But some of his cardio-jock colleagues aren’t so sure about all of this Oz mania. They respect his technical skill, appreciate his way with a scalpel, but they sniff and cluck at his Doc America image.
For some, perhaps, it’s simply a case of good old-fashioned competitive envy. But for others it’s philosophical, a legacy of Arrowsmith—Sinclair Lewis’ tortured medical hero, not the hair-metal band—who stands as a kind of modern-day Hippocrates against the commercialization of medicine.
“I think there’s probably some sense in the cardiac surgical community that publicity-mongering is not consistent with our behavior,” said one prominent cardiothoracic surgeon who asked to remain anonymous. “We don’t think that a serious cardiac surgeon would hop on an airplane, fly to Chicago and take questions on commercial television about the treatment of urinary tract infections or other topics that are not pertinent to our profession.”
Then again, who else is urging middle-aged America to gut-bust its belly fat?
ON A HARRIED FRIDAY AFTERNOON two days before the Javits Center mega-conference, Dr. Oz sat behind his desk in the Milstein Hospital building, sharing his thoughts on life and medicine before rushing off to do the day’s surgery—a combined bypass-and-valve replacement job on a 60-year-old woman. He was dressed in his signature blue scrubs, the ones that Oprah audiences have come to know so well, but he looked different than the man people are used to seeing on TV. There was still the same angled chin, the same broad face that evokes Dick York on Bewitched. But his hair was tousled, his eyes gleaming green, and it was suddenly possible to see why a woman might actually want to have her chest cracked open by him.
“If I could be known as a teacher, I’d be happy,” he said, his voice earnest, his hands clasped on the desk in front of him. “I love teaching, I always have.
“The big epiphany for me,” he continued, “was that most of what I really need to do as a doctor—remember, the word “doctor” means “teacher”—most of what I need to do is to teach you to take better care of yourself. I mean, more than 50 percent of your ability to recover and live a long time after heart surgery is things you do, not me.
“So people have to take that mantle of responsibility on their shoulders. But”—and here he suddenly leaned forward—“in America, we have moved to a belief that the magic bullet of modern medicine will always cure us of our ills; that we can sprinkle a little bit of a statin drug on a kielbasa and we’ll still be okay. And we have to change that.”
Dr. Oz shifted in his chair. He had reached the heart of his philosophy—the part from which the Oz-tours, TV spots, and YOU books sprang—and he wanted to drive the point home.
Dr. Oz’s philosophy emerged, he said, over years of treating patients who could have avoided the knife if only they had grasped their own essential power sooner—if only they had realized that “we don’t have the free lunch, that there is no easy way of getting through this, that you have to be part of the equation,” Dr. Oz said. As a theory, it sits comfortably alongside the self-help and medical empowerment manuals that have sprung up in health food stores, in alternative medicine Meccas and from the occasional Ayn Rand sympathizer. But it is also essentially Oz-ian, a product of his own specific DNA.
Dr. Oz was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, the son of two Turkish immigrants. (His father, the first Dr. Oz, was also a cardiothoracic surgeon.) From the start, he seems to have had a knack for success, an eerie ability to collect achievements the way other people collected one-night stands or baseball cards.