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Youssif's Recovery; Health Care Battle; Conceiving After Cancer; Dealing with Depression

Aired December 17, 2011 - 07:30   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, HOST: Hey there, and thanks for joining me this morning. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.


GUPTA (voice-over): A man who helped design President Obama's health care law and Mitt Romney's plan in Massachusetts is getting angry.

A woman who thought she faced a choice between beating cancer and having kids.

Plus, Dr. Andrew Weil on how to beat the holiday blues.


GUPTA: But, first, I have an update on a little boy named Youssif. He's become a friend of mine.

His story began in Iraq and it began with some of the most unimaginable cruelty I've ever heard about. It struck a chord with me as a father and as a journalist. And it struck a chord with millions of CNN viewers around the world.

Mask men came to Youssif's home. They covered him with kerosene and they set this little boy on fire. Now, it's hard to imagine anyone can do that to a child.

But, you know, Youssif's story isn't so much about cruelty, it's about strength. It's about healing and courage.


ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Now 9, it's hard to believe that this is the same Youssif we met in Baghdad four years ago. There's no trace of the sullen, withdrawn and angry boy he once was, no trace of the boy who could only speak a few words of English.

YOUSSIF, DOUSED BY GASOLINE IN IRAQ: I'm still making it. I'm doing, like, soccer games and practice. I never used to do that in my country.

DAMON (on camera): Why didn't you do it in your country?

YOUSSIF: Because it was kind of dangerous.

DAMON: Do you remember that day when those guys attacked you?


DAMON (voice-over): He used to. This was Youssif, just 5 years old at the time. He was attacked by masked men right in front of his home in early January, 2007.

YOUSSIF: They poured gasoline, burnt me, and ran.

DAMON: His family begged for help, desperate to see their boy smile again, a plea heard around the world. CNN viewers donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Children's Burn Foundation that took on his case.

But life in the U.S. has not been easy for this Iraqi family, soon to become American citizens. Along with a younger sister, Youssif also now has a 2-year-old brother.

(on camera): Where do you guys sleep?

YOUSSIF: We sleep over there.

DAMON: Will you show me?


We sleep right here.

DAMON: You sleep right here, on the ground?


DAMON: And Aya (ph), you sleep there?


DAMON: And Youssif, you sleep here?


DAMON: The family's had a pretty tough time, despite the fact that they're very grateful to everyone for everything that has transpired since they came to America, since being in Iraq. But it hasn't been entirely easy for them, and then there's, of course, financial difficulties as well.

And so, as Youssif was showing us, the kids are literally sleeping on the floor. I mean, there's two levels of carpeting here, but that's all they have, and then the flimsy blanket.

(voice-over): The surgeries are covered by the California State Children Services, and they would be for other children who live in California. But the family has to make ends meet on the father's security guard salary of $9 an hour, plus welfare and food stamps. And the family is desperately home sick, despite all of Youssif's friends.

(on camera): So, do you want to go back to Iraq?

YOUSSIF: Kind of, yes.


YOUSSIF: Because it kind of is my country and I miss everyone that I knew there.

DAMON (voice-over): And with U.S. troops leaving, they do worry that Iraq may never be safe enough for them to go back home.

YOUSSIF: Oh, man. My leg is -- oh my God. It's trying to come higher.

DAMON: Arwa Damon, CNN, Los Angeles.


GUPTA: As you can see there, Youssif is doing well. In fact, when I last saw him, he was just as happy. He was cracking jokes. He was proud to show off his English, which has gotten better there. But his doctors say he's going to need more operations over the next few years.

And, of course, as with many immigrant families, they face financial challenges. All the items you saw there in their one-bedroom home were donated by people like you from all over the country.

If you want to donate directly, you can reach Youssif and his family on Twitter @Youssif-Iraq.

It's hard to believe we're just barely two weeks from the first nominating contest of the 2012 presidential election. Now, one place where Republican candidates all seemingly agree, they want to get rid of President Obama's health care law.

My next guest has a unique perspective on this. He not designed -- helped design the law, he also helped design Mitt Romney's health care plan back in Massachusetts. The Obama administration hired him as a technical adviser to Congress when it debated the law.

Now, he has a book out. It's a comic book, in fact, to try to explain the law to everyone else. It's called "Health Care Reform: What It Is, Why It's Necessary, How It Works."

Jonathan Gruber is an economist at MIT and he joins me now from Boston.

Welcome to the show, Jonathan. You don't think about comic books and economists often in the same sentence. And I want to talk about that in just a second. But, look, I've been following your comments, commentary for some time now. You do have this unique perspective. When you describe this, what do you describe as the differences between the Obama plan and the plan in Massachusetts?

JONATHAN GRUBER, ECONOMICS PROFESSOR, MIT: Basically, Sanjay, at their core they are really the same plan basically. The basic goal of the Massachusetts plan was to build on what worked with our health insurance system and to fill in the cracks, to cover the uninsured, fix the broken market for individual insurance purchase. The federal law is really the same basis.

It's basically saying, look, we've got a broken insurance market where insurers can discriminate against the sick, we're going to end those practices. We're going to make sure everyone has health insurance. And we're going to make it affordable by subsidizing the purchase.

It's really the same basic plan we did in Massachusetts.

GUPTA: Does the federal bill -- even being more ambitious -- does it reduce costs enough to accomplish things you're saying?

GRUBER: Well, basically you have to understand reducing health care cost is a really, really difficult issue. We don't really know the right answer on how to do that, to be honest. So, what the bill does, it tries what I call a spaghetti approach to cost control. It throws a bunch of stuff against the wall and see what sticks.

We take four or five and the things that we know are the ideas now on cost control. We try them all, and we learn about what's going to really work ultimately to control health care cost in America.

GUPTA: This is coming up a lot, as you know better than anyone, Jonathan, as you listen to Governor Romney, you know, when he talks about what happens in Massachusetts. He says these are different. He's come out on the record saying what happened in Massachusetts, what's happening at the national level, are very different.

You have said he is either lying or at least misleading people. Which part specifically? Was there something you specifically took issue with what the governor said?

GRUBER: Yes, I do. I mean, basically, I take issue with two things he says.

First of all, he says, well, I didn't have to raise taxes and Obama did. Well, he didn't have to raise taxes because the federal government paid for his bill. It's really unfair for him to say, gee, I didn't have to pay taxes and ignore the fact that he got a huge subsidy from the federal government to make his bill possible. Clearly, that's not possible at the national level.

The second thing I take issue with, he says, well, my bill was right for Massachusetts but not right for the nation. But h never says why.

In fact, he's wrong. This approach can work everywhere in the nation and it will work.

GUPTA: Wasn't there the equivalent of a mandate? This is a term that people are starting to get to know more and more, where people have to buy insurance if they can afford it. Was there a mandate in Massachusetts? This seems to be something Governor Romney is dead-set against.

GRUBER: No. See, there was a mandate -- I mean, yes, there was a machine date in Massachusetts where the first state in the nation to have a health insurance mandate and it's been effective. We've covered two-thirds of our citizens, two-thirds of our uninsured citizens now have health insurance and the law remains popular with about two-thirds public support despite the mandate.

GUPTA: So, you would say what happens in Massachusetts was successful in terms of getting people who didn't have insurance, getting them insurance. Is that correct? Did it accomplish its goals?

GRUBER: I think the bill had two goals. It was to get the uninsured insured and did accomplish that goal. And it was to fix a broken individual insurance market.

I can't emphasize this enough, Sanjay, that most of your listeners or viewers will have insurance through their employers and won't understand that if you don't have employer-provided insurance in America today, you're in big trouble. You're in a market where insurers can discriminate against you based on your health, and charge you outrageous prices.

And so, the goal is not to help the uninsured but it's to fix that individual insurance market which is so critical for those who aren't offered insurance by their employer.

GUPTA: And just another question about this mandate quickly, because this is the big issue I think in 2012, the Supreme Court is going to weigh in on this as well. Newt Gingrich as well my reading suggests that he's also supported an individual mandate in the past.

Is that your understanding?

GRUBER: It's not just Newt Gingrich. This is a Republican idea. I mean, when Mitt Romney signed this bill in 2006, there was a speaker from the Heritage Foundation, a right wing think tank, on the platform saying what a wonderful bill this was.

This was only once President Obama adopted this idea, because it's such a good one, that suddenly it became a bad idea from the perspective of conservatives.

GUPTA: Jonathan, it's going to be a busy year for you, I'm sure, in 2012. A lot of people will be asking you questions. Hopefully, you'll come back and visit us to answer some of them as well.

But up next this morning right here on SGMD, long-term planning pays off for one cancer survivor. We'll show you how.


GUPTA: We're heading into our third year now of the CNN Fit Nation Challenge. Let me tell you something, it hasn't just transformed my life. It's also changed the lives of a lot of viewers, just like you.

2011 6-pack member Nina Lovel is now competing in a half marathon in February. Joaquin Brignoni, he's training for a half Ironman next spring.

And Dr. Scott Zahn, remember this man? He's taking the challenge back to his hometown of Green Bay, Wisconsin. He started a Fit Nation challenge all on his own with the employees of a health care system where he works. It's exactly what we were hoping to see.

This Monday is the last day to get your submissions in to join me for 2012. It's pretty easy to do. Just logon to Submit a two to three-minute video telling us why you should be part of next year's 6-pack.

This next woman Sarah Werner, when she was just 26 years old, she found herself battling cancer. Even in the darkest times, she dreamed about becoming a mom. And against all odds, she was determined not to let anything stand in her way.


SARAH WERNER, CANCER SURVIVOR: Yes, he looks like his momma.

GUPTA (voice-over): Being a mom was always Sarah Werner's dream. She never imagined it would take the help of a total stranger, Denise Bennett (ph), to deliver that dream. At 26, Sarah got devastating news. She had advanced cervical cancer and needed a hysterectomy.

WERNER: I went obviously completely into menopause, infertile in a matter of weeks after the diagnosis. So, emotionally, it was a pretty tough pill to swallow.

GUPTA: But before she would undergo any cancer treatment, surgery, chemotherapy or radiation, she fought to keep her dream alive and she found a doctor willing to try to help.

WERNER: I made it very clear that I wanted to be a mother no matter what it took. Doctor Mitch (ph) is like, we are going to harvest your eggs. We're going to make embryos. But we had to move very quickly.

GUPTA: Ten years later, despite being divorced, Sarah was ready to be a mom. And while she is cancer-free now, she cannot carry a child.

And then she found Denise, who agreed to be her surrogate.

WERNER: To sit back and see that first ultrasound was more than just -- it was more than just realizing a dream of becoming a mother, but it was like I could finally relax and it wasn't going to be a fight anymore.

GUPTA: Denise carried and delivered a healthy baby boy. As Sarah prepares to take little Chase (ph) home from the hospital with her boyfriend, Matt, firmly by her side, she is overcome by the joy of having her dream finally come true.

WERNER: When I first had my hysterectomy and they told me that I could get a surrogate and have a baby, you know, that was to me like going to the moon, like I didn't know anybody else that had done that. It sounded so crazy to me.

So, to sit here and have, you know, this little baby produced -- you know, it took effort on so many people's behalf, but it -- I mean, it can happen.


GUPTA: I'll tell you, for female cancer patients who want the option of having children, the best scenario is freezing an embryo like Sarah did. Harvesting and freezing eggs, that's another option. And for men, there's sperm banking.

Now, all these options are costly. But some insurance plans will help and there's programs as well that will help defer some of that cost.

Now, still ahead this morning on SGMD: just in time for the holidays, Dr. Andrew Weil, and his advice on dealing with depression.

Stay with us.


GUPTA: You know, the World Health Organization predicts that less than -- in less than 20 years, depression will be the second most widespread illness in the world, behind only HIV/AIDS. Even now in any given year, one in 10 Americans suffers from a mood disorder.

It makes you wonder exactly what's happening here and who can help us understand this better than Dr. Andrew Weil, the books is "Spontaneous Happiness."

What prompted you then to write this book at this time?

DR. ANDREW WEIL, FOUNDER & DIRECTOR, ARIZONA CENTER FOR INTEGRATIVE MEDICINE: I found out that the most frequent question coming into my Web site, was about depression. And then I looked into the statistics. More than one in 10 Americans is on a prescribed anti- depressant drug. The number of children taking psychiatric medications is enormous.

Now, why are we experiencing the epidemic of depression today? Now, what's different?

Some of this, I think, is manufactured by the medical pharmaceutical complex which has been very successful at convincing people that ordinary states of sadness or imbalances in brain chemistry that need to be treated.

Let's take that out. I don't know what it is. Maybe 20 percent, 25 percent, or even more. It still leaves us with a lot of depression to explain.

Now, what's different today?


WEIL: One clue that I found in writing this book is that depression is virtually unknown in hunter/gatherer societies. That's interesting. You know, everything's different there.

GUPTA: Right.

WEIL: Another is that depression correlates with affluence. The more people have the less satisfied they seem to be.

I think big factors are increasing social isolation in the past century and I think a lot of things about modern life foster that. Our diets are different. We're disconnected from nature.

I also think information overload is a big factor and all the effects of new media and how they are affecting our brains.

GUPTA: Do you -- do you -- besides the fish oil, for example, and meditation, do you do things different? I mean, hunter/gatherer society, you are someone who has means, resources.

WEIL: Right.

GUPTA: And more affluent than the average person. What do you do if you fall into that category?

WEIL: I make sure I'm physically active every day. I spend time in nature. I tend to my sleep. I tried to associate more with positive people.

And, again, very strong evidence that happiness is contagious, as is depression. If you have a happy friend that lives within a half hour of you, you're more likely to be happy.

GUPTA: I love that. I think that's great.

WEIL: That's great.

GUPTA: How far do you live?


GUPTA: Too far. I'll have to find somebody else.

WEIL: You know -- and I also learn -- I came to a lot of things -- I got happier in the course of writing the book. One of the things that surprise me was the amount of scientific data we have for how powerful an intervention is feeling and expressing gratitude. There's positive -- from positive psychology, there's a simple exercise which is to keep a gratitude journal.

So during the day, you just make mental notes of things to be grateful for and before you go to bed at night, you write it in a little notebook. Doing it for one week can produce an elevation of mood that last for six months.

I mean, how simple. And all you have to do, there's nothing in the way that you can't remember to do it.

GUPTA: It's a lot easier than the other therapies we hear about.

You know, it always sounds falsely humble when I say this, but being charitable, I know for myself --

WEIL: Absolutely.

GUPTA: And like I said, it sounds falsely humble, but I feel very good about being charitable, almost to the point where it feels selfish.

WEIL: Interesting. That's called the helper's high and there had even been some theological discourse on whether it's truly being altruistic or you're being selfish. And the general consensus is that this is fine and it is perfectly OK to feel good about doing good for others.

GUPTA: What about children? Because the society that you describe that might be the most problematic is the society that's becoming more common for our kids.

WEIL: Absolutely. I worry a lot about the effects of the new media and information overload on kids. We have some data that the kids who spend the most time on the Internet are most prone to depression. And again I think this is because of the social isolation that that promotes.

GUPTA: There are medications out there that make people feel a little more cheery, put a little more spring in their step.

WEIL: Yes.

GUPTA: If they get to the point where these medications -- they have side effects, but they deal with the side effect profiles and they're generally safe. Is that a problem?

WEIL: I'm all for that as long as they don't create the need for more of them as happens with many of our drugs. There are also some natural remedies out there that I think people might want to try before they take prescribed medication.

GUPTA: Such as?

WEIL: Things like St. John's wort and Sami.

GUPTA: I thought the St. John's wort literature was pretty -- wasn't very convincing.

WEIL: For mild and moderate depression, it looks pretty good. Not for severe depression. Not for severe depression, it's not indicated for that.

SAMe, S-adenosylmethionine, a dietary supplement, good evidence, and also works for aches and pains and osteoarthritis. So if depression is accompanied by bodily aches and it's worth trying. Also works rapidly, which is an advantage.

There's an Indian herb that I use called Ashwagandha.

GUPTA: Is it something you take?

WEIL: Quite safe. I don't need it. But it is a relaxant and calming.

So for someone that has depression with anxiety, that might be a good thing to try.

Anyway, these are all things to try. They can't hurt you and you might give them a try before you resort to a prescribed drug.

GUPTA: You know, we will have a whole lot of history to look back on to see what worked and didn't work.

WEIL: Yes.

GUPTA: It's always fascinating to speak with you, and I'm glad you're well.

WEIL: Thanks.

GUPTA: Congratulations on the book. Take care of yourself. Don't tour too much.



GUPTA (voice-over): Salt adds flavor to just about everything and sodium in salt is an essential nutrient. But too much or too little can cause major health problems. The USDA says people should limit sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams a day and says most adults should keep it to 1,500. Some recent studies find levels too low could raise your cholesterol. Your best bet, read the labels, talk to your doctor.

That's food for life.



GUPTA: I'll introduce you now to Scott Snibbe. He creates new worlds. But rather than always moving us forward, sometimes his new worlds take us back to our childhood.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SCOTT SNIBBE, INTERACTIVE MEDIA ARTIST: So an app album is a brand new thing. The idea is to create a complete, fully immersive interactive experience that involves visuals, music and interactivity.

You used to take an album home and you'd have to play it on a record player. I think there's something kind of like reverential, you know, almost like spiritual the way we would bond with an album. So the app has the potential to bring it back. And the way it does it is by depending (ph) all of your senses at once.


GUPTA: Now, I'll tell you, Scott's ultimate dream is to create a feature-length interactive movie, a full participatory experience, as he describes it, where your movements actually change the story and change what's happening around you. It's fascinating stuff.

We got more with Scott this Sunday, 2:00 p.m. Eastern, right here on CNN.

That's going to wrap things up for SGMD. You could stay connected with me throughout the week. I hope you do it. It's on my Lifestream at Enjoy the ongoing conversation on Twitter @SanjayGuptaCNN.

Hope to see you back here next weekend.

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