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Life Saver

by Bill Donahue

Dr. Mehmet Oz shares his secret for leading a life full of richness and possibility.

Before Mehmet Oz became a household name as celebrity physician “Dr. Oz,” he was a Philadelphian. And, in more ways than one, he always will be.

Born in Cleveland to a family of Turkish descent, he moved with his family to the greater Philadelphia area (Delaware, to be precise) and made it his home. After getting his undergrad degree at Harvard, he earned his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and his MBA from The Wharton School. When he wasn’t in the classroom or donning scrubs, he was pedaling his bike through West Philly, wandering in Fairmount Park or taking his future wife, Lisa, to iconic South Street eatery Jim’s Steaks.

“She told me she was a vegetarian and, at the time, I didn’t know what a vegetarian was,” he recalls of their first date. “I made her a chicken dinner and she told me she ate only vegetables. So I took her to get a cheesesteak at Jim’s, and we waited in this whole long line that stretched along the side of the building only for her to tell me, ‘I don’t eat meat.’ I think I convinced her to get a roll with onions on it.”

Today, he’s the Emmy-winning host of The Dr. Oz Show, a nationally syndicated talk show aired in more than 100 countries worldwide, currently in its fourth season. Although he now lives in Bergen County, to be near the show’s Manhattan studio, Philadelphia and its suburbs remain a core part of him—particularly Stone Harbor where he visits regularly with his family, including three daughters, Daphne, Arabella and Zoe, and son Oliver.

For Dr. Oz, a man Esquire once referred to as “the most accomplished and influential celebrity doctor in history,” life is about finding new places to call home—in other words, embracing the unfamiliar. In fact, reinvention and self-improvement have been hallmarks of Dr. Oz’s remarkable career since the beginning.

He earned his stripes as a world-class cardiothoracic surgeon and, to this day, he commits one day a week to the operating room. He co-authored a series of “YOU” bestsellers such as YOU: Losing Weight, YOU: Stress Less and YOU: Being Beautiful. He has become one of television’s best-known personalities, his fame growing to rival that of the woman who helped “create” him, Oprah Winfrey. (Winfrey’s Harpo Productions launched The Dr. Oz Show in 2009.) Most people, however, might be surprised to know that Winfrey appeared on Dr. Oz’s show first, not the other way around.

“I had a show called Second Opinion on Discovery, and I thought having Oprah on the show would be a home run,” he says. “I cold-called her and she said yes. We laugh about it now, because she’s not really sure why she agreed, but we hit it off and she asked me to be a guest on her show. The rest is history.”

Making U-turns
Although helping others has long been a calling of his, The Dr. Oz Show has given this highly energetic surgeon another outlet to make a difference—not by performing coronary bypasses and aortic-valve replacements but by sharing information to improve one’s health and fitness, and by continually pushing viewers to aspire to something greater.

“The goal is to get comfortable being uncomfortable—challenging yourself,” he says.

“My mother was always frustrated with me as a kid, because I was always saying, ‘What’s next? What’s next?’ She wanted me to have the patience of Buddha, which I did not get, but I did get the willingness to expose myself to new things in which I’m not yet competent.”

He certainly practices what he preaches by embracing the change he prescribes for others. He’s the first person to jump fully into the maw of a new experience, whether it’s playing in the 2010 NBA All-Star Celebrity Basketball Game alongside the likes of actor Chris Tucker and rapper Pitbull or singing at a crowded downtown nightclub.

“I recently wrote an article on getting ‘unstuck’ for TIME, and it’s a theme we deal with often on The Dr. Oz Show,” he says. “Humans by nature are static, and it comes down to this: We change based not on what we know but how we feel. To celebrate the show’s 100th episode, we invited 100 people who had lost 100 pounds and asked them how they did it. I thought I was going to hear 100 different responses, but there was one secret: They each felt they were worth it.”

Another lesson he tries to impart: Don’t let fear—especially an irrational one—get in the way of doing something new, of accomplishing something truly great. During the launch week of season four earlier this year, he surprised 50 women who were “struggling with their emotional baggage” by taking them straight from the studio to a resort in Tucson, Ariz., and teaching them how to overcome the fears that were holding them back. It was a “moving experience” for them, as well as for him, as he had to face his own fear of heights.

Despite his affable and approachable nature, there’s something superhuman—even otherworldly—about Dr. Oz. Perhaps it’s his prodigiously positive energy or larger-than-life persona. But he’s the first to admit he’s less than perfect; he just doesn’t let his imperfect moments derail him—and, he would suggest, neither should you.

“There are always times when we are not on top of our game,” he says. “Most of the great surgeons I know are people who can overcome mistakes and errors they make in life. The most dangerous words in the English language are ‘if only,’ but it’s all about having the ability to make a U-turn when you make an error. If you cheat on a diet or make a mistake at work, it’s not a big deal. So stop berating yourself.”

Having eclipsed the 400th-episode mark last November, The Dr. Oz Show has enjoyed more than its share of high points, including a recent interview with First Lady Michelle Obama. As for what happens next for Dr. Oz and his award-winning show, he has one overarching goal: to avoid the plateau.

“Life is a bell-shaped curve, and most people want to get to the peak,” he says. “I don’t ever want to be at the peak. I want to change when I’m getting close so I can continue to get to a higher point.”

True to form, he thinks he still has plenty of room to grow as a talk show host, not only by providing better content to help people discover and cultivate what he calls their “best selves,” but also by establishing a stronger, deeper emotional connection with viewers.

“Healing is not about providing a prescription,” he adds. “It’s about getting to a safe place to have a conversation. … Our goal [with the show] is to inspire wellness. We have many methods of messaging that, and there are different areas of ‘wellness’—physical, mental, spiritual. I want you to know you can ‘show up’ in your life so you can live your best life. That’s what got me out of the OR full time—and I’ll keep spreading it until we get there.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 12 (March, 2013).
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