Sanjay Gupta offers predictions on 2021, looks back on pandemic life
© John Nowak / WarnerMedia

He’s one of the most recognizable medical experts on TV, but that professional accomplishment might not have been good enough for the 5-year-old version of Sanjay Gupta.

“I had an aspiration to be the ‘Six Million Dollar Man,’ ” says Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent.

“That’s what I wanted to be. It was the show that I watched on television, and I loved every part of it,” Gupta recalls. But the 51-year-old Emmy Award-winning doctor acknowledges that his astronaut-turned-cyborg childhood career choice might not have been all that realistic “because you’d have to essentially die to get there.”

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Gupta does appear, however, to be keeping up a superhuman schedule. 

Still a practicing neurosurgeon, he’s co-hosted more than 25 global town halls for CNN during the coronavirus pandemic. He’s working on another book, “World War C: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic & How to Prepare for the Next One,” due out later this year. And his latest documentary feature, “Race for the Vaccine,” is premiering this Saturday at 9 p.m. on the cable network, which has been his TV home for two decades. The aim of the CNN doc he produced and narrates, Gupta says, is to demystify the “extraordinary scientific endeavor” of developing a COVID-19 vaccine and pay respect to not only the science of the effort but also the “superhero-like scientists” behind it.

He takes a crack from ITK about not knowing the definition of “underachiever” in stride, explaining that some of his drive stems from his parents’ move from India to the United States.

“I think [being a] child of immigrants, you know that there’s always that sort of sense that they sacrificed a lot in order for their kids, my brother and I, to have a life here. I don’t want to run in place. I just want to do as many things as I can and hopefully make some valuable contributions.”

In his rare spare time, Gupta says he occasionally picks up an accordion, his mom and dad’s instrument of choice after seeing so many of them played in 1960s Bollywood movies. “I took accordion lessons for three years and still have my accordion, and I’ll play that from time to time, but I think mostly it taught me how to play keyboard instruments.”

This summer Gupta might have a bit more time for jam sessions. He predicts that the rest of 2021 will be “better than now.”

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“I think things will, at least in the United States, progressively improve,” he says.

We were able to grab Gupta for the few moments he’s not on the move and asked him these questions.

College attended: University of Michigan

Go-to pandemic outfit: Only recently have I seen what everyone else is wearing, because I’ve been pretty much relegated to my basement for 14 months. So I’m in the proverbial bubble here.

The girls make a lot of fun of me — I have three teenage girls so you get made fun of for everything — but I wear shorts, a shirt, a tie and a jacket just about every day.

I wake up around 4:45 in the morning and usually I’ll work out or something, make calls. In my basement, where I am in this 10-by-10 space, there’s lots of lights because they’ve made it into this makeshift studio. So even during the summer, when it was 100 degrees outside, it was even hotter inside. And when it was winter, it was still hot. So shorts, shirt, tie, jacket pretty much 14 months straight.

Favorite hobby: I like to be active, but I guess my favorite one would be to just play music with the girls or just play music on my own. If I’m feeling like I’m getting anxious or feeling a little blue at all, that’s what I’ll typically do — just go play music.

Favorite movie: “Harold and Maude”

Bucket list item you have yet to complete: Doing an Ironman Triathlon.

It’s a full-time job, that’s the problem. I would need to eliminate something else from my life.

It’s a really busy time, but I’m starting to already think about, like, [I’m] 51, the next four years. What does that look like?

My parents actually, interestingly, they retired when they were in their mid-50s. I thought, there’s no way they’re going to be able to stay retired, and they have absolutely loved it. They loved every single aspect of retired life. I’m trying to think about, once I start slowing down with other stuff, what do I do? I think that might be the time to fit that in.

What scares you most about this pandemic? What are you the most hopeful about? What scares me the most probably is just the impact on the kids overall. I mean, we obviously know the tragic numbers of people who have died. And I think the millions of people who are likely to have long-hauling symptoms, I mean, that’s really significant. Somebody was saying to me the other day that there may be entire hospitals or hospital systems devoted just to caring for those patients. It’s a brand-new disease that’s going to be very, very common.

Three teenage girls, the middle of a pandemic, I think about their childhoods a lot. What has it really been like for them? I mean, I know what it’s been like for me, but for them, and in such a formative time of their lives, I hope they come out of this more resilient, but I worry about my kids.

I’m most optimistic that we will come out of this as a world more prepared and more resilient for other things, including other pandemics, because everyone you talk to in that world says we are starting to enter the era of pandemics. I’m not optimistic about that, but I’m optimistic that we’ll be more prepared next time.

Biggest accomplishment/most embarrassing moment: I really think that when you’re younger in life, and you have big moments, big accomplishments, they end up having an outsized impact on you overall.

When I was in grade school, the first time you win athletic competitions I think had a really big impact. Which I know sounds silly, but I think if you develop confidence earlier in life — and I didn’t have a lot of confidence very early in my life. I was in a very rural, white town and I was the only kid who looked like me, sounded like me, had a name like me in that town. So I think once I started actually being able to build confidence early in life, I think those are big accomplishments.

There’s lots of things that I think are really embarrassing at the time, but then you’re able to laugh about. I think in TV world, pretty early on in my career, I remember this one time when I was anchoring a show. It happened to be the birthday of one of my producers in the control room. You wear an earpiece like I’m wearing now, and I could hear that sort of festivities going on while I’m on the set trying to manage things.

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Then someone wanted to let me in on the festivities, so they brought me a piece of birthday cake to the set in a commercial break. So I was eating a piece of birthday cake. Everyone was keeping an eye on the clock, [checking] when are we going to come out of commercial break. And then all of a sudden, we were at a commercial break and the camera was on. And I was there with a piece of birthday cake in my mouth, the network’s relatively new doctor at that point. And I kid you not, but the segment we’re about to do is on childhood obesity. So I had this frosting sort of dripping out of my face, because I was trying to eat fast because I knew I needed to eat fast, so I was taking big bites, and then, childhood obesity segment. So there’s no good way to come out of that and just sort of plot on through, and here I am 20 years later.

Guilty pleasure: Ice cream. That’s the worst thing for me. It is arguably, I think, like the perfect food in terms of mouthfeel and taste and all these things. The girls have to hide it from me. They have to literally hide it. I will forage for it through the house.

How many hours of sleep you get on average: This year has been tough, because I’ve been waking up so early to make calls to the other side of the world. But I typically try and get at least seven hours of sleep.

Something few people know about you: One of my favorite things to do is to blow leaves and to pressure wash. I do that to relieve anxiety, often.

Biggest pet peeve: Keep in mind the context of my life. I don’t like it when my girls, or anybody for that matter, is on their device at a time when we’re all trying to be present and talk. That makes me a little crazy. Because of my work, I’m often on my device, which I fully acknowledge. I’m not upset by it as much as I’m like you are missing out on life.

Something I can’t live without: I love my sleep tracker. I am a fanatic about collecting data.

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Best advice given: I always have so much advice to give.

I guess the best advice that I’ve heard is a variation of try and do something that scares you every day.

I don’t think you need to do something to put you in harm’s way, but I just like the idea of doing something totally different every day. Something that just gets you out of your comfort zone. I feel like we spend a lot of time doing the “practice makes perfect” part of life, but the “totally different, change builds resilience” part of life we don’t do enough. So something that scares you every day, or something that you do every day but you do in a different way.

Life will return to “normal” in: I think in the United States: this summer. I think it’s going to feel very, very normal. Not totally normal, but it’ll feel very normal. I think the big question is, does it stay that way going into the fall and in the winter of next year?

I have a fear of: Not being able to be busy. I know it’s crazy. That’s my biggest sort of thing is that I wake up and I’m like, ‘I’m being given X number of years here on this Goldilocks planet.’ I don’t know that I’ll get another shot, and I’m waking up for a day and not knowing what to do and not being busy.

When I watch people play Solitaire on their phones, it makes me insane. I don’t get it. This is it. This is your shot! I mean, there’s no other planet like this ever, wherever you look, that we know of, and you get to live on it for a while. It’s like someone said ‘here’s your amazing experience you get to have,’ don’t sit around and play Solitaire.