But what girl?
That’s the question that Gupta addressed with Cuomo: “This girl that we reported on was an eight-year-old girl at that time that I was asked to perform an operation on,” said Gupta in the segment. “The understanding was she had a blood clot on the brain that need to be removed because that can cause swelling in the brain. What has been flagged for us now, Chris, is in fact that the patient that I operated on may not have been this eight-year-old girl, but rather a 14-year-old girl in that same hospital during that immediate aftermath of the earthquake. ”
Though not by name, Gupta is referring to a story in the Global Press Journal by Shilu Manandhar under the title “CNN Falsely Claims Dr. Sanjay Gupta Performed Brain Surgery on 8-Year-Old Quake Victim in Nepal.” The 8-year-old quake victim is named Salina Dahal, and according to Gupta’s televised report, she was in tough shape. “I met 8-year-old Salina yesterday, her grandfather driving over a day to get to this hospital after the family’s home collapsed on her. As a practicing neurosurgeon, I assisted in an operation to remove a blood clot from the top of her brain and relieve swelling,” said Gupta on the April 28 edition of “New Day.” “The conditions and equipment available to us a bit primitive, much like what you’d find in a war zone. But the operation was a success. Salina is alive, her prognosis is good.”
Not the case, Manandhar contends. Salina sustained a broken wrist and some wounds to her head, though nothing that would require brain surgery. “No, she hasn’t been operated,” Ram Prasad Dahal, her grandfather, told Global Press Journal. Instead of operating on Salina, Gupta actually operated on another earthquake victim, 14-year-old Sandhya Chalise, according to the report.
The fascinating twist to this story relates to CNN’s original take, which featured what Global Press Journal identifies as the correct patient. A piece posted on CNN.com under the byline of Tim Hume furnished scene reporting on the crush of patients at Bir Hospital and indicated that Gupta had operated on Sandhya, while also mentioning Salina’s less-urgent predicament. Yet that version of the story wasn’t allowed to stand, thanks to the intervention of the the network’s chief medical correspondent. “I wanted to get the story right,” Gupta told NPR’s David Folkenflik. “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.”
To recap: CNN.com originally reported that the patient was 14-year-old Sandhya, not 8-year-old Salina and then flipped the two pursuant to Gupta’s request. Which is to say that the network got it right before it got it wrong, based on the Global Press Journal’s reporting.
Chaos accounts for much of this confusion. The 7.8-magnitude earthquake on April 25 claimed the lives of more than 7,500 people and aid efforts were hampered by aftershocks. Hospitals scrambled to handle the caseload. “When it happened on Saturday, all we could do was go ‘dead or alive’ — that was the only triage we could do,” a surgeon told CNN of the crush.
Such an environment can nurture honest mistakes. A CNN representative has passed along a photo of some notes from the procedure in which Gupta took part. They refer to a “Sandhya Chalise” as “26y/F,” suggesting that there are varying versions of her age. Dr. Rajiv Jha, a Bir neurosurgeon present for the operation, described the patient to the Global Press Journal as an “adult child,” whatever that means. And the CNN rep says that when Global Post inquired about the incident, its understanding was that Gupta had operated on an adult.
Here’s what actually happened, based on a phone interview with a CNN source: A cross platform team including Gupta, Hume and several others descend on Bir hospital to capture the scene and conduct interviews. They encounter patients in need of urgent care, one of whom turns out to be Sandhya, who is represented has being 15, and the other 8-year-old Salina. The CNN team talks to a local doctor about Sandhya’s case and after more than an hour Hume learns that Gupta is scrubbing up to assist in surgery. The patient is presented fully draped, with only the top of her head exposed.
After the surgery, Gupta leaves the scene to film a live shot in which he speaks of having performed surgery on Salina. Following that interview, Hume consults with Gupta to get some details on the procedure — but he doesn’t check with Gupta on who the patient was because he doesn’t believe that’s a fact in contention. He files the story and later learns from CNN staff in Atlanta that there’s a discrepancy between the televised material and Hume’s online piece. They collectively discuss the matter, with Gupta insisting that he operated on the eight-year-old. Deference goes to the doctor. CNN.com adjusts its story in conformity with Gupta’s on-air version.
“We had people on the ground doing this crazy reporting, working together, but ended up filing conflicting stories,” says Meredith Artley, editor in chief of CNN Digital.
Haziness notwithstanding, CNN changed the story with determination. To quote from the Global Press Journal piece:
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.
In accordance with CNN and industrywide standards, the changed online version of the story initially carried a notation alerting readers to what had gone down:
An earlier version of this report incorrectly identified a patient on whom CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta performed surgery. Gupta performed surgery on 8-year-old Sabina Dohal.
Textbook journalistic transparency there. For a while, that is. At a point certain, CNN.com scrubbed the correction from its online story, leaving readers clueless about the switcheroo. This omission lent an appearance of sneakiness to what had clearly been an honest mistake. “We posted the correction, made the fix and then subsequent versions dropped the correction, and we shouldn’t have done that,” says Artley, who says that the correction was present on the site for a few hours “in all likelihood.” CNN policy dictates that corrections on breaking news stories stay on the site for as long as the offending error.
More from Artley: “It is absolutely regrettable that we are now in this position that we might have corrected something that didn’t need to be corrected, and we didn’t have the correction for as long as we should have had it up. But all that said, it’s a quake zone with triage happening and it’s really fast-moving and really chaotic and Sanjay may have performed surgery that saved someone’s life.” CNN, to be sure, hasn’t independently verified the Global Press Journal version of events.
The Global Press Journal rips CNN for failing to restore its initial version of events: “CNN has not issued a correction or removed the videos and text claiming that Gupta performed surgery on Salina, despite having originally published a correct version of the events, and despite GPJ on June 30 providing CNN with details of its investigation that prove Salina did not have brain surgery.”
CNN will investigate, according to a note that it attached to the file today:
(CNN)Editor’s Note (July 8, 2015) — Questions have arisen about the identity of the girl who Dr. Sanjay Gupta helped operate on during a week in Nepal in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake. CNN is looking into those questions and will update our coverage as warranted. Gupta helped doctors at Bir Hospital in Kathmandu perform a craniotomy in a makeshift operating room on a young patient as described in this story; it is the identity of the patient that is in question.
CNN prides itself on its international coverage. It has a record of dropping reporting teams into overseas disaster zones with insane dispatch. And so it has to be a bit galling for the network to be investigating the claims of Global Press Journal — essentially following up on a big international scoop from a low-profile San Francisco news shop.
In an industry obsessed with exclusives, this is an apparent screw-up that’s exclusively CNN’s. It moves aggressively into quake zones with personnel to handle both TV and Web; it has a chief medical correspondent who doubles as a famous, practicing neurosurgeon; and it’s a big enough target to warrant the attention of an enterprising reporter trudging through Nepal in search of gotcha material.