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The most compelling story that television journalist and neurosurgeon Dr. Sanjay Gupta told Wednesday evening involved his sudden shift from one role to the other when he was covering the war in Iraq.

Appearing in Alumni Arena on the University at Buffalo North Campus in Amherst as part of UB’s Distinguished Speaker Series, he told how he was embedded with a team of medics working in tents close to a battle zone when he was called upon to perform emergency brain surgery on a Marine who was near death.

“We didn’t have any tools,” he related. “I used the drill they used for putting up tents to drill a hole in his head.”

After removing a bullet, he said, he had to improvise a sterile covering by cutting open an IV bag and pressing the clean interior surface against the incision.

Gupta, the Emmy Award-winning chief medical correspondent for CNN and a contributor to CBS’ “60 Minutes,” noted during his question period that he had come under considerable criticism for this.

“I don’t think wearing a press badge is a bar to your humanity,” he contended. “If you can save a life, you save a life. Not everybody agrees with me on that, but it gets back to our collective humanity, our collective altruism.”

Gupta spoke extensively about the challenges of switching from journalism to medicine as he gave insights into his career during his 45-minute talk.

It wasn’t until the question period, however, that he addressed what might have been his third profession – the post of U.S. surgeon general, for which he was President Obama’s original choice in 2009.

“You can never practice surgery as surgeon general, which I find kind of ironic,” he declared. “If I took the job at the age of 39, in four years I wouldn’t be a surgeon any more. It wasn’t the right time for me.”

Another question brought up the change in his opposition to medical marijuana.

“I think I was, in a big way, misled in looking at the body of the U.S. literature on the subject,” he explained. “I saw that the vast majority of the studies were looking at the harmful effects. It was when I started to look at places outside the U.S., you see that not only does it work, but it worked when nothing else would.”

email: danderson@buffnews.com