July 7, 2015
UPDATE: More than a week after CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta acknowledged that he was unsure of the identity of the brain surgery patient he operated on in the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake in April, CNN has issued a correction acknowledging that the identity of patient he operated on was not Salina Dahal, 8. At 12:09 EST on Friday, July 17, CNN corrected its erroneous reporting and removed videos and mention of Salina. The news network republished the original, accurate version of its text story, which initially appeared on April 27 before it was replaced with the false report. GPJ made CNN aware of the false claims on June 30. The correction was published less than 24 hours after GPJ contacted CNN to determine if the news network intended to correct the record.
KATHMANDU, NEPAL — Two days after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Nepal, CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta reported live from Kathmandu’s Bir Hospital, one of the nation’s top medical facilities.
In a video that aired April 28, Gupta is shown standing near a stretcher on which 8-year-old Salina Dahal sits.
“Examining her CAT scan reveals just how dire her situation is,” Gupta narrates, while video footage shows him examining a CT scan.
Salina sits on a nearby stretcher. Her head is bandaged and her face is badly bruised.
“She has a fractured skull, a blood clot, and her brain is swelling,” Gupta continues. “Without emergent surgery, she’ll have permanent damage. Or, like so many other earthquake victims, she’ll die.”
How Local Reporters Uncovered the Truth about CNN’s Coverage from Nepal
We did not seek out this story. In truth, we believe its significance pales in comparison to the other topics we routinely cover. But when GPJ’s Nepal team got a tip that a major news channel reported a false story about a young girl, we began our investigation.Click to read
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.
Dahal accompanied his granddaughter to hospitals in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital and largest city, after she was injured in the quake.
Salina suffered minor head wounds and a broken wrist, her medical records confirm.
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.” (The video was published on the CNN website on April 27, 2015. CNN removed the video from its website after this article was published.)
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.
Dipa Dahal (courtesy photo)
But the injuries he is describing are not Salina’s. The description is of Sandhya Chalise, 14.
And Gupta’s statements in the videos run counter to CNN’s own reporting from the hospital. A text story written by CNN digital producer Tim Hume and published on CNN.com just after 4 p.m. GMT on April 27 correctly identifies Sandhya Chalise as Gupta’s patient. The story noted that Sandhya was suffering from blood clots.
“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.
GPJ also located Sandhya (incorrectly identified as 15 years old in CNN’s coverage) in her home village of Ramkot and confirmed that she underwent a brain surgery on April 27. Sumitra Chalise, Sandhya’s mother, and Prakash Bista, her uncle, say they saw Gupta walk into the operating room, but they’re not sure what he did there.
A CNN spokeswoman, after initially insisting that Gupta performed brain surgery on Salina, later released a statement indicating that Gupta might not have been fully aware of who was on his operating table.
Gupta was asked to assist in a craniotomy of a “young girl,” the spokeswoman says, but adds, “All the patient information including name and age was provided to Dr. Gupta by the hospital.”
“A good surgeon knows the identity of the patient he’s operating on,” says Dr. Ganesh Bahadur Gurung, vice chancellor of Nepal’s National Academy of Medical Science, which manages Bir Hospital.
A doctor who drills into a patient’s head without confirmation of the patient’s identity “is not a surgeon, he is a butcher,” Gurung says.
CNN refused GPJ’s requests to speak directly to Gupta. Hume, the author of both the correct and incorrect versions of the story, declined to comment when reached by phone.
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.
Gurung says he didn’t know what Gupta had done until CNN aired its footage. Had he known that Gupta would operate on a patient, he says he wouldn’t have allowed him into the operating room.
CNN’s videos featuring Salina went viral across the globe, unbeknownst to Salina and her family, who say they’d never heard of CNN or Gupta before a GPJ reporter told them about the coverage.
Original versions of the story that feature Sandhya instead of Salina are available on many CNN affiliate sites and other sites across the Web.
The CNN crew did not get permission to photograph Sandhya or publish those photos, says her mother, Sumitra Chalise.
Sandhya and her family were also initially unaware of CNN’s coverage, including the original text story that featured Sandhya, and that CNN had scrubbed references to Sandhya from its website.
Sumitra Chalise says she saw Gupta, whom she understood to be a CNN reporter, and the CNN crew at the hospital.
“The reporter was also in scrubs when Sandhya was escorted into the operation theater,” Sumitra Chalise says. “I do not know what he did inside.”
Sandhya, interviewed in Ramkot, her home village fewer than 10 miles from Kathmandu, has a long scar across her hairline, but she is on her way to a full recovery. She attends school.
She returned to Bir Hospital for follow-up appointments. At her last appointment, on July 6, she was told she was recovering well and would not need to come back.
Although Sandhya’s surgery was a success, doctors at Bir Hospital initially disputed CNN’s version of events in the operating room.
Dr. Rajiv Jha, a neurosurgeon at Bir Hospital who appears in CNN’s videos and who was in the operating room when Sandhya had her craniotomy, repeatedly told GPJ that Gupta asked to help in a brain surgery. In CNN’s videos, Gupta states that doctors at Bir Hospital asked for his assistance.
“I met him in the morning. Since the morning, he wanted to help me during surgeries,” Jha says. “But as I said, that I have sufficient manpower to perform the neurosurgeries.”
In a widely circulated CNN video clip, Gupta is shown wearing surgical scrubs and leaning over a patient while holding a suction tool. Jha told GPJ that Gupta merely observed in the surgery, and briefly used a suction tool to examine Jha’s work.
But CNN provided GPJ with unused raw footage showing Gupta in the same operating room with Jha, using a hand-operated drill, a string saw and other tools. That video was never released publicly; CNN provided it to GPJ as proof that Gupta did more than observe.
The identity of the patient on the table has been the source of the most debate. Jha told GPJ in an on-the-record, videotaped interview, in English, that the operation Gupta scrubbed in on was on an “adult child,” not a small child. In CNN’s statement, the news organization insists Gupta operated on a “young girl.”
It’s not clear if either doctor is referring to Sandhya, the actual patient Gupta operated on.
Both men are accomplished neurosurgeons.
Jha has 14 years of neurosurgery experience. He has studied in Russia, India, Germany and the United States as well as Nepal. His medical fellowships have included one from the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, during which he spent time at the University of California, San Francisco in 2013.
Gupta is also a decorated neurosurgeon. President Barack Obama tapped him as a candidate for surgeon general, the top medical official in the U.S., in 2009; Gupta pulled out of consideration for the role. He has earned international acclaim, and some criticism, for performing on-camera medical procedures after Haiti’s January 2010 earthquake, and in other emergency situations.
GPJ located Salina, the 8-year-old girl named in the CNN report, and her family in a remote part of the Kavrepalanchok district, known in Nepal as Kavre district. Salina’s home village of Dahal Tole is just 26 miles from Kathmandu, but the journey – which includes stretches of road most cars can’t pass – takes about three hours.
On the day of the quake, Ram Prasad Dahal, Salina’s grandfather, and his wife were caring for Salina and her younger twin brothers while their parents were away.
When the quake hit, Salina was cutting grass outside a neighbor’s house to feed to her family’s goats, Dahal says. Salina was injured as that home crumbled. Gupta, in an April 27 CNN video, says Salina “spent hours in the rubble,” but Dahal says she was rescued after about 10 minutes.
Dahal took Salina to a local hospital, but there was no space for her there. He says he brought her to Norvic International Hospital, a private hospital in Kathmandu, where staff performed a CT scan and bandaged her head.
“After seeing the CT scan from Norvic, they said that the girl’s head does not have to be operated,” Dahal says, in an interview translated from Nepali.
Salina stayed there for more than a day. Staff told Dahal he needed to move her elsewhere if he couldn’t pay Norvic’s bill, so he took her to Bir Hospital.
She arrived at Bir Hospital by ambulance on April 27. That’s when Jha examined the results of the CT scan performed at Norvic, Dahal says. CNN’s videos show Gupta also examining a scan.
Staff at Bir Hospital set Salina’s broken wrist and put a cast on it, Ram Prasad Dahal says.
Speaking with the permission of her grandfather, Salina tells GPJ in Nepali that she doesn’t recall much from that day.
“They only cleaned my head,” she says.
Salina stayed in the hospital for eight days as doctors observed her recovery, Dahal says.
In CNN’s own original coverage, Hume’s article quotes Bikesh Khambu, a neurosurgeon at Bir Hospital, as saying, “Her right hand is limited, but she is psychologically intact. Will she be OK? That’s a possibility.”
Now back in her home village, Salina lives with her grandparents, parents and brothers in a makeshift hut the family built from tin, bamboo and wood. She attends school while her parents work in nearby fields. The family’s home has not been rebuilt.
No one in the family had heard of CNN before GPJ described the 24-hour news network’s coverage of Salina. They didn’t know that Salina had been the subject of multiple, widely televised videos, or that the girl now has her own profile page on television and movie encyclopedia www.imdb.com; the entry identifies her as Selena Dohal, using CNN’s misspellings.
Rama Dahal, Salina’s grandmother, cried when, on June 29, she first saw CNN’s video showing Salina with a bandaged head and arm.
Salina and other children were delighted to see the video, but they didn’t know how extensively the footage had been publicized worldwide. They were not told about the false claims made about Salina’s post-quake care.
Sandhya also visited several hospitals before she went to Bir Hospital. She was injured when bricks fell on her during the earthquake.
Her mother, Sumitra Chalise, says it was evident her daughter was badly hurt.
“She kept vomiting,” Sumitra Chalise says. “She turned yellow. She was weak and was sleeping.”
A police van transported Sandhya, her mother and her sister to Manmohan Memorial Community Hospital, where doctors said that her brain injuries should be treated elsewhere. At a second hospital, they were told that there was no room for her, so they went to Norvic International Hospital, where they waited two hours for assistance.
“I didn’t think she would live,” Sumitra Chalise says of her daughter. “She kept vomiting.”
Sandhya was scheduled for surgery at Norvic on April 26, but an aftershock prevented that surgery from taking place. The next day, neurosurgeon Jha, who performs surgeries at both Norvic and Bir, told Sumitra Chalise to take her daughter to Bir, she says. There, Sandhya had a craniotomy on April 27.
Despite her head trauma, Sandhya recalls the quake.
“I was watching TV upstairs and the bed shook,” she says. “I thought it was rats. Later I came to know it was an earthquake. I unplugged the TV and ran out.”
When Sandhya arrived at Bir Hospital, doctors told her not to be scared, she says. They gave her saline water and other treatments, and cut her hair.
She says Jha performed her surgery.
Sandhya’s hospital records do not mention Gupta.
Gurung, the hospital’s vice chancellor, says he questions Gupta’s professionalism.
“Either he becomes a neurosurgeon or he should be a journalist,” Gurung says. “It is a choice. Everybody has got a choice.”
Editor’s note: Dipa Dahal, who provided a photograph for this story, is no relation to Salina Dahal.