A new report is discrediting a claim made by CNN’s chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, when he received attention for his reporting in Nepal after the earthquake — and he said he had performed brain surgery on an eight year old girl named Salina Dahal, when it was actually a fourteen year old girl, named Sandhya Chalise.
Yet Salina never had any surgery, the Global Press Journal reports; “No, she hasn’t been operated,” Salina’s grandfather told GPJ in an interview.
She did, however, suffer a minor head wound and a broken wrist.
In multiple videos, headlines and a text story, CNN repeated Gupta’s claim that he took part in a craniotomy that ensured Salina – a small, slender girl who arrived at the hospital with her grandfather – would avoid permanent brain damage or death.
In a video showing Salina that aired on CNN’s “New Day,” anchor Alisyn Camerota says, “Tell us about this little girl that we’re seeing on our screen whom you just performed brain surgery on.”
Gupta, a neurosurgeon, responds: “The little girl, named Salina, she is 8 years old,” and goes on to describe skull fractures and blood clots on her brain. But the injuries he is describing are not Salina’s. The description is of Sandhya Chalise, 14.
And here’s the bizarre part: digital producer Tim Hume correctly reported on CNN.com that Sandy Chalise was Gupta’s patient, only to later switch her out:
“An hour later she receives a craniotomy,” Hume writes, referring to Sandhya in that article. “Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon and CNN’s chief medical correspondent, has scrubbed up at the request of a Nepalese medical team to help with the operation.”
Hume’s initial article does mention Salina, 8, correctly describing her injuries, including minor head wounds and a hand injury. The article quotes local neurosurgeon Bikesh Khumbu as confirming that Salina was “psychologically intact.”
But nine hours later, at 1:26 a.m. ET, the online article was updated.
The updated article does not mention Sandhya. Instead, it swaps in the younger girl’s name: Gupta’s brain surgery patient is now identified as Salina. The first section of the story, which originally described Sandhya’s injuries, was replaced with a false description of Salina.
Portions of the story, including sentences that originally described Sandhya’s injuries – blood clots in her brain – were used, word for word, to describe Salina. The story’s original sections about Salina, which correctly described her minor injuries, were deleted.
The new version of the story, which is still live on CNN’s site as of press time, is accompanied by a video that features Gupta talking about Salina as his patient. In other videos on the site, Gupta describes Salina and claims to have participated in her brain surgery.
Although Gupta wasn’t made available for comment in the Global Press Journal’s report, he spoke in a telephone interview with NPR’s David Folkenflik. “I don’t like to make mistakes. 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.” He went onto say: The mistake, Gupta said, was one born of havoc. “We want to be accurate, 100 percent. It was a chaotic situation, no doubt. You had a hospital turn into a massive triage area.”
And, NPR reports that it was Gupta who gave the go-ahead to change Hume’s report:
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.
Gupta also told NPR he understands the conflict between the imperatives of being a journalist and a surgeon. “I don’t know I’ve found the precise right way to handle these things,” he said. “I want to make sure I can report objectively after being engaged so directly like this.”