and has therefore been removed from the article, as has the term “low,” in its characterization of the cost of Gupta’s visit.