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Sanjay Gupta refuses job as surgeon general

March 06, 2009 08:39 IST

Dr Sanjay Gupta, 39, who had agonised over President-elect Barack Obama's offer to become the nation's next surgeon general, has decided not to take up the job that could have made him the first Indian American to hold it.

It was a done deal if he wanted the job, according to administration sources, but CNN's chief medical correspondent and practising neurosurgeon asked that his name be taken out of consideration.

Gupta was offered the job following a meeting with senior presidential transition team officials late last year and then met then President-elect Obama in early January, sources close to Gupta had told But taking up this position would mean a huge financial sacrifice since it would pay him a fraction of what he is earning now as a practising surgeon and journalist with CNN and contributing to CBS and writing columns for Time magazine.

Officials earlier said his passion for public service, the opportunity to work on the Obama administration's health-care reform policy and the high profile he would enjoy, were likely to override the financial and professional sacrifices he would make. This, even given that he has two young children with another on the way, and a house coming up in Atlanta, where he is based.

Besides, the sources said at the time that Gupta had been overwhelmed Obama had discussed him taking the job at an hour-long meeting in Chicago. Later, Obama's nominee for the post of secretary of Health and Human Services, at the time former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and other senior transition officials had urged him to accept. They promised that he would not simply be an administrator but would be included in policy decisions and virtually be the spokesman for the new administration's health care reform, traveling across the country and making major public appearances.

But administration sources told Thursday that "he has asked that his name be removed from consideration for the post of surgeon general because he wants to focus on his medical career and family."

The sources acknowledged that "he was certainly under very serious consideration for the position. We wish him all the very best and we know he will continue to be an excellent advocate in informing and educating the public through his work in the media and also continuing his work as a much-respected surgeon."

Gupta's parents Subhash and Damyanti told Thursday that Daschle's withdrawal from contention as health secretary and the fact that Sanjay and are wife expecting their third child had also led to him taking the decision.

Daschle withdrew after it was revealed that he had not paid taxes on a free limousine service a friend who owned a cable company had provided him for 18 months. At that time, Daschle, then a lobbyist, was advising his friend on legislative matters and people to contact on Capitol Hill.

Subhash Gupta had urged his son to accept the position despite the massive financial sacrifice (Gupta now reportedly earns more than $3 million a year; as surgeon general he would have earned about $180,000 to $190,000 tops). Subhash Gupta argued that serving the country would be a singular honor. But he said he was not surprised at how things have turned out.

"It was a tough decision and he went through the process and came out and said, 'OK, it doesn't make sense for me to do it at this present time," adding that if it were just a matter of money, it would not have made a difference.

"There were several other things that also went into his decision – the Tom Daschle [withdrawal], his wanting to continue with his neurosurgery and so on," Subhash Gupta said. Gupta is an assistant professor of neurosurgery at Emory University School of Medicine and associate chief of the neurosurgery service at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta.

Damyanti Gupta echoed her husband's sentiments, saying, "The main thing was his neuro-surgery. He did not want to give that up for four years because his medical profession is something very close to his heart. Also, his new baby is due next week, or any moment now," she said.

Other sources said Gupta was also concerned at some stinging opposition to his possible nomination from lawmakers like US Congressman John Conyers, others in the public health arena and in the blogosphere. They argued he didn't have the gravitas to be the nation's doctor and the chief spokesman for health care in the country.One source said that after Daschle and others were struck down by the vetting process, this long and drawn out process "was also something that he has not looking forward to going through."

Immediately after the news broke, CNN issued a statement saying that 'since first learning that Dr Gupta was under consideration for the surgeon general position, CNN has made sure that his on-air reporting has been on health and wellness matters and not on health-care policy or any matters involving the new administration.'

After he was offered the post, transition sources confirmed media reports that transition officials were attracted to Gupta because of his "excellent communication skills" as a medical correspondent on CNN and CBS. They were also drawn to his work as a practicing neurosurgeon and his experience in health-care policy when he served under former first lady Hillary Clinton in 1997 when he was a White House Fellow. At the time Clinton's pet project was health-care reform and Gupta was a special adviser and speechwriter for her.

If Gupta had taken up the post, a job that entails him being in uniform, he would have been a celebrity surgeon general, comparable only to Dr C Everett Koop, who served from 1982 to 1989 under President Ronald Reagan and was vice admiral in the Public Health Commissioned Corps.

The only surgeon general, who enjoyed similar celebrity, more for the controversy she generated, was Dr Joycelyn Elders, the first African American to hold the post for 15 months in the Clinton administration. She was strongly criticized for favoring abortion on demand, including efforts to legalize RU-486, popularly known as the abortion pill, and for supporting the medical use of marijuana.

Gupta was born October 23, 1969, in Livonia, Michigan. His parents, both now retired, had immigrated to the US in the 1960s to work as engineers at the Ford plant in Dearborn. He received his undergraduate degree in biomedical sciences from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and his MD from the University of Michigan Medical Center.

He completed his residency in neurological surgery at the University of Michigan and a portion of it at St Lawrence Hospital, now part of the Sparrow Health Network, in Lansing.

He is married to Rebecca Olson, an attorney. The couple has two children, both girls, Sage Ayla, 4 and Skye, 2 1/2, and the third child is expected in the next two weeks.

Gupta joined CNN in 2001 as a health correspondent and now hosts his own show, House Call with Dr Sanjay Gupta, and travels across the country for a series focusing on the dangers of obesity called Fit Nation. He also appears frequently on several of other CNN's programmes like The Situation Room, Anderson Cooper 360 degrees, and in documentaries. In 2003 he traveled to Iraq to cover the medical aspects of the US invasion of Iraq where his roles as a journalist and physician overlapped.

There, embedded with a navy unit called Devil Docs, Gupta performed brain surgery five times, the first of which was on a two-year-old Iraqi boy, shot by US Marines in a car that did not stop at a checkpoint. The boy died.

At the time he told Associated Press, 'Medically and morally, I thought it was absolutely the right thing to do. It was a heroic – it was not an elective operation, it was a heroic attempt to try to save the child's life.'

His book, Chasing Life, was a New York Times and national bestseller. In 2003, he was named one of the Sexiest Men Alive by People magazine.

Aziz Haniffa