The Doctor Is In

Heart surgeon Mehmet Oz still cracks chests, but his bigger mission is making America healthy again.

AP Photo/Evan Agostini.

Dr. Mehmet Oz is trying to put himself out of a job.

At least, that’s how it seems. For the past year, the renowned heart surgeon has been doing his best to get people healthy enough that they won’t ever have to see the inside of an operating room.

On his hugely successful TV program, The Dr. Oz Show, he urges viewers to lose weight, get fit, and be healthy. And he does it through an entertaining mix of medical advice, real-life stories, and game-show antics. It’s an unlikely combination of serious and “lite,” but it works.

Oz rose to fame as Oprah Winfrey’s favorite doctor, making more than 50 appearances on her show in the last five years. Winfrey gave him the moniker America’s Doctor, and it stuck.

Now, The Dr. Oz Show, which debuted with impressive ratings in fall 2009 on Fox-TV, has about 3 million viewers. Nominated for two daytime Emmys in its first season, the show has made a star of the Cliffside Park resident.

For Oz, it’s an opportunity to get his message to the masses.

“I want to give being healthy a little attitude, and I want to make it hip,” says Oz. “I want people to understand the subtle, cool ways to get exercise in. And I want to give them hope.”

And he’s not above using his own health to passionately make his point.

On this season’s September 7 premiere, Oz, who celebrated his 50th birthday in June, turned a routine colonoscopy into a TV moment. His procedure was shown in full, with Oz lying on a gurney in a hospital gown, the doctor a patient this time.

When Oz’s doctor found an adenomatous polyp, or precancerous growth, inside his colon, Oz was “shocked, stunned, and humbled” by the news. His life, he says, was saved because he was screened.
The polyp was removed, though Oz is now considered to be at high risk for colon cancer and will need frequent screenings. He admits he probably would not have had the screening if he hadn’t been host of his own show.

But Oz is not just a television personality. He’s an acclaimed cardiothoracic surgeon and vice chair and professor of surgery at Columbia University. He is also the best-selling author of a half dozen books, the host of a satellite radio show, and a regular contributor to newspapers and magazines. And he’s the father of four children.

Still, much of his work deals with one important theme: teaching people how to take control of their health.
As a heart surgeon, Oz spent decades wheeling people into the operating room and opening their chests. “For years, my wife saw my frustration as I witnessed younger and younger patients getting sick,” he says. “I was unhappy that so many of them suffered from things that could have been prevented.”

His wife, Lisa, a television producer and best-selling author, suggested Oz explore television as a way to educate the public on healthier lifestyles.

She went on to produce his first show, Second Opinion With Dr. Oz, on the Discovery Health Channel in 2003. Oz had appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show in a taped episode involving New York Presbyterian Hospital-Columbia University Medical Center. He invited Winfrey to come on his show to talk about general health issues. To his surprise, she accepted.

Winfrey anointed Oz as the next big thing on TV, and her company is producing his show. “When he was here on our stage last year before he launched his own show, he told me he would make me proud,” Winfrey tells New Jersey Monthly. “And he has. He was always a great teacher and a great healer, and he continues to do that on his show.”

Oz has a deep conviction that he’s on a mission to change the lives of millions of Americans. On his show, the telegenic Oz, who appears in scrubs for the second half of every episode, talks about everything from shut-ins to teen health to dieting. He’s confident and authoritative in his knowledge of health issues, and he’s able to convey complicated information in easy-to-understand terms. And he has a whole medical team dedicated to making sure he gets his facts right.

Unlike Dr. Phil or some of the morning programs, The Dr. Oz Show doesn’t sugarcoat the unpleasantness of illness. On a recent episode, Oz spoke about the dangers of high blood pressure. But he didn’t just talk about it—he produced a slice of a brain with a large black stain on it, evidence of a stroke.

He sees The Dr. Oz Show as a way to forge a better connection between patients and their doctors: “If I can make people more comfortable about talking to their doctors, then I’ve succeeded.”

Born to Turkish parents, Oz knew at an early age that he wanted to be a doctor. He credits his parents with his ability to speak openly about medical issues, however embarrassing they may be. Once, while appearing on Oprah, he even talked about the optimal shape of a good poop.

“In Turkey, you talk about poop,” says Oz, who spent much of his childhood going back and forth between Turkey and the States. “When I’d go there, they challenged the basic assumptions that I learned in school, such as that paper is the best way to clean [after a bowel movement]. They use water to clean in Turkey. I think the biggest enemy is when people think they already know the answer.”

While he’s highly respected as a heart surgeon, some in the medical community have criticized Oz for his support of alternative medicine, saying he sometimes offers advice that is unsupported by science. For instance, he had a doctor on his show who elsewhere had claimed that cancer may be cured with baking soda.

Oz says he’s intrigued by how energy systems work in the body and believes there’s a new frontier in energy medicine, which includes acupuncture and therapeutic touch. “You have volts of electricity that run all of your nerve impulses and your thoughts and organs,” he says. “There lies great mystery.”

His interest in alternative medicine stems from his belief that there can be more than one way of accomplishing something. Oz argues that breakthroughs and innovations happen because people question conventional wisdom.

“I think there’s an arrogance in Western medicine that says we can fix, cut, invent, or prescribe something, and an ailment will go away,” explains Oz. “As a doctor, being a healer means looking at the whole person and taking all their circumstances into account—their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, fears, as well as their disease. Alternative medicine broadens an otherwise narrow focus. Five thousand years of ancient healing practices and herbal remedies must have some value.”

Oz has spent a great deal of his professional life studying nutrition and the role food plays in our health. He practices what he preaches, eating only the most nutritious food.

Exercise also plays a big part in his life, says Oz, who played football and water polo at Harvard University. Each morning, he performs a seven-minute workout comprised mainly of yoga moves to loosen up for the day. Oz also does a 45-minute exercise routine three days a week, and on Saturday mornings, he plays basketball with friends in Cliffside Park.

Not surprisingly, Oz’s family is also health conscious. He plays tennis with his wife and exercises regularly with his kids: Daphne, 24, Arabella, 20, Zoe, 15, and Oliver, 11. They occasionally hold the “Oz Family Olympics” at home during holidays—playing games, sports, whatever it takes, he says, to get everyone moving around.

(Daphne Oz, who graduated from Princeton University and was married this past August, has written her own health book, The Dorm Room Diet [Newmarket Press, 2010], a guide for young people who want to maintain healthy habits after leaving home.)

While his work usually takes him to New York City, Oz and his wife have called New Jersey home for the past 24 years. They first settled in Fort Lee while he was a medical resident at Columbia; the location made it easy for him to bike to work. The family moved to Cliffside Park in 1992.

With his high profile, Oz’s influence on the health care dialogue is undeniable. He’s been honored as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, Esquire magazine’s 75 most influential people of the 21st century, and one of Forbes’ most influential celebrities.

But despite rumors to the contrary, Oz , who leans Republican, says he is not considering politics, adding that he has enough full-time jobs.

And he does. To be sure, his workload seems like more than one man could accomplish.

His books include the New York Times best sellers, YOU: The Owner’s Manual and YOU: The Smart Patient, and his latest, YOU: Raising Your Child, which was published last month by Free Press. Oz also has regular columns in Esquire, AARP the Magazine, Time and O, The Oprah Magazine, and online in the Huffington Post, as well as a talk show on Sirius XM Radio.

So, how does he find time to see patients?

Oz admits he’s trying to cut back on his schedule so that he can focus more on TV (he tapes the show three days a week). He still performs heart surgery one day a week. He credits his staff with helping him accomplish all that he does.

And though these days he may have more to do with the green room than the operating room, Oz finds working in television remarkably similar to teaching medical school. “Part of what I do when I teach is not that different from what I do on the show. I’m just taking that message from the halls of medical school to network TV.”

He may put himself out of a job as a doctor, but his position as a television host is secure.
“I want to give people hope,” Oz says, “and I think a good talk show host can do that.”

Jacqueline Mroz is a frequent contributor.

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