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Finding My Path in Life

CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta shares his real life story about the family medical emergency that inspired him to become a doctor.

By Sanjay Gupta, M.D., Atlanta, Georgia

As appeared in

I’m a medical correspondent and for 10 years now I’ve been reporting from all over the world for CNN.

I’m often in the midst of disaster, drawing on my years of training as a neurosurgeon. I hope my work gives people a context in which they can view medicine and health on a broader scale. Inevitably people ask: Which is more important to you? Are you a doctor or a reporter?

The best way to answer is to tell you how I got into this line of work. I grew up in Michigan, in the town of Novi outside of Detroit. My parents were immigrants from India, working for Ford Motor Company. My mother was the first female engineer ever hired by Ford, a fact that is presented with great pride in the Indian and engineering communities.

I was a bookish kid. I spent long hours in the library reading everything I could find, histories, biographies, science fiction, fantasy, mysteries. I was curious about the world and there’s no better way to find things out than through the pages of a book. Even today if some kid asks me what’s the first step to take to become a doctor, I answer, “Read, read, read.”

I was in my teens when our family faced a medical crisis. My grandfather, with whom I was very close, had a stroke and landed in the hospital. Sitting anxiously at his bedside, I watched nurses come and go, checking his vitals and looking at the monitors attached to his body. I remember sitting there wondering what could I do to make him feel better—to bring back the warm, thoughtful man I knew.

It was the neurosurgeons who fascinated me. When they explained what they could do surgically to help, I thought, I want to be like them. I want to know what they know and have the ability to heal like they do. Eventually my grandfather got better, and my path in life was started.

My reading changed. Added to the stacks I checked out from the library were new volumes about science, medicine and some of the men who were pioneers in the field, like Harvey Cushing, the father of modern neurosurgery. I learned if I wanted to be a doctor I needed to take courses not offered at our high school. I’d taken biology and chemistry, but I wanted to learn physics. I remember asking Mr. Armstrong, one of my science teachers, if he had a textbook on physics.

“Why do you want it?” he wondered.

“I’d like to learn physics,” I said.

“I’ll teach you,” he said. “We’ll do it after school together.” For the whole year Mr. Armstrong devoted countless hours to teaching me physics—an extraordinarily generous thing to do when I think of how many other obligations he had.

At the end of that year I took the Advanced Placement exam that would give me college credit for what I’d learned. I scored well, and placed out of entry-level physics, all thanks to Mr. Armstrong.

I was accepted into Inteflex, a special seven-year program at the University of Michigan that combined an undergraduate education with med school. In effect, I was accepted into med school straight out of high school, which was challenging, but it also gave me more time to pursue some of my other interests.

One of the things my mom liked to say (something I still apply to my life today): “A change of activity is a form of rest.” When you need a break, try doing something different. I’d always loved writing. So I started doing articles for small magazines and newspapers.

The more I wrote the bigger the magazines and newspapers became. I even did a stint for the White House, planning events and writing speeches. I added to my knowledge, and started thinking in a different direction. If I could help a patient one-on-one in a doctor’s office, think how many more I could reach with a story about a promising new cancer treatment or information on preventive medicine. I could save people like my grandfather. I didn’t know how it would fit into the overall picture. I wanted to become a neurosurgeon. I also just happened to like writing.