Spine work. Anterior cervical discectomy. Brain tumors. Car accidents, gunshot wounds and knifings. This is the list Sanjay Gupta matter-of-factly reels off when I ask about his neurosurgery operations, which he performs Mondays and every other Friday in Atlanta. The rest of the week, he’s the earnest face of medicine on CNN and, now, the executive producer of TNT’s new hospital drama, Monday Mornings, based on the indefatigable physician’s first novel. Also executive produced by David E. Kelley, the series centers around a hospital’s weekly morbidity-and-mortality meetings, when physicians answer for the mistakes they’ve made. Gupta, 43, called from L.A., during the press tour for the show.
Monday Mornings takes a critical look at doctors’ God complex. When you’re saving lives, is that avoidable or even a bad thing?
This is not a show about superheroes in capes. These things really do happen: remarkable stories of people surviving when no one thought they would. But when things don’t go well, this is how the doctors deal with it, how the hospital learns from it. The God-complex thing—it just wasn’t the way that I was raised, you know, from my parents or just spiritually. There are gods. We are humans.
Have you ever had to address your own mistakes at morbidity-and-mortality meets?
Yeah, everybody probably has been in that hot seat. No one wants to be there, obviously. Sometimes the stories are very dramatic, where someone is injured or dies, but most of the time it’s more mundane.
What was the mistake you made?
When we had infections, we were trying to figure out where those infections were coming from, and we found out it was an autoclave—the autoclave cleans the instruments—and we needed to wait a longer period of time to use the instruments after they were cleaned. You spend years training, and then something like waiting an extra five minutes can change the outcome of a patient.
Have your colleagues given you any push-back, saying this shouldn’t be publicly aired?
It’s interesting, I haven’t experienced that. When a mistake happens in a hospital, patients believe that’s the end of the story, doctors move on, they’ve stopped thinking about it. First of all, the doctors are really hard on themselves about it; they’re tortured by these types of things. Second of all, it’s not the end of the story. These meetings are some of the most indelible things I’ve ever experienced, no holds barred, very candid—doctors really holding each other accountable. It’s very humanizing.
Has your role as a media person affected how patients see you? Do they say, “Hey, you’re the CNN doctor, I want you”?
[Laughs] You know, it happens. It is funny how, if you do television, people suddenly think you’re better, and that’s not the case. That’s not to say I’m not good, but I’m not better because I do television. I get referrals from all over the world because people will see you on TV, and I’ll have to explain to them that actually there’s a very good doctor in Sri Lanka who can do this operation.
The show raises the question of doctors’ conflict of interest between serving patients and being beholden to medical companies. A similar question has been raised about you: You work for CNN, which has pharmaceutical advertisers. How do you answer that concern?
It’s pretty easy for me: There is no relationship. Period. Paragraph. When I’m anchoring a show, when it goes to commercial break, our monitors all go black. I don’t even know who the sponsors are. I have no interaction with them at all. People should make sure there’s no conflict of interest ’cause this is serious stuff. If someone is profiting because they’re recommending something and the thing’s not actually good for people, that’s morally wrong. It’s medically wrong.
You were inspired to become a neurosurgeon as a kid when your grandfather suffered a stroke. Did he see you become a doctor?
He didn’t see me finish medical school, so that was hard. Nobody in my family was a doctor—unusual for an Indian family. [Laughs] My parents wanted me to become an engineer.
Do they call you with every medical concern?
My mom has three sisters and a brother that live here; my dad has three brothers. So I get all those calls. I have become the true family doctor.
What do you say? “I can’t diagnose you over the phone, go see your doctor”?
Yeah, usually. [Laughs] A lot of times, they want a second opinion. They don’t like what they’re being told, even though it’s right. They want someone to tell them something else so they can say, “See? I don’t have to do this. I don’t have to eat right.”
You often speak about the importance of not eating too much. So what’s your indulgence?
Ice cream. We established a policy when I started training for triathlons that I could still eat it but I couldn’t have it in the house. I’ll take my kids to an ice-cream place about a mile away from the house, so I’ll walk the kids there and get some exercise.
And do random people admonish you?
If I’m in a restaurant, they’ll say, “I know you don’t want any dessert. How about everyone else?” [Laughs] One time I was at an airport, hadn’t eaten all day, and there was one of those New York–style pizza things, and I had a slice all folded up. I was in a corner stuffing it in my mouth, and some woman came up to me: “I see you eating that pizza!”
Monday Mornings premieres February 4 on TNT.