Despair over his patients' poor health choices was the catalyst for Oz's eventual foray into broadcasting. "I grew up thinking that medicine would offer everything I wanted it to offer me," remembers Oz, whose father and father-in-law are surgeons as well. As a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania (where he simultaneously earned an M.B.A.), and then as an intern, resident, and professor at Columbia, Oz reveled in the intellectual challenge of research, the physical challenge of surgery, and the human contact of patient care. "But it became progressively more frustrating to take people into the operating room when I knew they had created their own problems," Oz recalls. "If they'd known what to do differently, even a year or two earlier, they wouldn't have needed the operation."
Wife Lisa, then a TV producer, suggested a solution: instead of advising patients one by one, Oz could reach millions of people before they became heart patients by delivering diet and exercise advice through the media. If he'd stuck to the life of an ivory-tower surgeon, Oz says now, "I'd just be cursing the darkness for the rest of my career. This is an opportunity to light a torch."
Oz also credits Lisa—with whom he has four children, ages 10 to 24—for another crucial part of his professional development: she and her family introduced him to the complementary therapies that have become a core part of his practice and show.
"When we were engaged, a friend and I made him do yoga on my back lawn" in Philadelphia, recalls Lisa. "My family has always used homeopathic medicine." Her father, Gerald Lemole, M.D., was chief of cardiothoracic surgery at Temple University. That made the family's unusual health practices more palatable to Oz, Lisa says: "If we'd been some sort of hippies, he might not have embraced it." With Lisa, Oz went to India to study with Dean Ornish, M.D., whose program of diet, exercise, and meditation has been shown to reverse heart disease. And Oz investigated the field of functional medicine, which seeks to correct chemical imbalances in the body to promote optimal health.
"Alternative medicine, at least as I envision it, and as Lisa and her family practice it, is not just another way of lowering your cholesterol," Oz explains. "It's a very different way of thinking about the role of health in your life. Health, in her family, is a sacred process. You are emotionally connected to the people around you; you live in relationships that are healthy for you. Food is not just something you pull off a shelf—it has a life force to it." Whereas conventional medicine identifies ailments and attempts to fix them, he says, this alternative mindset seeks to prevent ill health from arising.
Oz believes the greatest medical advances of the next decade will come from manipulating the body's flow of energy, as Chinese practices such as acupuncture seem to do. "I've always been frustrated that we've not been able to measure energy," he says. "But I'm not willing to write off what a billion people think is possible, just because we can't measure it in the West."
Born in Cleveland to Turkish immigrants, Mehmet Oz was by all accounts a golden boy—handsome, studious, athletic, and full of deferential charm. At Tower Hill School in Wilmington, Delaware, he was an all-state football player, recalls coach Steve Hyde, but Oz also danced in the chorus of Bye Bye Birdie, and "he approached that with the same enthusiasm. He stood out in everything he did."