Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, delivered Elon University's 2023 Baird Lecture on Tuesday night.
Gupta, a practicing neurosurgeon, said he knew he wanted to be a doctor from a very young age. It was the moments where he found himself sitting in the hospital after his grandfather got sick that he realized he wanted to pursue a career that could help make a difference in the lives of many.
“The idea that someone would entrust you with their care at their most vulnerable time is one of the most awesome tasks,” Gupta said.
To Gupta’s surprise, he began pursuing an additional career that was far different from that of a medical surgeon.
Gupta had been offered a job at CNN, where he believed he would discuss health care policy. Just three weeks after starting his new position, 9/11 occurred. That is when Gupta was asked to begin covering conflicts.
“It was never part of the plan,” Gupta said. “I was supposed to talk about health care policy, and then everyone’s world changed, mine included.”
Gupta explained how transitioning into being a medical professional as well as a journalist was difficult, as he said he was unsure on how to “scramble these two worlds.”
Gupta said life as a journalist comes with the same fulfilling qualities that life as a health provider has to offer.
“Some people may not be able to identify Aleppo on a map,” Gupta said. “But when I’ve been to places like Aleppo, I’ve been able to tell the stories of people and draw the connective tissue between their lives and the lives of people here in the United States or wherever they are in the world.”
When asked about the topic of wellness and mental health, Gupta answered on a professional and personal level.
Gupta explained how he focuses on things such as sleep, fitness and a healthy diet, but there are many other factors that he encouraged individuals to think about.
He offered the idea of focusing on becoming better for the future rather than working toward avoiding health issues down the line.
“If I tell patients to eat right and exercise and if you do that nothing will happen to you, it’s not the most inspiring message,” Gupta said. “If you focus on wellness strategies, then you feel better now. You’re a better husband, a better spouse, better son, better daughter, better co-worker or whatever it may be."
On a more personal level, Gupta discussed his opinions on mental health, especially in a world with social media.
Though Gupta was unable to identify a root cause as to why there is an increase in mental health issues, he does believe there needs to be action taken.
“Mental health is stigmatized in just about every age group in our society,” Gupta said. “To be able to have enough resources for people to get help, to feel emboldened and enabled to ask for that help is really important. It is certainly what I want for my daughter when she attends university next year.”
As a father of three teenage daughters, Gupta expressed concern about the lasting impacts of social media in relation to mental health issues.
While looking through his daughters’ social media accounts, he realized a consistent pattern – affirmation. He explained how children may use social media as an outlet for affirmation from others, connecting with emotional aspects of their brain.
Gupta had previously performed an experiment where he went online to look for healthy recipes. While continuing to click on links, Gupta was shown content on disordered eating and anorexia.
“What you hear from these people who are algorithm engineers is that it is very clear once you start to fire up the emotional centers of the brain, which is what you’re doing when you start to give them disturbing content, people will stick around longer,” Gupta said. “These devices know you better than you know yourself.”
In reference to his new book, “Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age,” Gupta said he started off with a focus on Alzheimer's Disease, but he walked away with “a real sense of hope.”
“The evidence was starting to accumulate that we can grow new brain cells at any age,” Gupta said. “This is what I wanted to focus on – the concept of neurogenesis and if it was possible, how do we make it happen?”
Freshman Ellie Dugan was fascinated by this concept of new cells growing at any age.
“It was really interesting to me when Dr. Gupta discussed brain genesis,” Dugan said. “The whole idea that you don’t have a finite number of brain cells, but that they can actually form at any age. His work drive and willingness to help people and improve life is truly inspiring and motivating to me.”
Gupta ended his lecture with an inspiring story, connecting his two professions as a doctor and a journalist, and the importance of having meaningful conversations with individuals in your life.
Gupta was in Iraq in 2003 covering a story following a group of doctors known as the “Devil Docs,” a group of Navy doctors who supported the first Marine Expeditionary force.
Gupta was the only neurosurgeon among them, as their group consisted of general surgeons and orthopedic surgeons since they did not anticipate any neurosurgical injuries.
Gupta shared how a young lieutenant had been shot by a sniper in the back of the head. He was asked to “take off his journalist’s cap and put on the surgeon’s cap.”
He was able to successfully operate on the lieutenant while waiting for a helicopter to take him away.
A few months later, Gupta was able to come face-to-face with the lieutenant he operated on where he described this experience as giving “a different type of medicine.”
“You can go through your whole life and never have some of the most important conversations that you should be having,” Gupta said. “But in that moment, I was enabling, empowering and creating a conversation that otherwise would not have been had.”