Dr. Sanjay Gupta: Holding America’s Hand Through the Pandemic

Any parent can tell you it’s the rule of the game: Occasionally, you’ll take the blame for something you really, truly don’t deserve. Which means when you’re Dr. Sanjay Gupta — CNN’s face of COVID-19 coverage, father to three daughters — you’ll get blamed for, well, the whole darn pandemic.

“I think there’s a sense of, ‘Gosh, if Dad didn’t talk about it so much, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad,'” Gupta says, chuckling at the notion of being branded the family killjoy. “‘Dad’s on TV talking about this all the time, therefore people are taking it seriously and going into these stay-at-home modes,'” as if he had somehow spawned the new virus himself.

The stir-crazy girls — ages 15, 13 and 11– have a point, at least about his omnipresence. Gupta is, in fact, on TV talking about it all the time. Since the start of the pandemic, he’s appeared on CNN at least 10 times a day, pleading with Americans to take the virus seriously or translating complex medicalese into human-speak. “I have no problem being an alarmist,” he said during a June 24 broadcast, adding three days later: “I’m concerned because it feels like we’ve given up at this point.”

[Read: Meet a Fearless Arkansas Housekeeper Volunteering on the COVID-19 Unit.]

His mind is fully activated, he says, almost singularly focused on COVID-19. He’s so deeply immersed in the minutiae of the virus that losing his conversation partners has become something of an occupational hazard. “You can tell me to shut up,” he offered during this interview.

Gupta, 50, a neurosurgeon, has always been a workaholic: He recalls being fueled by the same tenacity during his final year of residency with the University of Michigan Health System. He still practices at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, performing complicated brain and spine surgeries, and teaches at Emory University Hospital. In 2009, he was under serious consideration for the position of Surgeon General in the Obama administration but withdrew from the running so that he didn’t have to spend time away from his family and could continue his surgical career, he has said.

In 2001, Gupta became CNN’s chief medical correspondent, a role that’s led him around the globe: covering the deadly Ebola outbreak in Guinea, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and the aftermath of tsunamis and other natural disasters worldwide, for example. He once embedded with the U.S. Navy’s “Devil Docs” medical unit — a team of doctors who operate in particularly dangerous combat areas — and reported on their work from Iraq and Kuwait. He’s a skilled communicator who’s lauded for his ability to drive home important health lessons to lay audiences — making his role during this pandemic to educate and explain. He’s CNN’s familiar, friendly face, beaming into viewers’ homes day after day to hold their hands as they weather this unprecedented, frightening time.

On a recent Tuesday morning, Gupta chatted by telephone from his backyard in Atlanta, happily surprised by the sultry 94 degrees that greeted him. “It’s a nice, sunny day, which I didn’t know until I came out to talk to you,” he said. For the past few months, he’s woken up at 4:30 a.m., even on weekends, to start reading the day’s coronavirus news and talk to his sources on the other side of the planet, who are winding down their days. He operates at Grady every Monday and is at the hospital checking on patients most other days; in between, he appears on CNN nearly every hour, sustained by a drive some might call superhuman. He also writes stories and records podcasts for the network. “The hospital and COVID have been my life for the last several months,” he says.

Gupta, a triathlete, loves to exercise and practices yoga four or five times a week, to the tunes of Thievery Corporation or José González. (Yes, even now.) He goes running when the Atlanta heat is agreeable, and reads books like Abraham Verghese’s “Cutting for Stone” and David Quammen’s “Spillover,” which is about how pandemics emerge. At 11 p.m., he goes to bed.

“I have been awoken by Sanjay muttering utterances of viral replication and inhibition. He forgets to eat but can remember inflammatory pathways like the back of his hand,” his wife, Rebecca, wrote in a Facebook post on April 12. “Truth is, at this point, I wonder if he is testing his personal limits. Can you run a body and a mind too hard? Is more and faster and harder — always better? When do you redline and start to fall apart? I don’t know. I guess you’d have to ask a doctor. Oh wait…”

[See: Dr. Anthony Fauci: Fighting the Coronavirus Pandemic ‘Is My Entire World.’]

Gupta broadcasts from “The Tiny Blue Room,” as he’s dubbed the windowless studio in his basement. For the most part, it’s gone smoothly, save for the occasional canine chaos. Imagine a gigantic bernedoodle named Nuk — “Knucklehead, as I call him” — and a small Yorkshire terrier mix named Que, starved for external excitement and dissolving into a symphony of barks and howls when a delivery arrives. “Just last night, they were going crazy,” he says. “I was about to do a live shot — they’d already teased, ‘We’re going to be talking to Sanjay’ — and I had to say, ‘Can I go after the next commercial break?'”

His daughters also enjoy the makeshift studio. Video and audio are constantly streamed out of his basement, so CNN can easily grab whatever footage they’d like. “It all pops up on a control room monitor, somewhere,” he says. “And my girls have come in and, they’re girls! They’re trying to do their funny little thing pretending they’re broadcasting and I’m like, ‘Sweetheart, you realize you’re actually broadcasting right now?'”

The idea of work-life balance went out the window with such antiquities as social gatherings and handshakes, he says: “It’s just one life, all blurred together now.” Still, the Guptas manage to have fun. Years ago, he and his wife went to see the Dave Matthews Band play, their first concert as a couple. “She was a huge fan, and I was sort of learning about him at the time,” he says. So when the band recently livestreamed a show, they made a date night out of it in the backyard. Other times, Gupta turns on one of his operating-room playlists for the couple to enjoy: There’s one for brain cases, and another for spine surgeries.

As the pandemic lingers on, and his kids become desperate for entertainment, Gupta has improvised. He hung a bedsheet from a couple trees in the yard and recently projected “Forrest Gump” — one of those rare movies that’s suitable for the whole family, he says. Such activities are a pleasant distraction, and so is recounting them. “It’s nice to talk about something other than monoclonal antibody therapy, which is the rest of my day today,” he laughs.

[See: A Look at Hospitals, Health Care Workers Fighting the Coronavirus Pandemic.]

Who’s to say when more mundane topics of conversation might replace the pandemic soundtrack that’s still stuck on repeat. But Gupta is clear: We will get back to normal. It’s just a matter of how quickly. He points to recent declining COVID death rates in New York City — a milestone to celebrate, even as the virus continues to rip across the country. So what’s it going to take for the American people, as a whole, to fully realize the threat of this virus?

“I think, in large part, it’s having some brush with their own mortality,” he says, adding that nearly 1 in 100 people in the U.S. has now had COVID-19, and far more know someone who has. “That definitely makes an impact, in terms of how people view this. Ultimately, the strategy is really to inspire people to behave by showing them what is possible as opposed to just constantly frightening them.” Scare tactics, he says, only cause factions, though a dose of sober realism can be called for.

“With a pandemic, we are truly all in this together. How I behave affects you, and how you behave affects me, and I think that’s a deeply inspiring thing,” he says. “We don’t get many chances in our lives to absolutely do the right thing, but here it is, and we can all make a global impact in how we behave.”

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Dr. Sanjay Gupta: Holding America’s Hand Through the Pandemic originally appeared on usnews.com

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