What It's Like to Be Dr. Oz's Patient: Heart Surgery Is Less Scary in the Right Hands

A retired radiologist, Dr. Emma Lugo knew what to expect when she felt chest pain. But she definitely wasn't expecting the surgeon assigned to her case.

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Back in February 2013, I was on vacation when I woke at 2 in the morning from a deep sleep and knew something was wrong. There was a heavy pain in my chest, like something was pressing down on my sternum. My first thought was, Oh my gosh, I'm having a heart attack!

I was fine the next day, but as a retired radiologist (and nurse before that), I knew that women don't always have the same heart symptoms as men, so I should still have my heart checked when I got home, just in case.

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When my stress test came back normal, my cardiologist told me the scary, middle-of-the-night pain was most likely heartburn. But I wanted to be sure – stress tests don't always reveal underlying problems – so I asked to have an angiogram, which would allow us to see inside the arteries around my heart. Twenty years as a radiologist had taught me that the test provided definitive answers for people having chest pain or pressure. It did: The angiogram showed I had an 85 percent blockage in my left anterior descending artery. When that happens in men, it's called a "widow maker." I was in trouble.

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The doctor recommended we do open heart bypass surgery the next day, but I was wary. With open-heart surgery, the doctor cuts through your breastbone and hooks you up to a heart-lung machine so he can stop your heart while he attaches a healthy artery to the blocked one. I was hoping to find something less invasive.

While doing some Internet research, I came across a cutting-edge robotic option that doesn't require your heart to be stopped during surgery. The approach was offered at only a few well-respected hospitals around the country, including Columbia Presbyterian in New York City, where I had worked as a nurse in 1968. I knew right away that was where I wanted to go.

When I called to schedule an appointment, I got a huge surprise. The receptionist told me Dr. Oz would be my surgeon. The Dr. Oz. The one whose show I was devoted to. I was thrilled – and relieved. If anyone was going to do surgery on my heart, I figured it might as well be him.

Three weeks later I went to my first appointment with Dr. Oz, accompanied by my two grown daughters and my best friend since first grade. Even though I've met hundreds of doctors, I viewed Dr. Oz as a celebrity, so I was nervous and dressed in a nice blouse and pants. When he walked into the waiting area, smiled, and shook my hand, I remember thinking, Wow, it's really him!

If anyone was going to do surgery on my heart, I figured it might as well be him.

We talked for an hour and a half. He asked dozens of questions about my health history, my health habits, my stress level. I confessed that my diet was poor – I love fast food hamburgers and tacos and fried chicken – and that I didn't exercise regularly. I was about 65 pounds overweight. I usually feel ashamed during conversations about diet, but he was so compassionate and nonjudgmental that I felt cared for instead of uncomfortable. He told me that after surgery I needed to do my part to keep my heart healthy and suggested I meet with a nutritionist, who could help me come up with better food choices.

And we didn't just talk about my health; we talked about my life. I told him about the New Year's Eve I had to work in the Cardiac Care Center at Columbia Presbyterian, and he sympathized. When he learned that my friend and I had known each other since we were young girls, he wanted to hear about how we met. I was moved. Of all the doctors I've met, I can honestly say he showed the most genuine concern.

On the day of the surgery, Dr. Oz met with me beforehand, and reviewed what he was going to do during the procedure. When he asked me if I was nervous, I was surprised to realize the answer was no; I trusted him. When I awoke six hours later, groggy and a little disoriented, I learned that the surgery had gone perfectly. I had avoided being on the heart-lung machine, which can cause complications like stroke and memory loss. And because my chest wasn't cut open, I was only in the hospital for three days.

I live in Florida, so I wasn't able to do my follow-up care with Dr. Oz, but every time I eat grilled chicken breast and vegetables – my usual dinner since having surgery – I think of him. I also joined the YMCA, and I walk on the treadmill for 45 minutes three days a week. I've dropped about 15 pounds so far, and even though I still have more to lose, I feel healthier.

When I see Dr. Oz on TV I no longer see a celebrity. I see the doctor who saved my life.

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