Dr. Mehmet Oz: Global MedicineSeptember 2008
By Sue Kovach
Changing the way millions of people actively incorporate preventive health into their lives has become a daily practice for Dr. Mehmet Oz. As one of the world’s most accomplished cardiac surgeons, Dr. Oz is taking life-saving medicine beyond the operating room. Now, in an effort to reinvent medicine on a global level, he has taken his visionary medical knowledge to every conceivable form of media to teach people how to use natural methods to live longer, reduce stress, and avoid the killers of heart disease and cancer.
A quick Google search reveals over 795,000 entries for Dr. Oz. On any given day, he can be heard on XM Satellite Radio, seen on Oprah or Good Morning America or read in Esquire magazine or in any of his bestselling YOU books. Everywhere one looks, there is Dr. Oz patiently instructing all of us—both patients and doctors—on a new kind of medicine that begins with taking an enlightened approach to preventing life-robbing diseases. Dr. Oz is at the forefront of an international revolution in health and medicine.
Yet despite the immense media presence, Dr. Oz remains first and foremost a dedicated, hardworking physician, a rolls-up-his-sleeves cardiac surgeon who is at the top of his field and performs more than 250 surgeries annually. In addition to all of this, he has time to develop new life-saving techniques.
Dr. Oz is director of the Heart Institute at New York Presbyterian/Columbia Medical Center and professor and vice-chair of Surgery at Columbia University.
His research interests include heart replacement surgery, minimally invasive cardiac surgery, complementary medicine, and health care policy. He has authored over 400 original publications, book chapters, abstracts, and books in addition to receiving several patents. And all the while, he is pushing the envelope of what is currently called the “standard of care” and empowering patients to take charge of their own health and well-being. Put these two pictures of Dr. Oz together and you begin to see the makings of a movement, one that has the power to change the face of medicine and how it is practiced, even how we think about it.
As a child, Mehmet Oz thought about what he wanted to be when he grew up and decided he would either be a professional athlete or a surgeon. He reasoned that there were similarities between the two— both have to deliver the goods every day, and no one cares how well you performed yesterday. Growing up, it became clear that his abilities in athletics would not lead him to a stellar career in that field, so he focused on medicine.
After earning an undergraduate degree from Harvard, Dr. Oz enrolled in medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, where his training was what he called “traditional.” Students were essentially instructed to ignore any real or perceived mind-body connection and to view and study organs as individual entities. This process, he says, is effective for teaching science-based, organ-based medicine. And at the time, he found this approach sufficient.
Physicians sometimes claim they find deep insight about human existence bordering on revelation during their early years of medical school. When Dr. Oz first saw a living, beating heart in a patient’s chest cavity, he was awed by the elegance of how the organ “twists the blood out of it the way you would wring water from a towel.” He knew then that the heart would become his specialty. Watching it twisting and turning, he suddenly understood why the heart is so important in so many aspects of life and culture, from poetry and religion to its association with the soul and love. From that point, he says, “I’ve dedicated my life to trying to figure out how to help people who are challenged with heart disease.”
But it was near the end of his residency that Dr. Oz met a patient who gave him what he calls an epiphany. He wasn’t prepared to have the foundation of his education turned upside down by one experience. A woman with a bleeding ulcer was brought into the emergency room. Though she had lost a lot of blood, a transfusion and a suture would fix her problem. However, the woman and her family calmly refused the blood transfusion for religious reasons, even though that transfusion could save her life. Dr. Oz whisked the woman off to the operating room, confident he could eventually get the family’s permission to do the transfusion.
The surgery went well, but the patient showed signs of organ failure due to blood loss and her blood count was at a point where she should have already died. Still certain he would be doing the transfusion, Dr. Oz was horrified when the family steadfastly refused. At this point came the epiphany. The patient’s family, was in effect telling Dr. Oz that there was a deeper love, a deeper belief by which they were living their lives, and that no matter how logical it seemed that she should get the blood, they didn’t want the blood.
“The woman who was going to die that evening hung out for another day, and then another day, and then another day, and she finally went home,” Dr. Oz says. “And she never did get that blood. And although I would never recommend, in the future, for someone not to get the blood, it was to me a very revealing experience, because I began to recognize that as dogmatic as I thought I could be with my knowledge base, there were certain elements of the healing process I could not capture. And even if I was right in the science, I could be wrong in the spirit.”
The experience caused Dr. Oz to conclude that there was more to medicine and healing patients than his training had taught him. He began to investigate other means of healing, and that led him to non-Western medical practices that really weren’t completely foreign to him. His parents were born in Turkey, and he spent summers and holidays in the country, a place where non-traditional methods of healing are commonplace. That upbringing probably gave him more of an open mind in regards to alternative healing methods.
Sometimes these innovative healing therapies were brought to his attention by patients who came to New York Presbyterian Hospital from all over the world. They had their own healing traditions that had been effective for them in the past and wanted to continue using them. But they sensed that the modern doctors in this country wanted nothing to do with such things, which resulted in something Dr. Oz found interesting.
“They would abdicate all responsibility for their care once they walked into our hospital, and so we tried to change that, to give them the confidence to play an active role in their own recovery process by letting them use their own healing traditions. And that’s how I actually learned about many of these alternative therapies.”
Dr. Oz became comfortable with seeing the same reality from different perspectives—traditional and non-traditional medicine. He reached beyond the medical textbooks and conventional thinking to enlarge the paradigm by exploring alternative means of healing and complementary therapies. Today in his clinical practice, and as director of the Cardiovascular Institute Complementary Medicine Program at New York Presbyterian Hospital, he boldly brings out-of-the-mainstream techniques such as meditation, yoga, reflexology, energy healing, and massage into the operating and recovery rooms. He recommends nutritional supplements, proper diet, stress reduction and exercise, believing there is far more to healing than technology and pharmaceuticals. His goal is to promote health and wellness in his patients, not just absence of disease.
Some physicians might consider such techniques being used in modern hospitals to be radical at best. But by using them and showing that they can lead to more positive outcomes, doctors might discover that there is more than one way to practice medicine, something better than what was taught in medical school.
Says Dr. Oz, “Some people feel I’m on to something big, others disagree. Orthodox medicine makes people think it’s witchcraft, but I think the truth is in the middle. When you finally figure out that you’ve got the best technology available, when you’ve finally climbed the last technology mountain and the patient still doesn’t feel well, you’ve got to look elsewhere. That’s when we start looking in areas where typically we in the West are much less comfortable—like spirituality and alternative therapies—things that bridge cultures of healing beyond this country’s borders.”