Dr. Mehmet Oz believes doctors should argue. In fact, he believes arguments between medical professionals are a significant responsibility. “There are four things any medical professional does,” he says. “Take care of your client. That’s No. 1. Uphold the Hippocratic Oath. Second, you police your field, try to make sure doctors aren’t harming people, that malpractice is being curtailed; things like that. No. 3, you want to make sure that you build on the wisdom of your teachers. The fourth part -- often forgotten -- is that you have a civic responsibility to speak out. And that’s risky. So when you see physicians speaking out on issues they care about passionately, even at personal risk, it’s actually part of what our calling is. Not doing that I feel holds back medicine. Doctors might fight about the details but our values are the same. We have a covenant with the public to always protect them. Health is worth fighting over, the same way you want politicians to fight over the economy. I expect to have those disagreements. It’s what you sign up for and it’s what our promise is to each other.”
Dr. Oz (as he is known to his patients at Columbia University and New York Presbyterian Hospital; the millions of people who watch his daily syndicated talk and information program “The Dr. Oz Show,” and the millions who read his many best-selling books, his magazine The Good Life and his columns in O The Oprah Magazine) believes one thing that “needs to be argued about” is addiction -- specifically addiction to illicit substances. It’s at the heart of a major initiative he undertook earlier this year that will kick into high gear today. The White House, Congress, many state governors, hundreds of addiction groups and a host of celebrities have already offered their support.
“A lot of people deep down really do think addiction is a moral failing,” he recently told Jack Myers and me over lunch at Michael’s restaurant in New York City. “One in three of us has an addict in our family. They behave poorly. They dismiss you. They don’t respect you. They sabotage relationships. You see addicts at their worst. Then they trip up and they fail. You almost start wanting them to fail because they’re so bad. You want them to hit rock bottom.”
Through his show, Oz and his team have partnered with the organizations Facing Addiction and Drugs Over Dinner to promote what they are calling a National Night of Conversation tonight (November 19), during which families are encouraged to talk about substance abuse, ideally over their evening meal. Families that participate are being asked to take a picture at their table of an empty dinner plate (like the one Oz and Myers are holding in the photo above) and post it on social media. (The Twitter hashtag is #NightOfConversation.) Millions of people routinely post pictures of their dinner on social media platforms; by posting an empty plate they will be advancing the idea that tonight the conversation is more important than the meal.
“We all have our addictions,” Oz asserted. “I’m focusing on alcohol and drugs in particular because those are the ones that really hurt you. Society judges you on those. When you make it a moral judgement about somebody you distance yourself from them.”
The facts Oz cited about addiction were shocking. In the United States, “We consume 75 percent of all the opiates in the world and yet we are five percent of the population,” he said, adding that the key to dealing with or curbing addiction is to address it where it begins. “Ninety percent of addiction starts in the teen years,” he noted. If there is a “cure” or preventative action for adolescent substance abuse, it’s what he refers to as “the anti-drug.” That would be parents and older siblings.
Activating the “anti-drug” is more challenging than it sounds. “How do you get [parents] to talk about this in a way that is not confrontational, not embarrassing?” he continued. “We need to start out by first asking, ‘How are you coping? How are you keeping up? How are your friends keeping up?’ and use that as the lever to get into the deeper discussion of [teens] coping by using things outside of them. That gets into marijuana, harder drugs, alcohol, anything you might use to cope. Coping strategies you begin to get comfortable using in your teen years you will carry throughout your lifetime. We have to intervene now, at a time when we know so many are at risk. Addiction has become the No. 1 cause of accidental death in America for people under age 50. They overdose. A third of the overdoses are from prescription narcotics.”
Talk of addiction invariably leads to questions about recovery. “Recovery is real,” Oz said. “There are over 20 million people who are in long-term recovery. We want people who are addicted to be honest with everybody. If you had breast cancer you wouldn’t hide it. If you beat breast cancer you would brag about it. But with addiction you’re worried you’ll get penalized because you might be. We need to change that mindset. It’s an opportunity for our society to shift the judgement and not fight a battle over addiction but fight a battle for recovery.”
Asked what he hopes to achieve tonight, Oz replied, “Our hope is to tell stories of lives saved from [tonight's conversations]. If parents have the conversation and the kids break down and say, 'We've got drugs at my school and I’m really tempted or I’m using,' if they’re looking for an opportunity to come clean we’ll give it to them. We’ll tell their stories and then allow more of those nights to happen.”
Oz can trace his desire to become a doctor and help people back to the age of seven. “At age seven I’m at a public school in Delaware, my parents have just moved there, my dad’s a physician and I’m an outsider,” he said. “I have a weird name. I’m getting into fights on the bus going to school. I’m in the principal’s office. People are making fun of me.” His challenges, he said, were in retrospect beneficial, allowing him to “appreciate what it’s like to be on the other side of the tracks. It’s not like I was this poor kid or destitute.
“I remember going with my father to the hospital and seeing him take care of people and have them feel joy just because he was there,” Oz continued. “I thought to myself, ‘I could do that.’” He recalled a special moment at an ice cream shop. “I was waiting in line. The kid in front of me was 13. My father asked him what he wanted to be. He said, ‘I’m 13, I don’t know what I want to be.’ My dad said, ‘Well, that’s fine.’ The kid got his ice cream and left. My dad turned to me and said, ‘I don’t want you to ever give me that answer. You can be whatever you want to be but never say you don’t know what you want to be.’ So I decided I’d be a doctor because of what it looked like when he was taking care of people. I had to make a decision. I figured I could always change my mind.”
When Oz was 13 and a freshman in high school he started to play sports. “People began to respect me because of my ability to accomplish things, whether it was academically or in sports,” he said. “I began to achieve respect from things I did and I liked the way that felt. In my family I was never told I was great. I think I felt that through my mom, but my dad would always ask one question: ‘Did anyone do better than you?’ Who scored better? Who got better grades?’”
There were plenty of times when Oz admitted that someone had outperformed him. “Life is about failure,” he reflected. “I knew the question was coming. And I knew my father would be disappointed. And I knew it wouldn’t really matter to my mom. So I had a judge and a healer in the same household.
“My dad’s response when I was No. 2 was, ‘Well, then, you have to work harder. There’s always something you can do to change that reality. Just work harder.’ That’s not always the case, by the way. I’m never going to be as fast as some other people. I never learned to think that I was naturally gifted. Everyone has gifts and was dealt cards. But if you play them well you’ll be happy with what you get. If you play them poorly you won’t be. It’s the same message to people about their health.”
In college, Oz continued to play sports and often made the local newspapers, which gave him his first taste of media exposure, something he enjoyed. “And then I forgot about it,” he said. “I went into medicine. It was my passion, my life. I spent 20 years doing nothing but that. I had very little [interest in or exposure to] popular culture. You’re so engulfed by everything that’s happening in the hospital you ignore everything outside of it.”
After he became a surgeon Oz started to see that there was a need to offer guidance and education to people about their health, which brought the media back into his life.
“I was more and more frustrated as I was rolling people down the long hallway to the operating suite,” he recalled. “They’re looking at the ceiling, trying to figure out how this happened to them. I’m thinking, ‘I’m about to saw through your breast bone and open your chest, and if I could have gotten to you a couple of weeks ago maybe you wouldn’t have had to have this done.’”
He began offering advice via the media simply by “answering the phone when it rang, when media outlets would call.” From his office he would provide quotes to newspapers or sound bites for network news programs. “I noticed, when I did this, that people would see those media pieces and they would act on them. I began to appreciate that the best way to get people to do what I thought they should do was to give [information] to them in a way that was accessible. Not the way I would talk about it in my office when it was a little too late."
Oz met his wife, Lisa, when he was 23, during his freshman year in medical school. His parents and hers had dinner together and brought them along. “Lisa’s parents have six kids; they could have brought any of the daughters,” he laughed. “They happened to bring the right one.” Today they have four children (Daphne, their oldest and a co-host of ABC’s “The Chew”; Arabella, an actress who just completed a film with “Outlander” star Sam Heughan; Zoe, a junior at Harvard, and Oliver, their youngest, whom Oz describes as “an athlete in high school”) and two grandchildren (both Daphne’s; the youngest born only three weeks ago).
Lisa, he said, “is the reason I’m doing all of this.” When they met she was already in the business, working as a model. Those were her eyes in the classic Visine commercials when drops are used to “get the red out.”
Years later, Lisa was the producer of “Second Opinion,” Oz’s television series on Discovery and Discovery Health. Produced in 2003, “Second Opinion” was the show that changed everything, connecting Oz to Oprah Winfrey. “I knew I needed to get big name guests to launch the show,” he recalled. He reached out to his friend Gayle King. “I said we’re starting the show and I really think we can make people healthier but we need someone like Oprah as a guest to talk about whatever she’s struggling with.” King contacted Winfrey and she agreed.
“I was shocked,” he continued. “I actually met her when she came on my show. Oprah always liked the idea of health and the role it played in her life. So we talked about weight and her heart. We taped it in New York. The week the show was going to air her producers called me. They had seen her in the promos for the show. They asked if I would come out and reprise what I did with Oprah but on her show.”
The first thing Oz did was fill a cooler with organs. “I didn’t know what I was going to talk about,” he said. “I did an autopsy, got the organs, put them in a cooler and went to the airport.”
That was the day his scrubs became his signature on-camera outfit. En route to the “Oprah” taping he was wearing his best suit. “I didn’t want to get my suit dirty so I put the scrubs on,” he laughed. Winfrey’s producers liked the look. “They said, ‘Don’t take them off. They’re perfect, leave them on.’ So it was as authentic and raw as you can imagine.”
At that life-changing taping of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” (during which two separate episodes were produced) Oz displayed the organs he had carried from New York to Chicago. “She would really get excited about seeing colons,” he recalled. “At one point in the show she asked me about gas. I said, ‘The reality is if you pass gas 14 times a day that’s healthy.’” It was moment of television that Oz refers to as "iconic.”
The moment Oz recalls as the most important came when he said to Oprah’s studio audience, “If you’re honest all of you have passed gas.” Then he really tested the waters, adding, “I’ll bet you our host has passed gas.” Oz smiled at the memory. “I didn’t know whether to say that or not because I wasn’t sure she would take kindly to being accused of passing gas on her show. She looked over and she winked and smiled and I knew we had it.”
Oz was a hit with Winfrey and her audience. In the years that followed he appeared on her show approximately 80 times. “She taught me a lot about how to talk to folks,” he said.
A media personality was born. A year or two into his appearances on her show, Oz said that Winfrey leaned over to him during a break in a taping and asked, “Has it happened yet?” “I said, ‘Has what happened?’ She said, ‘Has the change happened?’ I said, ‘What change?’ She said, ‘The change when everyone recognizes you and you don’t know who they are!’
“It happened pretty quickly, about a dozen shows in,” Oz said.
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