Nigerian native Dr. Saju Mathew, a UTC product, is a medical analyst for CNN Headline News and a practicing physician in Atlanta.
Dr. Saju Mathew recognizes that his work life is a tad chaotic. “It’s tough to do primary care in the midst of a pandemic, hospital work and TV at the same time,” he says. “And with breaking news, I have to be ready to go on-air whenever they need me and be prepared to talk about anything.”
Mathew, a primary care physician and public health specialist who frequently appears on CNN and HLN (Headline News) as a medical analyst, is accustomed to the constant juggling. It is nothing like the stress he faced of having to ace American history during his freshman year at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Susan Hendricks and Saju Mathew on the HLN set.
Born in Nigeria to parents of East Indian descent, Mathew knew nothing about American history but still he dreamed of coming to the United States for college. As a teenager, he visited Chattanooga on summer vacation to holiday with his extended family. He asked to see UTC, where his uncle, P.K. Geevarghese, was an anthropology professor.
Mathew immediately fell in love with the campus. While his grades were good enough to get accepted into the University, there were no price breaks as an international student. All scholarships at the time required recipients to be American citizens. Two of his Chattanooga cousins were in the Brock Scholars program at UTC, and Mathew recalls thinking, “If my cousins can get in, why can’t I? I decided I would call the office directly and find out.” In doing so, he landed the opportunity to state his case to Robert Fulton, at that time the head of the University Honors program.
“I will never forget that meeting with Dr. Fulton,” Mathew says. “He reminded me of a young Prince Charles, a well-dressed man with a New Hampshire accent. I remember him telling me, ‘Saju, I see how eager you are. You have done really well, but we’re going to have some requirements. You are going to have to make all As in that first semester. We get to pick the courses. If you make all As, we will consider—and the word is consider—giving you a Brock Scholarship.’”
The classes selected for Mathew were chemistry, physics, biology, calculus and “the course that I had the most nightmares about, American history. I knew nothing about American history coming from Africa,” says Mathew, who grew up under the British system in Nigeria. “I remember camping out in front of my history professor’s office after class so I could ask him questions about U.S. Grant and James Madison and the Civil War. That course gave me heart palpitations.”
The beauty of a doctor is to be able to take these hard medical terminologies and explain them to somebody who doesn’t have a science background.
Mathew did make all As and became the first international student to earn a Brock Scholarship. “It was life-changing, and not to mention, I saved a lot of money for my dad,” he says. In having to take the initial science-based curriculum toward a medical career, he also took steps toward a future role in reporting by joining the Student Echo newspaper as a staff writer. “I always wanted to be a journalist,” says Mathew, who graduated magna cum laude from UTC in 1990. “When I was a young boy in Nigeria, I would hold a stick like it was a microphone and pretend that I was reporting live from some crazy place about some disaster. It was always inside of me.”
Fast forward to 2020, and Mathew, whose medical degree is from Morehouse School of Medicine and he holds a master’s from Emory Rollins School of Public Health, today finds himself plying his medical trade at Piedmont Healthcare in Atlanta. He began his fledgling on-air career less than two years ago, and thanks to COVID 19, has now been making multiple weekly television appearances. An acquaintance of his who works in television got him started in the business. Mathew recollects being told, “You will be a natural on TV. I like the way you explain things to me in the room. The beauty of a doctor is to be able to take these hard medical terminologies and explain them to somebody who doesn’t have a science background.
Says Mathew, “Before I knew it, I got a position as an on-air medical analyst, and here I am.”