Just Who Did CNN’s Sanjay Gupta Operate on in Nepal?

By Mark Joyella 

CNN’s chief medical correspondent and star surgeon Dr. Sanjay Gupta is facing criticism for his reporting from Nepal in the aftermath of April’s massive earthquake. “I don’t like to make mistakes,” Gupta told NPR Tuesday night.

But he’s accused of making a mistake: misidentifying a young girl he’d performed surgery on. CNN reported Gupta had performed brain surgery on 8-year-old Salina Dahal, who had been badly injured in the quake. Global Press Journal tracked down the little girl, only to find she had never had surgery of any kind, suffering cuts and bruises and a broken wrist in the earthquake. “Without emergent surgery, she’ll have permanent damage. Or, like so many other earthquake victims, she’ll die,” Gupta reported.

The video cuts to footage of Gupta wearing scrubs in an operating room. Then, Gupta calls the surgery “a success.”

“Salina will live,” he says.

But Salina never had brain surgery – or surgery of any kind. Global Press Journal found Salina in her remote home village hours from Kathmandu. Salina, her family members and her doctors at Bir Hospital all confirm she never had an operation. “No, she hasn’t been operated,” says Ram Prasad Dahal, Salina’s grandfather, in an interview translated from Nepali.

Gupta told NPR’s David Folkenflik he believed he had his facts correct when he was reporting, and even overruled an earlier–and correct–report from CNN that identified the brain surgery patient as a teenager:

In a piece posted at 10:14 a.m. ET, CNN producer Tim Hume reported from Kathmandu that Gupta had aided the craniotomy of Sandyha Chalise, whom he identified as a 15-year-old girl (her actual age appears to be 14). At 2:30 p.m. that day, according to CNN spokeswoman Neel Khairzada, the network sent out an updated alert. The new story referred to Salina Dahal, the 8-year-old.

Salina did seek care that day, brought in by her grandfather. Her face and bandaged head are featured prominently in CNN’s footage from the hospital and shown in brief segments on television touting Gupta’s role.

Gupta told me it was his call to change the identity of the patient in Hume’s story. He said he believed the inclusion of Sandyha was the mistaken version.

“I wanted to get the story right,” Gupta said. “I didn’t think the story was right. I had every reason to believe based on the [CAT] scans, based on what the doctors were telling me, based on the story they had told me, that the patient we had just operated on was an 8-year-old girl.”

“Sometimes you are beholden to other people for information, or you are verifying details in other ways. It gives me pause as a doctor. It gives me pause as a journalist.”