By: David Bauder, AP Television Writer
(AP) While reporting on a U.S. Navy medical team in Iraq on Thursday, CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta unexpectedly became part of the story when asked to perform emergency brain surgery. The 2-year-old Iraqi boy did not survive.
As the only neurosurgeon available to treat a patient with a severe brain injury, Gupta said it was his moral duty to help. But it raised questions about the blurring of roles between doctor and journalist.
Gupta, a practicing neurosurgeon at Emory University in Atlanta, has been traveling with the Navy’s “devil docs” unit. Dr. Bob Arnot, a nonpracticing internist, has also spent time with that unit for NBC News and reported on a harrowing firefight early Thursday.
The boy treated by Gupta was in a taxi that drove through a U.S. Marine checkpoint south of Baghdad. When the taxi didn’t stop, Marines opened fire, according to CNN. Two others in the taxi died.
Suffering from multiple wounds, the child was seen as having only minutes to live before Gupta was called upon. He operated to relieve pressure on the child’s brain.
“Medically and morally, I thought it was absolutely the right thing to do,” Gupta said. “It was a heroic — it was not an elective operation, it was a heroic attempt to try to save the child’s life.”
CNN said Gupta made the right decision and the network is “extremely proud” of him.
“There’s a certain discomfort when journalists step from their journalistic role to become part of a story,” said Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. “That said, there are those rare instances when help is needed and only a journalist can provide it.”
He compared it to a photographer happening upon a burning building. Trying to save someone trapped inside takes precedence over taking pictures, he said.
Arnot has not been called upon to treat a patient, although he may have helped hold an IV bag when an extra hand was needed, NBC said.
Assigning a doctor to report from these medical units brings the same sort of expertise as assigning a lawyer to report from the Justice Department, said Marvin Kalb, of the Joan Shorenstein Center on Press and Politics at Harvard University.
“If an emergency situation did turn up and help was needed, [Arnot] would certainly help out,” said Bill Wheatley, vice president of NBC News. “But his first priority is he’s there to be a journalist.”
Steele said Gupta faced “difficult territory” in stepping back from the story and reporting on himself.
Gupta filed at least two live reports by satellite phone on the surgery on CNN Thursday. The network showed pictures of him scrubbing his hands before surgery and working at the operating table.
In his first report, Gupta began an interview with the unit’s commander, Rob Hinks, before mentioning his own role.
“We were very lucky to have Dr. Sanjay Gupta, neurosurgeon extraordinaire, present to help us operate, as he graciously did, as a humanitarian gesture,” Hicks said to Gupta. “Unfortunately, the child died, but without his help, there would have been no chance.”
Gupta said he appreciated that.
“And we welcome you as an honorary member of the ‘devil docs,'” Hinks said.