Dr. Sanjay Gupta: Walking, for me, represents, first of all, just the chance to feel like I have some control. I live a really busy life, and I think when you feel like you can go take a walk, it kind of… it sends a message, I think, to my whole way of thinking that I’ve regained some control. I can go for this walk. So I love that part of it.
We now know you can grow new brain cells at any age. The question is how do you do it?
Walking is probably the most effective way to release something known as BDNF, brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or as one very prominent neuroscientist described it, “the Miracle-Gro for the brain.” Well, it turns out that walking is one of the best ways to actually grow new brain cells at any age. You think it’s crossword puzzles and all that. That’s great. If you want to grow your brain, go for a walk.
Sam Sanchez: It’s Time to Walk, where some of the world’s most interesting and inspiring people share stories, photos, and songs that have influenced their lives. Dr. Sanjay Gupta is a neurosurgeon and the chief medical correspondent at CNN. He has won multiple Emmy Awards for his reporting. On this walk in Atlanta, Sanjay reflects on the significance behind a name and tells a story about chasing a dream even when it seems improbable.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: We are at Whitewater Creek Trail, which is this unbelievable rush of beauty in the middle of a city. It’s completely lush and green out here. There’s little shrubs, but it’s like the forested area where there’s enough sun getting through to allow a little bit of ground cover.
There’s a little river off to the side over here. You can almost hear a little water flow there. It’s just really, really peaceful.
[SOUND OF WATER FLOWING]
The story of how my mom came to the United States is, I think, one of the most impactful stories on our family. She was four or five years old when the bloodiest mass migration in the history of the world, frankly, began. And it was the partition of the subcontinent of India into India and what is now Pakistan. If you were Hindu and living on the side of the partition that was going to become predominantly Muslim, you fled. And same thing the other way. Muslims fled from what is now India to Pakistan.
And my mom was right in the middle of that as a little girl. And she had to flee where she lived and generations and generations of her family had lived. And just basically overnight, they had to go by these big cargo ships to what is now India.
You spend your whole life building your life, and in the blink of an eye, your life spirals into a different direction.
Now, as it turns out with my mom, that ended up being a tough direction because they had to go live as refugees for about 10 years. So, until she was 14 or 15 years old, she was living as a refugee in these… in these camps.
And she read a book when she was in this refugee camp about Henry Ford. How did she get a book about Henry Ford in a refugee camp in the middle of India at that time? I mean, how did that even happen?
Hey, How you doing? Good, how you doing?
Man: I’m doing good.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: But it did. It happened. And shortly thereafter, Jawaharlal Nehru, who was the prime minister of India was going around now in this now post-Partition India talking about what needed to happen for the country to grow. And one of the things he said was that, “We need to be training more scientists and more engineers. And by the way, I’m not just talking to the little boys out there. I’m talking to the girls, as well.”
And this is ’50s India. It’s kind of incredible, right? You think about these cultures that you immediately reflect on and say, “What is it like being a woman there?” And it’s obviously still… can be very tough, but in 1950s India, the prime minister was saying girls should go out there and be scientists. My mom had just read this book about Henry Ford. For her, it was like the eureka moment, “I will become a engineer, and I will go work for Henry Ford, for the Ford Motor Company.” That was it. The dream was set.
And from there, it was like a series of impossibilities. She has to go to engineering school in India. There’s no girls. There’s no restroom. She goes to Germany, works for a company that has never had a woman working as an engineer there. Then she comes to the United States, finishes her degree at Oklahoma State University, and then says, “I want to go where I can finally achieve my dream, Motor City, Detroit, Michigan.”
So she drives cross-country from Oklahoma to Detroit. I mean, you know, car, little bit of money. And she’s driving through Ann Arbor, Michigan, and her car breaks down, which I just think is so ironic. She’s on her way to achieving this dream about cars and engineering, and her car breaks down. A lot of people may have taken that as a sign but not her.
So she does what I think a lot of people may have done at that time, which is she goes to the phone book, and she just looks for an Indian-sounding name.
So she starts calling from a payphone at this time and ends up calling someone whose last name is Agarwal, which is in the A’s. So she got lucky.
Answered, “Hello.” You know, she basically tells the whole story, and the guy says, “Oh, well, Agarwal, this guy, is actually not home. But I’m his roommate. I’m home.” He is also an engineering student. She tells him about the broken-down car. And he goes to help.
And it turns out that he couldn’t fix the car. The car never got fixed, by him at least, and they fell in love. My mom meets my dad, not only a cold call but a misidentified cold call.
And it was… It was incredible because, even today, there are a lot of marriages in India that are arranged or formally introduced. It’s a big part of the culture still. In 1960s, to have two Indians, who, by the way, came from different sides of that partition and meet in the United States in Ann Arbor over a broken-down car, which he couldn’t fix, and fall in love and get married and have kids was unheard of. So it was extraordinary for… for us, just the whole story of her meeting my dad that way and then eventually going on to become this first, this first woman engineer in the auto industry.
I told the story of my mother to my 15-year-old daughter recently, and we were on a walk, and she knew bits and pieces of it over the years, but I wanted to tell her the story because I think it’s always important for people to know from where they come.
But I also was thinking about something else: my mom. She was a big part of my motivation. I still think about her when I do just about anything. And I think part of it is because the word can’t and the word impossible and all that really wasn’t something that was used in our house. I mean, how do you say I can’t? Not that my mom threw it in our face, but, “Need I remind you, I was a refugee for 10 years in some of the harshest conditions in the world. I can’t? I can’t go mow the lawn? I can’t go do the dishes? Excuse me.”
“You’re right, Mom. It’s very hard to say I can’t do something knowing what you’ve been through.” But then it was also this idea that my mom… You know, like, “What motivated you?” She’s like, “Well, life’s a gift. I mean, I almost lost mine so many times. We’re on this Goldilocks planet at this time. Who knows how long any of this will last? I mean, do you want to sit on the sidelines, or do you want to just move forward? Just move forward. I don’t care what direction. Just don’t go backwards or stand still.” That was a big reason I told my own daughter the story. You know, find what motivates you, and just keep moving. I think it’s a good lesson for my daughters now, her granddaughters.
With my parents, when they came here, it was really, really important for them for me to find a job, ultimately, that was stable. I think we’re very fortunate to say that, obviously, we want our daughters to be happy and to have stability in their lives, but, like, I think part of what I’m trying to tell them to do is just… If, if my work and my efforts mean anything, it’s that you get to do what you want to do. That was basically the parenting style that I sort of adapted from my own parents and just about my life after 50 years.
After my mom and dad met and they got married, they had me. And it was the late ’60s rural Michigan, which is where I spent the first 10 years of my life. And it was an area that basically really had nobody else that looked like me, nobody that ate the foods that we ate, had the same belief systems that we had in terms of religion, even smelled the way that we did from the food that we ate. We were wholly different people in this really tiny neighborhood. And my experience, I now know, was very similar to a lot of other people’s, not any worse, not better necessarily than other Indian kids growing up in small towns all across the country.
And, again, this is the ’70s now, and there was just… you know, there was the requisite teasing. There was the requisite if-anything-bad-is-happening-in-the-world-we-will-pin-that-on-you. The Iranian Hostage Crisis was happening in 1979. I’m not Iranian. It doesn’t matter. My point is that I became the embodiment of anything that involved people outside of where we lived in, in Michigan. It was painful, but I don’t think… you know, there was no context for it. That was just the way it was. I know I’m different. I look different. I sound different.
My mom, she used to bring along these cultural traditions from India, and one of them was Brylcreem, which was a sign of, like, you’d made it. If you looked like you had Brylcreem in your hair, first of all, you could tell, but you could also smell it. It had this smell of, “I’ve arrived,” according to my mom, I guess.
But for my mom, it was such a big deal. I… you know, I didn’t want to crush her. She was so proud of the fact that she could do this at all. And so, here we were in this sort of funny position where, unbeknownst to her, and I would never tell her, she was doing something that was getting me, you know, bullied, beat up, my hair all messed up the moment I walked out the door.
So I came to the conclusion one day, and I think I was probably, I don’t know, six, seven years old that I was going to make a big change in my life. I figured out how I’d solve all my problems, the bullying and the teasing and all that sort of stuff. I had been watching this television show. It was the only show I was allowed to watch. It was called “The Six Million Dollar Man” starring Colonel Steve Austin as the Six Million Dollar Man, Lee Majors.
And the guy, I mean, it’s unbelievable. He was a… an astronaut. He crashes. They rebuild him. He is faster, stronger, better than before, and he’s a good guy. He, like, solves big problems and saves people. And I thought, “Steve Austin, that’s who I want to be. And I think I can get there with a simple change, which is to just change my name to Steve. If I just change my name to Steve, everything else will follow from that.” And so I went to my mom, basically told her I wanted to do this. She didn’t really know that much about the bullying and the teasing. “Well, why do you want to change your name?”
“I just… I love this guy, you know, Steve. I was born in the United States. I should have a… an American-sounding name.” And she said to me, “Okay, do it. You should do it. But you have to go to the Secretary of State and fill out a form, and you change your name. We’ll do it tomorrow.”
It’s like, “Wow, that was really easy.” My mom, as she’s leaving the room that night, she turns around, and she says, “You know, there’s a lot of Steves out there, but there’s not a lot of Sanjays. I think you have a really beautiful, unique name, and you should… you should keep it. Make people say your name properly.”
And there was a long history in our family with names and why we were named the way that we were. So I decided to not change my name, and I had a lot of teasing that continued. But slowly, over time, it became one of those things where it was such a core part of my identity. For most of my life, I was the only Sanjay anywhere that I went. There was nobody else with that name.
I embraced the unique nature of the name, but I still think about it a lot. Even when I had my own kids, I thought a lot about their names. My wife and I talked about it a lot. We wanted their names to begin with an S, sort of an old family tradition. But I also wanted them to be as simple as we could make them.
Sage, Sky is my second daughter, and Soleil, which is “sun” in French. That’s the hardest one. People still mess that up sometimes, but it informed my thinking about names very much.
The funny thing is my youngest daughter said to me the other day, “If I have a son, I’ll probably name him Sanjay.” So it comes full circle. I thought, “Hey, I’m making your life easier giving you these simple names,” and they’re saying, “No, no. We love, the story of us. We love the story of our family even if it’s complicated. We like it because it’s complicated.”
So, I think, you know, life is changing a lot. When I was a kid and we were living in a very homogenous sort of area, the goal was always assimilation. And maybe it’s a luxury in life to be able to say, “I don’t need to assimilate.”
So I think that the message that I’ve learned and I’ve tried to share with my daughters is you don’t have to assimilate. You don’t have to potentially change your name to Steve. You can actually wear your… your name, your identity, everything. It’s a real source of pride and honesty about who you are. I love that.
[SOUND OF WALKING]
My parents didn’t necessarily want me to be a doctor even though it was a very stable job. Frankly, it was expensive going to college and graduate school. And money was always a bit of an issue. And… and they were also engineers and mathematicians. They kind of thought sometimes of medicine as a softer science, which I find very interesting.
And then my mom’s father was in the States, and we were very, very close. I was 12 or 13 years old, and he had a stroke. And it was a really, you know, pretty significant stroke. First of all, we were spending time in hospitals. I had never really been in a hospital before. I was talking to doctors, had never really spoken to doctors before. And they were kind. I mean, they would… they would always take the time.
And I saw what the stroke had done to my grandfather’s brain, the specific things. Like, I still remember, like, he could write, but he could not read. He could speak, but he could not understand. I remember still, even thinking, to this day, “This is so… How does a brain do that?” And I got really interested in the brain.
I decided to go to medical school. I wanted to be a doctor, originally thought I’d be a pediatrician, just loved kids. So I thought I was going to do that, and then my fourth year of med school, I did a rotation in neurosurgery, and it kind of all came full circle for me.
And all along that path, I was also very interested in just our health care system. It felt like I was literally under the microscope in the operating room, just really, really zoomed in on a tumor or aneurism, but I also wanted the telescope of what was happening more globally with health care.
So I just started reading a lot about health care, and writing about it, you know, at a very unsophisticated level. But, as I grew more and more interested in that, eventually I took a job doing domestic policy and speechwriting and stuff like that as a White House Fellow working at an executive branch of government on issues of health care and other things.
Five years later, I am deciding to move to Atlanta to take a job at the Emory Clinic in neurosurgery. And this big boss of CNN, he says, “Come on by CNN. Take a look around. See what’s going on.”
You walk in, and it’s kind of amazing. They have this newsroom. There’s all these people, young, prime of their lives sort of people who are answering phones and talking to reporters all over the world and determining what is news, what isn’t, how to vet it. So he asked me if I would come on and basically talk about health policy every now and then, Health Policy Commenter. This is in 2001.
I think that the… the first time I ever actually appeared on television was the oh-boy moment. This is actually happening.
I felt my face starting to flush a bit because just, you know, you’re in a newsroom. So everyone’s looking at you, and you know the camera’s seeing you, but it’s actually all the people around. And it felt, to me, at that point, like this very alien thing that I had decided to do, just like, “Why have I done this? You know, am I going to be any good at it? Am I doing a disservice to the audience? Am I going to be embarrassed?” I guess there’s always a component of embarrassment.
Like, it’s a very sort of isolating thing to be sitting in a studio with just you and a camera, and you have to develop some sort of relationship, in… in a way. And my wife gave me some incredible advice, which I still think about to this day, which was, “You love talking to people. You love talking to your patients. Just think of the lens as a patient.” And, man, that just clicked.
Part of it was the eye contact, but also, like, if that’s my patient, then I want to make sure the patient understands what I’m saying. That’s going to affect how I say it, how quickly I talk, word choice, all that. If that’s really my patient, I really care about them. I… you know, I want them to know that. I want them to know that I’m empathetic towards what’s happening with them.
The lens as a patient, that was the weave, the narrative weave I needed in my life. And that was, I think, a really pivotal thing. I think, for anybody, wherever they are in their lives, finding those similarities actually can be very reassuring. It can assuage anxiety, and you can also run to some of your skillsets because if you have some skillsets in these other areas, bring them as opposed to leaving them behind.
[SOUND OF RUSHING WATER AND BIRDS CHIRPING]
I look around here, and I see the beautiful ground cover. I see the… the green leaves. I hear the water. I hear the birds chirping, and I just feel my brain sort of relaxing, blood pressure dropping, heart rate dropping. My breathing sort of slows. It’s really meditative.
I love having the opportunity to be outside at all. And I look at the green, and I breathe in the clean air, and I just can walk with no pain, and I just don’t take any of that for granted. The most amazing thing to me is that some of my best thoughts, our best thoughts as humans, actually happen when we’re in movement. We were not really designed to be at rest or to be still.
When I really want to get myself into thinking mode, I often listen to “The Scientist” by Coldplay. I just find that the harmony, the cadence, the lyrics, as well, but it all comes together to just get my head in that right space. If you find that, it’s kind of magical. There’s a song like that for everyone I think.
[MUSIC - “THE SCIENTIST” BY COLDPLAY]
“Bruises” by Chairlift is a song that absolutely makes me think of my daughters. This is a song that was playing once when my… my middle daughter got injured. She had bruises. This song came on. She was crying, and, I don’t know, it was… it was something that turned a potentially really bad or heartbreaking situation for her into something that was much happier. This song came on. We kind of cuddled up. She didn’t get to continue doing the activity that she wanted, but she was inside with Dad.
[MUSIC - “BRUISES” BY CHAIRLIFT]
We have a family anthem, and it is “Forever in Blue Jeans” by Neil Diamond. It is the song that, no matter when it comes on, what is happening, we will stop what we’re doing. We will start singing, and we will have a spontaneous dance party. So thank you, Neil Diamond, for that.
[MUSIC - “FOREVER IN BLUE JEANS” BY NEIL DIAMOND]
Being able to tell these stories and just storytelling overall, I think is one of the most critical ingredients of our lives. People often confuse memories with stories. People want to say, “I remember that.” And it’s kind of like a Rolodex. They pull out a specific thought on a specific day, and that’s memory. But that’s not really what our brains were designed to do. Our brains were designed to take all these different memories, not just what you hear but what you see, what you smell, what you feel and integrate them into a story.
I realize that this is one of those experiences today that I will never forget, which I think is… is really important. If I tell you to tell me about 20 experiences from 2016, you probably have a hard time. You probably have a hard time thinking of 20 profound experiences in an entire year. And yet now, today, the impact of doing something like this is that I now have one of the experiences for 2021. When someone asks me to reflect on this year, I will talk about this day.
Thank you for taking the time to walk with me today.