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October 25, 2022
America Dissected
Dissecting Dr. Oz

In This Episode

Nobody quite represents the seedy underbelly of American medicine like Dr. Oz. His career is a living description of what happens when ego and greed get an “MD,” and then use it to pump quack treatments in search of fame and fortune. Now he’s running for Senate in Pennsylvania — despite being from New Jersey. Abdul breaks down the cautionary tale that is Mehmet Oz. Then he speaks with Trip Gabriel of the New York Times as well as Gisele Fetterman.

 

TRANSCRIPT

 

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Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, narrating: New Omicron variants are being discovered around the world. 1.3 million Americans rationed insulin at some point last year, and a new FDA rule allowing hearing aids to be sold over the counter goes into effect. This is America Dissected. I’m your host, Doctor Abdul El-Sayed. [music break] You all know my style by now. I try to keep it classy, stick to the evidence and stay above the drama. But not today. Today, I’m about to get real petty because if there’s one person that pisses me off in my core, like in the thickest part of my left ventricle of my heart, it’s Mehmet Oz. On paper, I should like the dude. He’s a muslim doctor running for public office, after all. He even claims to be both from the Middle East and the Midwest. But honestly, all of those things are why I loathe what he represents. Let me start with the first time Oz went to the Senate. That’s right. He’s been there before, back in 2014. That’s because he got his rear end hauled up to testify about the bunk medications he was pushing on his show. 

 

[clip of Claire McCaskill] Quote, “I’ve got the number one miracle in a bottle. To burn your fat, it’s raspberry ketone” quote “Garcinia cambogia. It may be the simple solution you’ve been looking for to bust your body fat for good.” I don’t get why you need to say this stuff. Because you know it’s not true. So why? When you have this amazing megaphone and this amazing ability to communicate, why would you cheapen your show by saying things like that? 

 

[clip of Dr. Mehmet Oz] Well, if I could disagree about whether they work or not, and I’ll move on to the issue of the words that I used. 

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, narrating: That’s then Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill grilling Mehmet on his daytime TV quackery. For 13 years. Mehmet Oz used his, quote, “Dr. Oz show” to peddle in bunk science to pump quack meds. That same year, a research article published in the British Medical Journal, one of medicine’s most prestigious journals, found that up to 40% of the medications that Oz pushed on his show had no evidence behind them. In fact, there was evidence that straight up contradicted Oz’s recommendations in 15% of the cases. All the while he was quote “faculty” at my alma mater, Columbia University. That’s when in 2015, faculty circulated an open letter to have him removed for the bunk science he was pushing. It turns out that wasn’t all he was doing while he was faculty at Columbia. 

 

[clip of unspecified reporter] Accusations that Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz abused animals, including puppies, doing medical research. 

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, narrating: His research team was performing experiments on animals. And look, whatever you say about animal research. That’s not the issue here. It’s the fact that a Columbia veterinarian became a whistleblower when she reported his lab for multiple violations of the Animal Welfare Act for the mistreatment of dogs. In one gruesome incident, his lab killed puppies with lethal injections to the heart, with expired medications, without any sedation, and they threw them into the same plastic bag as their living siblings. Columbia was forced to pay a $2,000 fine for his lab’s malfeasance. But that’s not all. Remember this:. 

 

[clip of Dr. Mehmet Oz] We have now a randomized trial. That’s what was lacking. A randomized trial done by the Chinese that supports the potential benefit of this hydroxychloroquine compound for patients with COVID 19. 

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, narrating: That’s right, Mehmet Oz, again, this time pushing hydroxychloroquine based on tiny trials that were not peer reviewed. Bunk science is nothing new for Dr. Oz, but this was something more. When he was promoting hydroxychloroquine, he held stock in two companies that manufactured and distributed it. He held about $615,000 in stock at Thermo Fisher Scientific, a company that manufactures hydroxychloroquine. Can’t even make this stuff up. Not only was hydroxychloroquine shown to be ineffective, but actually worsened outcomes in some patients in larger clinical trials. Science, as you’ve heard me say over and over and over again, is not a body of knowledge, it’s a process. And respecting that process is what makes someone a scientist. But Mehmet Oz has leveraged his certification as a physician, a label of science to flout science at every single turn, whether it was abusing animals under his care as a scientist at Columbia, whether it was pushing quack meds for 13 years as a TV doctor, or it was pushing COVID treatments that hadn’t been properly vetted to pad his own stocks in a pandemic. This guy is the worst. Now he’s running for Senate in Pennsylvania. This despite the fact that he’s been a long time resident of New Jersey. But we all knew that that wouldn’t stop a shameless huckster from doing something that’ll feed his ego. And what’s worse is that on the heels of the worst pandemic in a century, one that killed millions worldwide, more than a million here at home, we face a crossroads. Do we build a public health system up to the task of stopping the next one? Or do we see the future of public health to a quack doctor who peddled raspberry ketones and hydroxychloroquine. Because if the GOP retakes the Senate, you better believe that they’ll give Mehmet Oz the bully pulpit on everything related to health. Rather than robust funding for local health departments or Medicare for All, we’ll have green coffee extract and garcinia cambogia. Oz isn’t just himself unfit for public office. He could usher in public health and health care systems that are unfit for our future. Which is why I wanted to spend today’s episode digging into Dr. Oz’s malfeasance, both as a TV personality and a politician. What does his past say about why he’s running for office in the first place, and what does the way he’s running say about the worst of what he could do if he were elected. First, I spoke with Trip Gabriel, a national political reporter at the New York Times, about what Mehmet Oz’s past may tell us about what he might do if he was handed a seat in the Senate. Then I sat down with health advocate, second lady of Pennsylvania and wife of Senate candidate John Fetterman, Gisele Fetterman to talk about what it’s like to have a TV doctor poke fun at your husband for suffering a stroke. First, my conversation with Trip Gabriel: 

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: All right, let’s jump right in. Uh Trip, can you introduce yourself for the tape? 

 

Trip Gabriel: Sure. I’m Trip Gabriel at the New York Times. I’m a uh national political reporter. I cover um all kinds of campaigns, presidential campaigns. And in midterm years, like this one, Senate campaigns and uh and governor’s campaigns. 

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I want to sort of go back into the Dr. Oz files here. Where does Dr. Oz get started on the public stage? How does he start to build that um that celebrity persona that um that he’s taking advantage of now? 

 

Trip Gabriel: Well, he’s he’s best known, you know, because of The Dr. Oz Show, which ran for 11, 12, 13 years. And, you know, he kind of segued into that, thanks to Oprah Winfrey. He was a regular guest on Oprah’s show for a number of years before uh her company actually set him up with his own show but he has been a seeker of the limelight and publicity, you know, for almost his entire career, even before he, you know, got onto Oprah as a regular. I mean, he he is um an extraordinary uh heart surgeon. And, you know, everyone that knew him back in his formative years at Columbia, both as a med student and then um as a professor of surgery there and um and an active surgeon and and a research surgeon, you know, knew he had great talent, but he also had a talent for um publicizing himself, which most doctors don’t. Most doctors work in obscurity, whether they choose to or not. But, you know, from the earliest days of his uh, you know, being a doc, he he had he had a if you go back and look through the arch– I mean, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine were all writing profiles of this remarkable doctor um operating at Columbia. And, you know, he did heart surgeries on a lot of prominent people um in New York. So he got a lot of attention and and it actually created some rifts with uh some of his uh his his medical colleagues in those days. But the, his eye was, you know, clearly on, you know, something beyond medicine, beyond, you know, the practice of medicine. And, you know, he fit just perfectly once once Oprah came calling into uh into that uh that career path. 

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Mm. And while he was at Columbia, he uh he led a research team, which a whistleblower identified was uh not following standard protocol with some of the animal specimens on which they were doing research. Can you talk to us a little bit about you know that part of his career? What was he up to and what was the circumstance there? 

 

Trip Gabriel: Well, he was a you know, he was a cardiothoracic surgeon. So he did he did heart surgeries and he was also a researcher. And, you know, the research that he, you know, participated in and, you know, did experiments on animals, which is I’m not a doctor, but I understand that’s pretty pretty common in a lot of specialties. I mean, a lot of surgeries are developed, you know, in in animal experiments within Columbia, you know, in the university there there is, you know, a veterinary um research uh laboratory. Uh. There were many studies involved animals uh by one account, Dr. Oz had his name on um dozens of studies, research papers, excuse me, that, you know, in which, you know, hundreds of animals ended up dying. That’s not. They were euthanized. That’s that’s that’s the way it works in animal studies. Um. And there were some charges, this was back in the uh early 2000s that uh there was um episodes of cruelty and neglect in the uh treatment of the animals in some of these studies. Now um, it was investigated uh there was a whistleblower who came forward who was a veterinarian, I guess, in that lab. And there was a, an investigation by um Columbia that found some improprieties. And Columbia ended up settling with the um USDA under the Animal Welfare Act and paid a $2,000 fine. But they admitted no culpability. And it wasn’t just research done you know in a lab under the auspices of Oz. There were there were other doctors as well. It’s unclear um from what I’ve read. And, you know, a number of journalists have tried to investigate this, both both today and even back when it was taking place 20 years ago. You know how much culpability uh, you know, ends up how much culpability Oz has he claims or his campaign claims that he was never involved in those experiments directly. Um. His name was on research papers as a principal investigator in some cases. Um. But um he says or his campaign says that he never actually, you know, worked directly with the animals or was involved in their post-operative care. So um his name is not on the uh the fine that uh that Columbia uh paid the paid the federal government under the Animal Welfare Act. Um. So it’s a little unclear and, you know, how much responsibility one wants to lay at the, at Oz’s feet, you know, for for this kind of research. Obviously um, the research on animals in to develop medical um procedures, in this case, surgical procedures, not really testing drugs or something, you know, is not uncommon. And, you know, people need to decide for themselves, I guess, whether they they feel there’s a that’s an ethical practice or something that should be uh should be curtailed. 

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah. I mean, I think even independent of the norm of biomedical research on animals, I think the big issue um to my mind is the fact that there was not proper care taken to care for these uh animals that were um were being used in biomedical research. And, you know, at best that says that uh he was just a negligent um principal investigator. And at worst, the question is why why is this lab cutting corners when it comes to caring for uh the animals that are being sacrificed in by way of this research? And, you know, beyond the scope of of of our conversation here, to really decide whether or not biomedical research should go forward on animals. Um. And there’s good arguments on on both sides of that. But it is to say that if you’re going to do it, um respecting the lives of these animals, um at least to the level of the law, uh if not more so, uh seems like the obvious thing to do. I want to, you know, move on to his time in in in showbiz. Um. He gets the show and he uh he then sort of makes a schtick for himself uh where he’s got this sort of, you know, doctor in tight fitting scrubs persona, um telling people about the simple, easy wonder drugs that they can take um to improve their uh their cognitive function or or or lose that weight. Um. And he gets into a bit of trouble um with some of the claims that he makes. Was the Dr. Oz show you know, that dubious in terms of scientific claims for the jump, or did he slowly but surely sort of move in this direction um because it was pecuniary? 

 

Trip Gabriel: Well, I think it well, I have, was on the air for, I think 12 years. And I’m certainly not anyone who’s watched the majority of the show or intimately [laughter] or any significant number of episodes. And I was never a daytime television viewer so but uh yeah, pretty, pretty much all along, you know, he was making claims for nutrition supplements, dietary supplements that, you know, were miracle cures for, you know, for obesity and would help you lose weight. And, you know, and then he went farther in certain cases. But uh, you know, there’s some dubious stuff, you know, from the very beginning. I mean, he had Robert Kennedy Jr. on, you know, and gave him a platform for his vaccine uh um denial, you know, back in quite, quite a long time ago in 2014, I think that date was uh. Some researchers looked into, I think, 80 different recommendations that had been made on the Dr. Oz show, you know. So that would have been, you know, ten years ago and and found that fewer than half of them actually were supported by any any clinical evidence. There have been a lot of, you know, bloggers that have, you know, sought to, you know, hold hold his claims up to, you know, some kind of standard of science and have and have found them uh greatly lacking. And then I think you mentioned there was a Senate investigation or at least a Senate hearing in that same year, 2014, in which he was called on to the carpet, you know, and the audio that the senators, you know, played back or that, you know, you can find on the Internet from from the show. I mean, he it’s no different from a late night um, you know, infomercial hawking, you know, miracle weight loss cures. I mean and he did not present it as you know, we’re going to tell you. You know, or he kind of there was a gloss on, you know, I’m going to we’re going to see whether this is really the miracle cure, but that it pretends to be. But he you know, he he echoed that that that that very salesman like, you know, hucksteres language that, you know, this is this is a miracle cure for, you know, busting your belly fat and, you know, and so on and so forth. Um. And a lot of that stuff, you know, was was based on very thin evidence, some of it um based on studies that were later withdrawn. I mean, he drew some you know, he drew uh reprimands from, you know, the FDA. He, you know, for for claims he made um, for example, that the apple juice contained arsenic, which the FDA said was which was was irresponsible. Um. One show I do remember watching when I was doing some reporting on his background, you know, he he claimed that women who put their tucked their cell phones into their bras, which I guess, is a thing um or was a thing in you know shouldn’t do that because because the cell phones could cause cancer. 

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Mmm. 

 

Trip Gabriel: And there’s absolutely no, you know, basis in that. And and that show didn’t, you know, as I recall, didn’t really present, you know, you know, the research and, you know about about it. But it just it kind of, you know, picked up in the early days on, you know, a certain kind of panic that that that phones might be admitting some sort of cancer causing uh frequencies, I guess? 

 

[AD BREAK]

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: You know, the thing about it is [laugh], I, I um I don’t begrudge uh doctors for going out and having a conversation with the public. That’s what this show is. I don’t begrudge doctors uh to run for office. I did that. Um. The thing that really gets me is using an M.D. to put a professional or scientific veneer on good old fashioned quackery. And it’s like he did this for a decade plus on television and nobody stopped him. I mean, the question I guess I have is that despite all of this, his show still commanded enough ratings to stay on the air for quite a while. He got a Hollywood star uh for for his uh his work. And there are still a lot of people who know and trust him. Um. And it’s it’s not hard, right, to take your degree and sell sensationalism about the very topic that um you are certified to be an expert on uh so that you can sell attention, fame, and products. Um. Why do you think that he was allowed to keep going like this despite all the censure from the FDA, from from senators? Um. What what about him uh allowed him to just kind of keep doing his thing despite the clear evidence of either at best, that it was just wasting people’s money and at worst, potentially harming them? 

 

Trip Gabriel: Abdul, I know you’re a uh a very well educated, serious person, um but the question just seems [laughing] a little naive. Uh. It sells, you know, the televisions, the studios were making money hand over fist. Uh Mehmet Oz is a very rich man, he’s worth over $100 million dollars. He has homes, you know, all around the coun–, in many places around the country, he got quite wealthy. Um. Now, I should say, you know, taking a cut of the products that he was hawking, but, you know, just the he you know, as a producer of his own show that, you know, sold advertising. It was a very lucrative thing, but it was very lucrative for the you know, it’s daytime television, it’s talk television. It’s very lucrative for the uh the cable channels that uh that produce and distribute it. And and so I think it draws in a lot of advertising and it draws in the advertising because there is a there was a very large audience for this, um mostly female, daytime TV, as we’ve we’ve we’ve discussed. You know, there’s there’s no uh and this this came up, I guess, in the Senate hearing that he participated in. There’s you know, there’s no law about what you can, you know, claim, you know, medically. I mean, he’s not selling a product specifically. So the USDA’s or the FDA’s regulated territory, you know, kind of armature is not is is not called in. Um. You know, I think he told the senators that uh in Washington that, you know, he he sees himself as a as an advocate and for people to get to take responsibility for their health. And he was he resented, you know, anyone trying to you know um, hem in the kind of flowery language that he may may may choose to to use. And if you if you walk into any supermarket and go through the uh the supplements aisle, you know, there’s thousands of products calling calling out to you that and promising that they’re going to make a difference in your life. Um. That was his racket or that was his, I won’t even use that derogatory term right that was that was his uh you know, that was his niche. And there’s a big audience for it and occasionally his wings were clipped by, you know, by regulators. Um. And occasionally he, you know, withdrew some stuff. Um. I mean, in my mind, it got more serious when he you know, when Covid came came along and and Oz kind of leapt from just being Dr. Oz and daytime television talking about belly busting, you know, uh miracle diet pills and, you know, became an early champion on Fox News, mostly in the on the very influential evening broadcasts for um hydroxychloroquine, if you remember, which was a, you know, supposedly a miracle cure for COVID-19 in early 2020, when when people were were very afraid of the virus and didn’t know very much about it and what to do about it. But, you know, he brought that same hucksterish um credulity or just the um instinct to seize on fairly thin evidence, maybe one clinical trial and promote and tout something as as as a miracle cure. And um you know that that was a more serious issue that eventually became, you know, a big part of the Trump administration’s, you know, efforts to kind of minimize the the seriousness of the of the virus. 

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah, I was going to ask and I wanted to jump there. And the reason I asked the question, as naive as it sounded, is because, you know, in the end um, we trust the will of our democracy to make good decisions. The hard part is we’ve already watched how it’s been gamed by hucksters who sell their celebrity um and frankly, their brazen willingness to say things that they know are not true to gain power. And, you know, you started to see a much more um serious side of the adverse consequences beyond, as you say, busting belly fat um in the context of a pandemic where you watch as uh this TV doctor starts to use his platform to sell a drug with very little evidence, backing it um from, you know, scientists whose uh whose methods were dubious at best um that he and his wife owned stock in. I mean, this is the craziest part, right, $615,000 of stock in um one of the uh hydroxychloroquine uh manufacturing and distribution companies. Um. And he’s out there spouting this stuff uh in the middle of a pandemic. What does that tell you about his his ethics, his uh morals, the the things that he values and what it might mean if he was actually given the platform of a U.S. senator? 

 

Trip Gabriel: I don’t even know. I don’t know enough. You know, it’s someone like, as a journalist, you know, you got to kind of caution yourself from trying to guess what’s in somebody’s mind and what their motives are. I mean, I don’t know if this, that was a mercenary uh motive, as you suggested, in promoting hydroxychloroquine. I just I think that, you know, the limelight was calling. This was his M.O. as a doctor there there was a very thin, superficial study, you know, out of France that, you know, that he seized upon. He called it massive, massive news. He was on Fox News more than 25 times in early to, 2020, you know, telling people that this was going to be a miracle cure. You know, at the same time that people like Anthony Fauci were saying, wait a minute, hold on, we need studies to do this. I mean, ultimately, as everyone remembers, hydroxychloroquine was um shown to be uh completely ineffective as a as a as a drug to prevent– 

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: In fact, harmful, harmful for–

 

Trip Gabriel: Exactly. And harmful. Um. What does it show about what kind of a senator he would be? Um. Well, that’s a good that’s a good question. Um. Personally, I think the bar for being a United States senator is so low today. Um. You know, both the existing senators are in office and some of the ones who are running with with a very good chance of joining their their their ranks. I mean, you’ve got former football coaches, you know, many people who are there only because they’re extremely wealthy and use their money to uh to get there. And, you know, does. I would honestly say, I think he’s he’s in the middle of the pack. I don’t I don’t I don’t see him as a grievous threat to uh to to U.S. health. I think he’s I guess I tend to think it is more um caveat emptor, you know, with the with where you get your medical advice from. If you if you’re the kind of person who gets medical advice from a daytime TV show, you know, this is uh, you know, maybe maybe you’ll see an extension of that performance. And uh once he’s in the Senate, you know, one of the things that stands out for me when I was reporting about Oz’s show was I talked to two people who are on his research team. These were um medical students who were taking a break from medical school and doing a year, you know, in a research department on the Oz show. And they they kind of told me, you know, how the how the sausage was made. And, you know, producers would sit around and they’d see something on the Internet, you know, like, hey, green coffee bean extract, you know, will help you lose weight. And they would say, okay, we’re going to do a segment on that. And they would turn it over to the actual, you know, experts in the research department, say find us the evidence for this. Often there was no evidence for it. Um. The uh the researchers would push back, and the producers would overrule them. The prospect of a, you know, what looks good on TV, you know, was much more important than any any scientific evidence for something. And um, you know, so maybe that’s the that’s a clue to the kind of, you know, Senator Oz, the kind of clue to the kind of political, you know, profile that Oz would have as a center. I mean, if it’s, you know, if it if it has, you know, public appeal, if it’s, you know, that that that might trump, you know, the the actual um evidence for something as effectiveness as policy. But that’s hardly a shocking perspective for a member of Congress these days. 

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: That is true. Um. You know, it is unfortunately, the bar is extremely low for uh our legislatures, um particularly now. And yet, you know, the hard part about a Mehmet Oz, the thing that makes him to me so dangerous is that he brands so clearly as an expert. Right. This is a former Columbia heart surgeon. Uh. With all that you would expect from that, um who now would be in a position not just to spout whatever, you know, you find on the bottom end of an article you read on the Internet. But but also with the ability to actually shape a uh a future for American health care. And that to me is the is the biggest worry I have. It’s that you think about what might happen if Mehmet Oz is elected and Republicans take the Senate um and who is in charge now of or speaking for health policy on behalf of Republicans. Mehmet Oz is the next one up. And you think about the way he made his 100 plus million dollars. And what he learned about um the contrast between being rigorous and evidence driven in the first part of his career versus how much you could make being a huckster in the latter part of his career. And I wonder what kind of health care system he tries to build for us um and what that means uh for our country. Has he spoken much on on health care policy? And uh if so, what what would be his vision for American health care? 

 

Trip Gabriel: I may have to plead ignorance. I you know, I’m sure he has some, you know, some writing on his website. I it doesn’t seem to come up that much, you know, in his in his events, the ones that I have attended, I mean, he’s he’s running, you know, on the issues right now that are stirring a lot of voters, you know, at least on you know that the Republicans are trying to use to stir voters. Crime, inflation um you know, he’s not for overturning the uh the the ACA. Um. He’s uh you know, I I’m going to plead ignorance. I have no idea what kind of health care policy he would promote. I mean, there are other there are other doctors in the Senate who are Republicans. Dr. Rand Paul. You know, is a pretty prominent example. Um. And, you know, I suspect Oz as a senator would would find other things that are more interesting uh um than than health care policy. I mean, the Republicans do a pretty um they’re just not that as as we’ve seen from, you know, decades, decades worth of unsuccessful efforts to repeal the Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act. You know, the Republicans have never gotten their act together on that. And the reason is they just don’t care that much about health care. They’re not quite sure, you know, repeal and replace. Okay. And then they can never come up with the replacement part. They really don’t have a, you know, other than, you know, some uh some, you know, sort of some talking points. They don’t really have a, you know, a coherent thought out policy on what to do about getting more health care to people um. 

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah. They’re just not interested in the policy part. Um. I, um I really appreciate you uh joining us to, to share some of that perspective. And, you know, this is a this is a man who, in my reading uh starts out his career believing that rigorous and evidence driven excellence matter. And then over the course of several decades doesn’t just give up on that, but actually starts to sell that um for parts. And I see his his Senate race as being exactly that, like this is this is the final thing you can sell off uh to gain power on the back of a level of credibility um that then tarnishes that credibility, that set of institutions for everybody else who who actually has fealty to it. And that that to me is, I think, the most devastating part. You know, I don’t know, obviously, what’s going to happen uh in the election, but I do know that um when you have someone like a Dr. Oz speaking on behalf of American health and health care, um that we’re all the worse for it. Um. And I you know, I really just worry about what that means for the future and really appreciate your reporting, just looking into his career and and um sharing what you’ve learned with us uh. Trip, thank you so much for joining us. 

 

Trip Gabriel: Thank you. 

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, narrating: Gisele Futterman was the first to notice that her husband’s face was drooping, and she forced him to step away from the campaign to get the care he needed. He was diagnosed with a major stroke. He made it through the Democratic primary only to face off against a TV doctor whose tried to make the stroke a major campaign issue. She joined me to talk about what her husband’s stroke taught her, about the challenges facing Pennsylvanians and what it’s like to have your husband criticized for getting sick by a TV doctor. Just a note, Gisele joined us from the campaign trail, so I hope you’ll excuse the audio quality here. Here’s my conversation with Gisele Fetterman:

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Um, can you do just yourself for the tape, please? 

 

Gisele Fetterman: Hi, my name is Gisele Barreto Fetterman. I’m Pennsylvania’s second lady. 

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I think one of the things that people have really appreciated about you and John is that you’re pretty normal people um and uh you’re up against this sort of craven, narcissistic need for power, which has, I think too often encapsulated um our our politicians. And you see it in it’s most disgusting and I hate to say honest form in the form of Mehmet Oz, who’s clearly somebody who has no preparation for a political career, hasn’t really thought about public policy in any real way, does not live a the normal kind of life, as evidenced by trying to shop for crudités at a store whose name he doesn’t even know. Um. And in some respects, that contrast is both really important for people to see, but also kind of hard to watch. Um. I want to ask you, right like, as someone who spent some time in in politics, um not, you know, not entirely by your own set of choices, but because of the choices that you share as a family. What’s it like trying to sustain sort of a normal without allowing the hideousness of it all to like, you know, to to to tell you never to be vulnerable again? What is what has been the experience of that and what’s what’s kept you going? 

 

Gisele Fetterman: I’m trying to lean into that. I joke that I’ve been trying to normalize public crying for the last decade. Um. I think for me it’s important to stay that way. I don’t want to ever think this is okay. I don’t want my kids to ever see me kind of just accept this as normal. Like, I want to cry about it. I want to be upset about it because I don’t want to ever uh be desensitized to this reality. Right. I know this might be our new normal in politics, and I’ve seen the shift um, but I don’t want to ever be okay with it. So I want my kids to see me upset about it or crying about it, um but I want to continue to show the reality that we should be vulnerable. Um. But we should never accept this as okay. And you know seeing the bias in the media as well, and how ableist the media has been so openly um is also really challenging. I think of everyone I love who is disabled or families who have a loved one, and to see the media be so openly ableist is hard to watch as well. 

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I want to um just pick up on that on that point. Right. Because um. You know, the fact that John survived a stroke has been a subtext of the entire campaign. On the one hand, anybody who sort of had a stroke like his, needs the time and space to recuperate. And on the other, you know, the pressure of having to prove that, you know, he still very clearly has all of his faculties, has then, you know, forced him onto an accelerated timeline. You know, somebody who like fundamentally cares about the person underneath the candidate, how have you uh how have you tried to engage that situation? What has been your um advice? 

 

Gisele Fetterman: I mean, he’s a hero. He’s amazing. And I can’t imagine having to you know heal and go through that as he has, as so many families are. But he has had to do it completely in the public eye, which makes it that much more challenging. And he can get up in front of crowds of thousands right? Right after having a stroke, which, again, he’s superhuman um and he’s remarkable. But I do want to emphasize that our family is no different than all the families going through this. The only difference is we have the eyes of the world watching us go through that. So, you know, I support him. All his doctors support him. Uh. They all say he’ll be better than before. He’ll have a full recovery. And while this time period is challenging, um I know that we’ll get through it. 

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And what has the experience of this taught you about our health care system writ large? 

 

Gisele Fetterman: Just how unfair it is. I mean, I always knew that. I grew up as an undocumented child, so I had no child care for you know most of my childhood. And I remember like I couldn’t play sports at school because I could not get injured. It took me 15 years to finally fix a broken nose. Um. But you know, John was 15 minutes from the top stroke center in Pennsylvania the day before and the day after we were slated to be in red parts of the state. Parts that are much more lacking in um not only like broadband, but you know hospital and access. And he had the great outcome that he is going to have thanks to where he was, our access to health care. But someone living in in a more rural part of our state likely would have had a very different outcome. 

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: [sigh] So much of the politics of grievance that people like Mehmet Oz and, um you know, his daddy Donald Trump uh play in is driven by the fact that our systems really have not considered um the level of disinvestment in so many communities that tend to lean red. Right. The fact that every time a hospital shuts down, uh you’re talking not only about access to health care for thousands of people who now have to drive one more hour to get that, which should be enough. But you’re also talking usually about the single biggest uh employer in a community that is now also gone. Um. And the system of our health care has led to this this phenomenon where large hospital systems come in, buy a, quote unquote, “underperforming hospital” in a rural community, realize they can’t um get it to, quote unquote “perform”, which basically means have uh or make them enough money and then they just shut it down. How much has um that reality and the kind of disinvestment in, quote, “red parts of our country” been a part of the way that um you all hope to change American health care, given your experience? 

 

Gisele Fetterman: We’ve actually lived through that experience. And, you know, our area is blue. But again, it’s it’s um, you know, historically ignored, our community. And we had a hospital that shut down. John was actually arrested protesting the closure of it. And this is a hospital that saw over 20,000 emergency room visits a year, but they closed down because they could not make money. And, you know, you’re a nonprofit. I don’t know, you know, PSA, you’re not supposed to be making money. You’re suppos–That’s not your goal here. Um. But they did that. They closed down the hospital. And now these folks have to take multiple busses or a you know ambulance they’ll be paying for for the rest of their lives to get to a hospital now, you know, much further away. So we’ve seen that firsthand. And um so it is a lot of the red areas, but also the historically ignored areas like we lived in. Um. And we’ve had to drive folks to hospitals. Right. We’ve done that multiple times. We get those calls now, to drive folks um. But again, it’s it’s this mentality that you should be making a profit off of people and not that health care is a right that everyone deserves equal access to. 

 

[AD BREAK]

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And you know the scary thing is that should Mehmet Oz become a U.S. senator from a state he doesn’t live in. Um. It would mean that he would de facto become the face of Republican health care policy. And this is somebody who has uh repeatedly um exploited his medical training to make unwarranted money off of unwarranted treatments uh on television. This is somebody who, in the midst of a pandemic, uh having owned $615,000 of stock in the corporation that manufactures hydroxychloroquine, went on national TV and pumped it without any real evidence. While hundreds of thousands of people whose anxiety drove them to be searching for something believed him. Um. What would it mean for American health care if Mehmet Oz became the de facto face of American health policy? 

 

Gisele Fetterman: I think it’s the beginning of the end. Um. You know, there’s already such a strained relationship with health care and I’m going through a tunnel so I might get a little choppy. Um. If we look at how many millions of folks, Americans did not get vaccinated because of you know what they were told or what they heard or what they believe in the pandemic, our pandemic would have ended much differently. We would be in a very different place. But this is also someone who was fined and had to settle a $5.25 million dollar settlement for selling products he knew were fake and would not tell people. This is someone who was playing on the vulnerability of people who just needed help or hope, and he exploited that. So I think health care is already in a very difficult place in this country. But I think this is going to be the really what takes us down. If he were to be the face of it. 

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I want to ask you, you know, you were um you were the reason why uh why um John’s stroke was discovered. And um it was quick thinking it was uh the ability to recognize a pattern um and then the ability to to make sure your hard charging candidate of a husband listened to what you had to say and went to the hospital. Um. You know you very likely saved his life. What is your uh advice to folks who are living with with the risk of illness? What does it mean to to be able to to recognize something like this uh and have hard conversations with your loved one about how to protect themselves and get health care, particularly when that loved one is a you know, is a stubborn husband, this happens often. 

 

Gisele Fetterman: Well, his life and hopefully democracy as well. Um. You know, you know the reality is it’s like 70% of men. I read the statistic, that just don’t go you know whether they fear what they’re going to find out or they just prioritize. In John’s case, John prioritized the world above himself, which wonderful, that’s noble. But that isn’t enough, right? You have to be your best to be your best for other people. And it’s a lesson he’s had to learn the hard way. Um. But since then, we’ve received messages from all over of folks who now are taking a more active role in their health because they’ve been inspired by his transparency. And I think the one that stands out to me the most was actually someone from the VA. A VA employee reached out and said that a veteran came in in active stroke and his wife said the only reason he agreed to come in is because he had seen what happened with John Fetterman. So I know that his honesty and his courage has absolutely saved lives. But I think we should all take this as a learning opportunity um that you have to take care of yourself too. I always tell my kids, it’s great to be kind to everyone else you should be, but that has to include yourself. And this applies to how we take care of each other and how we take care of ourselves as well. 

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I, I really appreciate that um. That message and, you know, uh the challenge so often, right, when it comes to public health is it’s all the things that we do before someone gets sick um that, you know, it’s not just uh what we do for ourselves, but it’s also what society does for us. And we’ve sort of disinvested in that and the long term consequence is that as those health challenges pile up, it gets harder and harder to look at. It’s kind of like uh, you know, if you make a pile of dirty clothes in your room, at some point, the pile gets so big that you’re just like, no, I’m just I’m not going to be I don’t even know what’s under the bottom of that. Um. 

 

Gisele Fetterman: I’m not going to make eye contact with that pile. I’ve had those moments. [laughing]

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Uh. And you know when it’s your health, right? That that can that can end um in some pretty dire consequences. But it’s also the fact that, like too few people have access to the means of good health in the first place. You know, a walkable community, um healthy foods uh in in their local community, as we’ve talked about already. Clean air or clean water. Um. And I want to ask, you know, what this experience has taught you about the things that we need to be building out in society to protect people from ever finding themselves in that circumstance in the first place. 

 

Gisele Fetterman: I don’t know. I don’t know that I learned it now. I think I grew up learning it because of my my lack of access to health care growing up. I, you know, I could see like a minor thing that I could have addressed much earlier on. And it just kind of snowballs, like you mentioned, saves money if we work on preventive things other than addressing it when we’re already at the end. But I think it’s changing the relationship that we have um with medicine. Right. Why is it that so many folks were scared to get vaccinated? Right. And it’s because you have someone like a Mehmet Oz telling folks to take this. And that is my biggest fear is that that becomes the mouthpiece um and changes health care in a way that we can’t go back. Right I think right now we’re at a place where we can we can change the conversations and we can change the relationship. But, you know, where do we go if we get too far gone? 

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Recently, you um you called uh Dr. Oz a quack, which uh we wholly validate here on this show. Um. But I wanted to ask you. Right, because sometimes when we talk about quackery, it’s kind of one of those uh those crimes that’s perceived as having no victim. Um. Like, you know, a quack can come and they can offer you some snake oil, but it’s your choice as to whether or not you take it. But what that tends to ignore is the vulnerability of people who um tend to fall prey to this kind of uh this kind of crime, we’ll call it. And um I want to ask you, uh as someone who who’s who’s lived part of your life without health care, uh who didn’t always have the the means and opportunity of getting um great care in your life, what what does quackery mean to you? Who are the victims of that? And what makes them so susceptible um and so vulnerable uh to these kinds of lies? 

 

Gisele Fetterman: There are so many victims, um and I think what makes them so susceptible is that they’re looking for help right. They’re looking for I don’t want to say a shortcut necessarily, but they’re they’re looking for hope and they’re watching these these things and they’re listening. And they believed him because he had a doctor before his name. And, you know, if you watch the the back episodes, I was never a watcher of the show. But I’ve seen enough during this this cycle. Um. How did anyone take this seriously? How was this allowed to continue on television for as long as it has? You had uh uh overseen by a board who were not medical professionals. And what else is out there right now that is going to come back and bite us just like this did? Now, how are we allowing this to continue to air? It’s like folks I think who watch Newsmax or Fox like what makes you more susceptible to that? It’s almost like a brainwashing of of half our country and it’s terrifying to me. Some of the comments I read are things that are so nonsensical that these folks believe that with all their might, all their heart, and I think it’s folks who are searching for hope. And you catch them at a vulnerable period and they just believe anything. 

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I appreciate that point. Right. Because that’s the that’s the piece about it, is that um quackery exists where our system has failed. Right. It exists where people don’t get hope or reassurance from the systems that currently exist or the [?] system to which they have access, which too too few people have access to the full suite of of the health care system. And so they have to search for alternatives because very few people are going to give up on the the most important thing that we have going uh on this world, which is our very lives and our health. Um. And so in order for quackery to work, there has to be systems failure at some point. And and this is kind of the point I worry about what happens when a lifelong quack gets access to the system. Right. Because their first instinct is going to be to disallocate the system that then allows quacks to exploit it. And um that’s a real worry. And we see that happening across our system. I mean, the fact that, for example, Medicare doesn’t fund vision, dental and hearing, despite the fact that almost everybody I know who’s 65 needs one of those services. 

 

Gisele Fetterman: [?] Yup. 

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Exactly. Says a lot about the way that um corporations have lobbied to make sure that Medicare doesn’t offer everything that it it should, um so that uh companies can then come off and profit off of addressing the margin. Um. The other uh really important issue um that has uh has emerged in our society since June um has been the rights to one’s own bodily autonomy in the form of reproductive rights. And um you’ve been a leader on this issue, and you spent part of your childhood in a country where abortion is fundamentally illegal and seen the consequences, the health care consequences for people um because of that. We’ve got someone who, again, um claims to be a physician but is um actively advocating against uh the right to bodily autonomy, the the ability for someone to make a decision about their own pregnancy uh with their doctor and no one else, um and wants to leverage the system to take away uh that health care right. Um. In your own work, in your own life um how has reproductive rights um shaped people’s uh lives and livelihoods, and um what does that tell you uh about the stakes of this election when it comes to abortion rights in this country? 

 

Gisele Fetterman: It tells me that it can absolutely enrich your lives, but it has to be your choice to allow it to. This is someone who is not only actively working against it, but he actually believes that it’s murder. He’s on tape saying that you’re a murderer if you just have an abortion for any reason. Right? He’s also on record saying that he wouldn’t treat smokers. What doctor says, I will not care for smokers? Right? This is dangerous. Like these are very dangerous conversations we’re having and as someone who grew up in a country where abortion was illegal, to think that my daughter might have fewer rights than I had my entire adult life was never a thought that I would have believed. If you told me that, I would have said of course not that isn’t going to happen. But it, I don’t think that this is the end. This is the beginning right. What’s next after this? What are they going for next? And that’s what we’ll continue to see. They’re going to continue to push for more and more extreme and radical um changes that are so damaging to women, but to people as a whole. 

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: [sigh] I, I you know, I would have thought that someone who uh went to medical school and explored all the nuances of this uh would understand that. But, you know, again, this is about power and about control. And it’s easy um to give a set of talking points that you you should know better about when uh your goal is is simply power um and ego. One of the things that strikes me about about um you and your family is that you’re you’re really quite hopeful people. You can’t do what you do without being hopeful. And, you know, as as we sort of think about moving forward, this is a really challenging and and dark time um in America, uh what what gives you hope uh about the future? And, you know, when you uh put your kids to sleep um, what do you tell them that steels them for the next day? 

 

Gisele Fetterman: I think the next generation is definitely going to be better than this one. And that gives me hope. You know, it gives me hope when they’re outraged because [?] said something awful. It gives me hope when they you know the things they see, they’re so bothered by it. They’re not it’s not normal to them. They’re really angry and really upset. And they have more compassion and empathy than I think so many of our leaders and that has to give me hope. Um. I also cry a ton. So it’s not all hopeful days. Uh. Many days are are really hard, um but we have to believe that it’s going to get better. You have to believe that um all of this has been for something, all the sacrifice and all that our family has been through, and so many others who choose to run for office with good intentions um that it’s for an outcome that will make lives better. 

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Well. We really, really appreciate you joining us uh from the road where uh we know you’re you know, you’re you’re putting um your time and your energy uh where where your hope and optimism are. Um. And this is not easy work. Uh. And I’m grateful that you’re doing it, particularly in the context um of uh of this particular moment in our democracy. So um thank you again, Gisele for for joining us, for your insight and your perspective um and wishing you all the luck on the campaign trail. Okay? 

 

Gisele Fetterman: Thank you for having me it was such a pleasure. Thank you for your voice and your platform. 

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, narrating: As usual. Here’s what I’m watching right now. BA 4.6., BQ one. BQ 1.1, BF seven. Those are just four of the new Omicron sub variants that account for at least 5% of the US COVID-19 burden over the past two weeks. Though, B.A. 5 remains the dominant sub variant for now. It’s likely that these will compete to enrich themselves over the coming weeks as COVID cases may continue to grow. And those are just the new variants in the U.S. There are several others, including XXB, which are emerging around the globe. Taken together, they tell us a lot about where viral evolution is headed. Almost all of them have key mutations in the same spot on the virus’s spike protein, the so-called receptor binding domain. That’s the spot where our antibodies, the most important line of immune defense, bind to the virus and block its action. But those mutations will then make it so that those antibodies just can’t bind as well. And that helps the virus evade our immune systems. These aren’t big changes, though. Each of these variants is slightly different from the original Omicron, making slight tweaks to optimize to find the nooks and crannies in our immunity in ways that allow them to reinfect folks. The fact that they exist and are enriching themselves, increasing in proportion of COVID cases overall is worrisome for their ability to cause another fall wave. There are a couple of pieces of good news here, though. First, given that these are still Omicron sub variants, it suggests to us that the virus is not making leaps in immune evasiveness, which means our vaccine armament is still effective and vaccination is still the critical piece of protection against serious illness from them. Second, Paxlovid our COVID 19 oral treatment is still effective against them. But remember, we’re still kind of flying blind here. Over the course of the last year since the original Omicron surge, we’ve seen a vast decommissioning of our COVID infrastructure, including testing. So I worry that we’re likely missing the real burden of COVID cases around the country because we’re just not equipped to find it. Last week, a new study showed that 1.3 million Americans with diabetes rationed their insulin last year. That’s 16.5% of all people with diabetes who use it. For folks with diabetes, insulin is like water. You don’t get it and you can die. And then there’s the fact that insulin is over a century old. Its discoverer sold the patent for a buck, $1, because, quote, “insulin is for the world”. Notice he didn’t say insulin is for the pharmaceutical companies so that they can exploit it to raise their profits. No, he said for the world. And across the world, that’s mainly the case. Just not in America, where we’ve allowed massive pharma corporations to keep jacking the price up every single year to pad their bottom lines. While the Inflation Reduction Act will certainly ease insulin costs for Medicare beneficiaries, people over 65, hundreds of thousands of people will continue to struggle to afford it. One thing we could do is extend Medicare to everybody. Just a thought. Chances are you’re listening to this on a pair of headphones. In fact, no generation has had better access to in-ear audio than ours, which is a real problem. And that’s because few of us pay attention to that warning on our phones that tell us that we’re listening too much or too loudly. We crank our volume up to 11 when our favorite banger comes on, and that’s the problem. I worry that we’re going to pay for it in higher rates of hearing loss down the line. And hearing aids, those things ain’t cheap. Well, at least they weren’t. 

 

[clip of Vice President Kamala Harris] Soon, Americans with mild to moderate hearing loss will be able to buy their hearing aids at the local drugstore or pharmacy. No prescription needed. 

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: That’s Vice President Kamala Harris announcing a new FDA rule on hearing aids that’s gone into effect. It allows them to be sold over the counter for the first time rather than behind a prescription or custom fitting. That meant that the average pair of hearing aids in 2020 was $4,000. It also meant that there were fewer products to choose from. Lots of companies just didn’t bother to jump in because the number of people who could afford to pay out of pocket was so limited. Under the new rule, many more manufacturers are coming to the market, giving seniors far better options. This is great. But, you know what would be even better? If hearing aids were covered by Medicare because, you know, like a third of people who are Medicare eligible need them. That’s it for today. On your way out. Don’t forget to rate and review. It really does go a long way. Also, if you love the show and want to rep us, I hope you’ll drop by the Crooked store for some America Dissected merch. [music break] America Dissected is a product of Crooked Media. Our producer is Austin Fisher. Our associate producers are Tara Terpstra and Emma Illic-Frank. Veronica Simonetti mixes and masters the show. Production support from Ari Schwartz, Ines Maza, and Leo Duran. Our theme song is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Sugiura. Our executive producers are Sarah Geismer, Sandy Girard, Michael Martinez and me, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, your host. Thanks for listening. [music break] This show is for general information and entertainment purposes only. It is not intended to provide specific health care or medical advice and should not be construed as providing health care or medical advice. Please consult your physician with any questions related to your own health.