My Wake-Up Call? When Dr. Oz Fixed a Hole in My Heart — Literally

Police officer Joe Carratala always thought his job was the most dangerous part of his life. Then he had a stroke.

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When Dr. Oz wants to make a point, he definitely makes it. He repaired a hole in my heart that had apparently been there since birth. After he stitched up my chest in December 2013, he went into the waiting room to tell my wife I was fine and that the surgery had gone well. Then he held up a jar, holding a yellowish glob of fat the size of a teacup. "This is what I found around your husband's heart," he said. "Fat around the heart can increase the risk of heart attack." My wife got the message, and so did I.

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As a motorcycle cop in Elizabeth, New Jersey, I didn't have a lot of time to eat. Most days, I grabbed something at the local diner, and even though I rarely had bacon or burgers, I'm not going to pretend it was health food. And I didn't exercise much. I had 235 pounds on my 6-foot frame. I knew I was overweight, But I never would have known I had all that fat around my heart if it weren't for that hole suddenly announcing its presence.

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It happened like this: My wife, two kids, and I were vacationing in Florida. Our children, 11 and 9 at the time, are both autistic. They're high functioning, but it's still not like raising other kids. My son freaks out if someone whistles in the house, and my daughter is very emotional. Needless to say, vacations mean a lot to us. But a few days into our trip, we were walking to the hotel pool and I got dizzy. I took one step and the next thing I knew I was falling to the ground. I had no control of my right leg. My wife said that as I was going down I said, "Watch the kids. I love you."

At the hospital they told me I'd had a stroke, and while they were giving me various tests to find the cause, they discovered a congenital atrial septal defect – a hole in the wall between the left and right chambers of my heart. A small blood clot had slipped through that hole and gone to my brain, temporarily blocking the blood supply and causing me to have a minor stroke.

I spent several days in the hospital in Florida, and when we got back home to New Jersey, my cardiologist sent me to Dr. Oz. I'd been to Dr. Oz a number of years before when I was having problems with high blood pressure. At that time, I'd never heard of him, but when I told my wife who I was going to see, she freaked out. "Are you kidding me?" she said. "Do you have any idea who he is?"

I was impressed from the first moment I met him. He's exactly like he is on TV: smart, engaged, enthusiastic, reassuring, confident. So when I went to see him for the atrial septal defect, I was happy to be there. He showed me the images of my heart and told me I'd need open heart surgery. After he explained what that would entail — he'd need to stop my heart and close up the hole — I had one question: "Will you do the operation?" When he said yes, I knew I'd be okay. And I was... except for that giant glob of fat.

Ever since Dr. Oz told me to watch my diet and get more exercise, I've been trying. I eat more vegetables than ever before, I stay away from fast food and soda, and I have at least one piece of fruit every day. And I started exercising. A few months after the surgery I began cycling around the perimeter of our town, weather permitting, and even though I've never been a big gym guy, I started going. Now I walk a half hour on the treadmill and ride a half hour on the stationary bike four days a week.

With two autistic children and an older daughter from my first marriage, I've spent a lot of time thinking about what they'd do if something happened to me. I always believed the most dangerous thing in my life was being a cop. But after I saw pictures of the hole in my heart and that jar filled with my own fat, I realized many of the biggest threats hide inside our own bodies.

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