CNN's Sanjay Gupta adds fiction to his workload

By LYNN ELBER,AP Television Writer Updated at 2013-02-01 21:44:55 +0000


LOS ANGELES (AP) — When doctors get called on the carpet by other doctors, it's productive but not always pretty, as neurosurgeon Sanjay Gupta describes it.

Closed-door meetings in which physicians candidly dissect cases that went awry can verge on "dignified versions of street fights," said CNN's globe-trotting correspondent.

He drew on such sessions — commonplace for hospitals, if little publicly known — for his first novel, "Monday Mornings," and is a writer-producer on a new TNT series based on the 2012 book.

The drama, from veteran producer David E. Kelley ("Boston Legal," ''The Practice") and with a heavyweight cast that includes Ving Rhames, Alfred Molina and Bill Irwin, debuts Monday (10 p.m. EST). That's also the day the show's fictional Chelsea General Hospital holds its weekly reviews.

In the real world, such meetings to scrutinize complications and mistakes in patient care can lead to new guidelines, Gupta said.

"They can be simple, like never sedate a patient until they're strapped in on the table," he said, the outcome of an unrestrained patient having taken a tumble. "Some changes are big, some are small, but they are always important. We are always redefining medicine."

In the first episode of "Monday Mornings," brash but dedicated neurosurgeon Dr. Tyler Wilson (Jamie Bamber, "Battlestar Galactica") is grilled for failing to check a patient's medical history. Gupta said he learned his own "searing" lesson, about carefully reviewing lab results, without any harm to the patient.

Do the forums ever become a stage for office politics?

"People do jockey for position in these situations," Gupta replied. "If someone's at the lectern (under scrutiny), anyone can ask questions, not just the chairperson of the department. So the nature and tone of it can change pretty quickly."

The most disturbing inquiries involve an apparently reckless M.D. with "a disregard for the person on the operating table or in the hospital," he said. "You can imagine your own mother or loved in the position of the patient, and those are the most indelible ones of all."

The meetings make for gripping drama on "Monday Mornings." But is a show that focuses on medicine's failures as well as its triumphs potentially a hard sell for audiences?

"ER," TV's once-reigning hospital drama, aired a powerful first-season episode in which decisions by Dr. Mark Greene, the caring, steady lead character played by Anthony Edwards, cost a pregnant woman her life. The story line was a rarity on the show that routinely focused on medical heroics.

The key to making the TNT series work is the "likability" of its physicians, said Bill D'Elia, a producer on "Monday Mornings."

It's crucial to "understand their motivation, understand how good they are, how much they care. So it's not black-and-white" when a character blows it, D'Elia said.

As is the case with non-TV doctors, Gupta said.

A mistake is made and "you think that's a bad doctor. You may even think that's a bad human being, and in some cases you might be right," he said. "But a lot of times you're not, and I think showing the rest of the story, how it may continue to get discussed" is illuminating.

Besides writing for "Monday Mornings," Gupta, 43, makes sure it depicts surgery and the world of medicine accurately.

How Gupta fits the tasks into his already demanding schedule is a medical mystery. As D'Elia said, he never knows if he's talking to the doctor in Atlanta, where Gupta lives with his family and practices, or in another city, sometimes far-flung, as part of his award-winning work for CNN (which, like TNT, is part of Time Warner subsidiary Turner).

"When I talk to him I have this (mental) picture of him in front of a green screen so he can input wherever he is," D'Elia said. "He's as likely to be in Pakistan as New York."

Since joining CNN in 2001, Gupta has covered events including the quake and tsunami in Japan, Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. In 2003, while embedded with a Navy medical unit, he reported from Iraq and Kuwait and acted as a doctor as well as a reporter, performing brain surgeries in a desert operating room.

That same year, he got a spot on People magazine's list of the "sexiest men alive."

He anchors the weekend medical affairs program, "Sanjay Gupta MD," is on the staff and faculty at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, and is an associate chief of neurosurgery at Grady Memorial Hospital.

In 2009, he was approached for the position of surgeon general in the new Obama administration, a post he says he declined because it would have halted his work as a neurosurgeon. He's said he's a supporter of the Affordable Care Act and wants to see it fully implemented to give more Americans coverage.

Gupta learned his work ethic from his parents, who moved from India in the 1960s to work at a Ford plant in Detroit, where he grew up, and is surprised when people ask how he does it all.

"There's a lot of people who work a lot harder than I do and aren't known," he said.