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Top Medical Stories of 2011

Aired December 31, 2011 - 07:30   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, HOST: Good morning and happy New Year. And thanks so much for being with us at this early hour. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

You know, before we talk about 2012, I wanted to take some time to reflect on the stories and people that really caught my attention and changed the world over this past year.


GUPTA (voice-over): January 8th, gunfire at a campaign event for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Six people are killed.

911: Was anybody injured? Did you say Gabrielle Giffords was hit?

CALLER: She's hit.

I do believe she is breathing, she still has a pulse.

GUPTA: The congresswoman was shot in the head but survives.

DR. PETER RHEE, TRAUMA SURGEON: She was lucky. When I saw the trajectory of where one hole was and the other was, I was like, my gosh, you know? However --

GUPTA (on camera): Let me -- because it was so far apart?

RHEE: Yes. I mean, it wasn't a little skiving thing. It went through a lot.

GUPTA (voice-over): Three and a half months later, the first public steps in the congresswoman's remarkable recovery.

In 2011, I tried to put a spotlight on big hits on the brain. Trying to find evidence that football puts young people at serious risk and professional players as well.

In February, former Chicago Bear safety David Duerson committed suicide, and he left his brain to scientific research. When the findings came back, his brain had telltale signs of chronic injury. As stories like this rolled in, the NFL put in new rules to try and protect its players.


GUPTA: Then it was March. And I witnessed the aftermath of an astonishing disaster in Japan.

Our first hours on the ground were just scary.

(on camera): So, we are going to move at this point. These seem like official warnings now.

(voice-over): There was no tsunami, we were safe. But more than 16,000 people lost their lives. And thanks to leaks from a crippled nuclear plant, the district around Fukushima will be unlivable for years to come.

In May, the World Health Organization said cell phones might -- might cause brain cancer. Brain scans can actually spot the impact of radiation from phones. Some studies found a cancer link.

It doesn't mean cell phones are dangerous, but to be on the safe side, I always say use an ear piece.

July brought questions about cancer and 9/11 just ahead of the tenth anniversary of the attacks. Federal authorities say there's not strong evidence connecting dust from the fallen Twin Towers and cancer. First responders with cancer would receive special compensation. But just a month later, a big study of New York firefighters found the opposite.

DR. DAVID PREZANT, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER, FDNY: We found a 19 percent increase in all cancers in our exposed firefighters, as compared to our non-exposed firefighters.

GUPTA: The decision on compensation could still be reversed.

In October, the spotlight landed on the PSA test, to detect prostate cancer, a test undergone by more than 20 million men each year. A federal advisory panel said the PSA test just isn't worth it.

Then November, exciting news of a stem cell break through. Two studies using infusions of a patient's own stem cells, one found the cells could regrow dead heart tissue, once thought to be impossible. And the other study found the cells could reverse heart failure.

One story that was left unresolved -- the fight over the health care law. Critics call it Obamacare.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I said time and again, Obamacare is bad news. It's unconstitutional. It costs way too much money, a trillion dollars. And if I'm president of the United States, I will repeal it for the American people.

GUPTA: In November, the Supreme Court agreed to decide the law's fate next year.


GUPTA: Of course, most stories never end. And this morning, I wanted to give you some updates. For rescue workers at Ground Zero, cancer is not the only concern. Many like Marty Fullam were left with permanent lung disease, even got a transplant but it failed when his body rejected the lung. And then he applied for a second transplant.


GUPTA: How sick is Marty?

PREZANT: Marty is as sick as can be. Marty is still alive because of his ability to persevere.

GUPTA (voice-over): But that may not be enough to help him breathe again. And just recently he found out whether he will get the transplant that could save his life.

MARTY FULLAM: I was being considered to be listed again for a second transplant, and then a month ago, they told me no, I wouldn't be considered.


GUPTA: That's tough to hear, as you might imagine.

We did just recently hear from a friend of Marty, they said Marty still has hope. In fact, he's trying to get him on the transplant list at Duke.

And more heroes falling on tough times. In mid-December, the last U.S. troops left Iraq, but as I am constantly reminded, war can inflict a toll long beyond the withdrawal date. I was shocked to learn on any given night, for example, more than 100,000 veterans are literally sleeping on the street.

And until recently, Robert Rissman was one of them.


GUPTA (voice-over): Ex-soldiers like Robert are desperate for steady care and for stable housing.

So, I was stunned to hear about a piece of property in west Los Angeles, set aside for this very purpose, for veterans, for long-term housing, and it's literally across the street from the V.A. hospital.

(on camera): The story here actually dates back all the way to the 1880s. Back then the government wanted to create facilities for aging veterans of the Civil War. So, former Senator John P. Jones and his friend, who was glamorous heiress, decided to donate all of this land.

Now, back then, it was mostly ranchland. But today, just few miles from the Pacific Ocean, it's some of the most valuable real estate in all of North America.


GUPTA (voice-over): Ex-soldiers like Robert are desperate for steady care and for stable housing.

So, I was stunned to hear about a piece of property in west Los Angeles, set aside for this very purpose, for veterans, for long-term housing, and it's literally across the street from the V.A. hospital.

(on camera): The story here actually dates back all the way to the 1880s. Back then the government wanted to create facilities for aging veterans of the Civil War. So, former Senator John P. Jones and his friend, who was glamorous heiress, decided to donate all of this land.

Now, back then, it was mostly ranchland. But today, just few miles from the Pacific Ocean, it's some of the most valuable real estate in all of North America.

(voice-over): Eventually the chief of staff at the L.A. V.A. hospital agreed to meet me and defended the V.A.'s work.

DR. DEAN NORMAN, CHIEF OF STAFF, VA GREATER LA HEALTHCARE SYSTEM: I think we have the resources with the community to end homelessness of veterans in Los Angeles. That we do.


GUPTA: Now, the case is still pending. Meanwhile, Robert does continue to do well. Also, just recently, the national V.A. announced that its efforts have reduced the number of homeless vets by 12 percent. Still a long way to go.

And still ahead, more updates, folks from the last heart attack, swimmer Diana Nyad, and what about that little Darth Vader kid, remember him? Max Page.


GUPTA: You know, with some medical breakthroughs, you don't need a new scientific discovery. In fact, one of the most fascinating stories I've reported in 2011 is called "The Last Heart Attack."


GUPTA: You're saying with what we know right now, we don't have to have any more heart attacks in this country?

DR. ARTHUR AGATSTON, INVENTOR, CORONARY CALCIUM SCAN: I'll never say not any, but the great majority, yes. Absolutely.

GUPTA: It's the biggest killer of men and women, heart disease in this country.

AGATSON: And it's completely preventable.


GUPTA: Now, Dr. Arthur Agatston has created these new tests to try and detect deadly plaques in our arteries, to see who's really at risk of a heart attack.

Now, I got the test as well and it was nerve-racking.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) GUPTA: Someone made the comment to me this is sort of a four-year guarantee, that I won't have a heart attack. Would you agree with that?

AGATSTON: Yes, I'd extend it to five to seven, eight years.

GUPTA: You say, based on what you've already seen before we go over this, five to seven years, if I'm feeling chest pains, probably not a heart attack.



GUPTA: You know, I also learn something else. And that is food can be medicine. Sharon Kintz, remember her? She had a hard attack. But instead of undergoing surgery, she became a vegan, and a year later, she still had a clean bill of health.


GUPTA: Sharon, do you think this diet will make you live longer?

SHARON KINTZ: I hope so. I hope I get to see you retire.

GUPTA: I have a feeling you're going to have to live a very long time for that, which I hope you do.

KINTZ: I hope I do, too.


GUPTA: And I'm happy to report that Sharon is still in tip-top shape.

There's another story I want to tell you about, one that I'll never forgot. Back in August, I was witness to a slow-motion disaster, a real famine washing over Somalia.


GUPTA: People have known for months and months this was coming. Thirty thousand people, as you've heard, died over the last three months.

Even after you get to one of these camps, there's still not enough food here, not enough water and there's plenty of infectious diseases.


GUPTA: I'll tell you, today, the situation is marginally better. The U.N. says the number of Somalis at risk of starvation is down to 250,000 people. It's still a huge number, 250,000. And some aid groups had to scale back operations in the Dadaab refugee camps because of explosions which were directed at the police. More than half million Somalis are still living in overcrowded refugee camps, and there's little reason to expect they'll be headed home soon. So, certainly, keep them in your thoughts.

I'll tell you, when I was in Somalia, there was a different story unfolding on the other side of the world. Diana Nyad, remember her? She's this woman who I think defines tenacity. She is 61 years old.

You see her there back in August jumping in to try to do something no human had done before, swim 103 miles from Cuba to Key West, without any kind of cage or anything. After 29 hours in the water, asthma and a bum shoulder got the best of her.

In September, she tried again -- this time stopping after 67 miles. That's how far she swam. This time stopping because of severe jellyfish stings that paralyzed some of her muscles.

So, she tells us -- you're going to believe this -- she's working on a jellyfish-proof suit so she can give it yet another go. So inspirational.

Coming up, one of the most interesting and cutest -- I will tell you -- people I've met all year. We liked him so much he came back and visited us again. He's Max Page, the mini Darth Vader.


GUPTA: You know, amidst the countless Washington budget battles this year, one crazy cute kid from a Super Bowl commercial was fighting for fewer cuts to Medicaid and other health care program. He is a little guy with this big mission to make Capitol Hill feel the force.



GUPTA: Yes, sir.

M. PAGE: You're it.

GUPTA: I'm it.

M. PAGE: Yes.

(voice over): Max Page only knows one speed -- full steam ahead.

(on camera): I don't know if I can keep up with this kid.

(voice over): Now, you have probably have seen Max before, even though you may not know it. Remember this Volkswagen ad from Super Bowl XIV? Darth Vader? No, just Max.

Within mere seconds of meeting him, Max was asking about my daughters.

GUPTA: Three girls.

M. PAGE: Let me guess, 4-year-old?

GUPTA: Yes. M. PAGE: Two-year-old?

GUPTA: Yes. You got it. How did you know?

(voice over): We are at the Children's Hospital of Los Angeles with Max, and his brother Ells, to see Doctor Michael Silka.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did you get your pacemaker checked?

M. PAGE: Uh-huh.


GUPTA: That is right. Max has a pacemaker. Actually, it is his third, and he's only 6 years old.

For parents Jennifer and Buck, the first sign of trouble came before Max was even born.

JENNIFER PAGE, MAX'S MOM: My 38-week appointment, we found out that Max had structural damage to his heart. They didn't know-they could not get a good heartbeat. They took him emergency C-section, born in a whirlwind.

BUCK PAGE, MAX'S DAD: The last feeling I remember is it is almost hopelessness, because it is out of my hands as a dad. As a dad, that is not something you are used to.

J. PAGE: I just said please just save my son. That is all we are here for. I don't know what you said. I don't understand anything you are going to do. I just-I need you to save my son. I need a chance to know this kid.

GUPTA: It is hard to imagine, but for mom and dad, it was all a blur. Max was born with a heart condition known as Tetralogy of Fallot. It is rare. It includes four separate problems in the heart which leads to a lack of oxygen in the blood.

Without a pacemaker and eight major operations so far, Max probably would not be here.

(on camera): Can you feel it, Max? Can you feel the pacemaker?

M. PAGE: If you like touch it or like something hits hit, that is kind of like when I ever feel it.

MICHAEL SILKA, CARDIOLOGIST, CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL OF LA: It is like the movie "Cars." You know they show the pistons, and the engines going around. You want them working together, right? You don't want them going like this and the other one going at a different rate. You have to have them working together.

And something like this, for Max, or for any child like Max, should be cared for in a Children's Hospital? I mean, could any hospital --

SILKA: Oh, no, no. This is a fairly sophisticated and fairly sub- specialized area of medicine. I'm a pediatric electro-physiologist doctor. There are probably slightly over 100 of us in the country. So, there aren't that many people who really do what we do.


GUPTA: So, we are joined by Darth Vader now.

One of my favorite parts of the year was spending time with you guys, the Page family. Welcome back.

B. PAGE: Thank you.

GUPTA: Thanks so much.

How are you doing, buddy? Doing OK?

It's funny. So many people have been asking me about you since they saw me interview you, and even remembered the commercial. But can people get a chance to see you now for real? Want to take the helmet off?

There he is, Max Page. You are really cute without that helmet. This looks great, but look at this. You look fantastic.

Good to see you. Thanks for coming to visit me.

M. PAGE: You're welcome.

GUPTA: How has your year been?


GUPTA: Right. How has your year been, Max?

M. PAGE: Good.

GUPTA: You've been traveling a lot?

M. PAGE: Yes.

GUPTA: Where were you today, or yesterday?

M. PAGE: South Carolina.

GUPTA: What were you doing there?

M. PAGE: I was saying thank you to St. Jude Medical for building my pacemaker.

GUPTA: A lot of people I don't think know you have a pacemaker. You've had a pacemaker for some time now, right?

M. PAGE: Yes.

GUPTA: This is your third one?

M. PAGE: Third, right?

J. PAGE: Third.

GUPTA: How are you feeling?

M. PAGE: Good.

GUPTA: Feel fine?

M. PAGE: Yes.

GUPTA: Doctors say you're good to go. Everything's good?

M. PAGE: Yes.

GUPTA: You look great. I always love seeing you.

How's everything going with you guys? I mean, you guys had a busy year. Last time we spoke there was a lot of optimism, around Ells. Hello. I can't ignore you.

OK, all right. I have kids. This is very important. Show us the wiggly tooth. There it is. This is a very, very big achievement.

B. PAGE: Monumental moment.

GUPTA: Monumental moment. A lot of kids are very jealous right now. Not even 5 yet. Oh, no, you just turned 5. You're going to be 6 in January.

M. PAGE: He's 5. A lot of kids are really jealous.

GUPTA: A busy year for you guys. I know there was a lot of optimism surrounding the work you guys were doing in Washington, but tell us a little bit about that before we tell people what happened.

B. PAGE: Well, we went to Washington, D.C. on behalf of the children's hospital network across the country, and in helping to continue to have the funding available for the children's hospital network across the United States. Children's Hospital Los Angeles is our home, and because of the doctors and the training that they have, when we needed -- when Max was born and we needed the care, they were there immediately for us, and we wanted to secure, make sure that that is always going to be the case for the parents and the children that will come behind us.

GUPTA: I mean, you're talking about eight major operations for Max. This was obviously, Jennifer, a really important asset, resource to have in your backyard. There's 56 children's hospitals around the country. What that risk right now with all this going on?

J. PAGE: For us, our hospital takes every child and they're 75 percent Medicaid. So, if Medicaid is cut, that's going to dramatically impact our hospital. And then the graduate training program. If we're not training pediatricians, and pedia -- you know, with peds, it's going to be devastating. There won't be the specialists that we need.

I mean, Max required several specialists, from intestines to heart, you know, and a skilled pediatrician that can see signs that when he presents like the flu, that now, it's more serious, let's get in.

So, we would -- it just -- for us personally, it's Max's journey. But we just feel such an obligation to those that come behind us, to make sure that everything is set for them, too.

GUPTA: Well, we're glad to have you back. This is one of my favorite parts of the year, why I love being a journalist, getting a chance to meet people like you.

B. PAGE: We thank you very much. It's been wonderful for us as well.

GUPTA: I think everyone should care about this issue. But certainly, you know, I think -- I have three daughters of my own. As Max well knows and I think it makes you obviously care just a little bit more.

So -- thanks a lot, guys. Happy holidays.

J. PAGE: You, too.

GUPTA: Good luck.

M. PAGE: Merry Christmas.

GUPTA: Merry Christmas.

J. PAGE: And give him the force on the way out.


Now, I will tell you something else -- while Congress appropriated funds for the graduate medical education program for 2012, funding beyond that point is uncertain. The Senate left and went on recess without making any headway on the reauthorization of the CHGME program, which would guarantee funding for an additional five years. That's where things stand. Crazy cute kid.

Up next, though, a look ahead to big story we're going to be all over in 2012, it's the concussions crisis in football. And a sneak peek of my documentary, it's called "Big Hits, Broken Dreams." We'll give you that straight ahead.


GUPTA: Now a story we've been covering for some time now, an interest of mine -- concussions. You may remember, earlier this year, former Chicago Bear and New York Giants player Dave Duerson found to have a form of dementia from constant hard hits to his brain. And this year alone, more than 80 former NFL players, including four just last week, have filed suits, claiming that the NFL hid the dangers of concussions from them.

Now, the first part of the NFL says player safety is a priority and they gave a statement that read in part, "Any allegation that the NFL intentionally sought to mislead players has no merit. It stands in contrast to the league's actions to better protect players. Now, just this last week, the NFL begun requiring athletic trainers to be present at every game as an additional set of eyes to spot big hits.

A sneak peek of my upcoming documentary by the same name, "Big Hits, Broken Dreams."


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Friday night is pretty big around here. Football in North Carolina is really big.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you're from around this area, you know (INAUDIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Excited. Ready to go. That's all I thought, every single day. Football, football, football.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Football is a tough sport. You know. It ain't for everybody. There's collisions in this sport.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My little brother. He's not moving. He needs help breathing. I mean, I just lost it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: While he was tackled, walked to the side lines and then collapsed.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Friday night's death of Jaquan Waller is being felt --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a very tough time for the whole community.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They had a tragedy, and it really brought it all to the forefront.

GUPTA: How important to have athletic trainers at these football programs?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Would you drop a kid off at a pool that didn't have a lifeguard? People are starting to take a look at how important health and safety is for athletes.

GUPTA: Six concussions.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I remember getting hit hard, that actually rang my bell.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For the first three weeks, just a constant headache.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The trainer was asking me questions. I answered them all wrong.

GUPTA: What we're seeing, is this definitely caused by blows it the head.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When my son can't remember stuff, I think that, you know, it's my fault.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There are a small percentage of impacts that simulate that car crash.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He does have symptoms of a concussion.

GUPTA: A parent came to you and said, coach, my kid really wants to play football but I want to you tell me he's going to be safe.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can't guarantee that.

GUPTA: It is a violent game. That's always going to be there. Can you make this game safer?


GUPTA: Hope you get a chance to watch this documentary. We answer a lot of important questions. This Rose Rampant, that team there, the question they're asking, can they turn tragedy into triumph? And also, can they still play safe and also win? Full investigations called "Big Hits, Broken Dreams." It's going to be Sunday, January 29, at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN.

Unfortunately, this going to wrap things up for SGMD this morning and this year.

Stay connected with me on my Lifestream at Also, join the conversation on Twitter @SanjayGuptaCNN.

Hope to see you back here next weekend.

Time to get a check of your top stories in "THE CNN NEWSROOM."