A Little Sage
My name is Susan and I am writing from Wyomissing, Pennsylvania. I post vegan recipes, most of which follow the “whole-foods-plant-based diet” from Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, cardiologist at The Cleveland Clinic, principal in the documentary Forks Over Knives and author of Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease. He joins other doctors and cardiologists such as Dean Ornish, Neal Barnard, Colin Campbell and John McDougall in the knowledge that a whole-foods-plant-based diet can help manage and reverse disease.
I’d love to hear from you. If you have a comment or a question about a whole-foods-plant-based diet, click “Contact.”
Why I’m Vegan: A Little Story About a Heart Attack
My whole adult life I was interested in healthy eating and cooking. Several years ago, a friend and I began exploring vegetarian and vegan cooking. We took a cooking class together. In 2011, she gave me The Vegan Table, a cookbook by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau. It became a favorite and I made vegan dinners for my family, although we still ate meat, cheese and all the other wonderful stuff Americans eat.
My husband Pete and I were married for 23 years at the time and we had two, almost-grown children.
On the morning of Christmas Eve of 2011…
I know! Can you believe it???
…we took our dogs for a long walk. When we returned home, I noticed Pete wasn’t feeling well. He appeared nauseous, sweaty and pale. He had a hard time catching his breath. I thought he was coming down with a bug. It didn’t cross my mind this was anything more serious. He was 49 years old. I was 47. It was Christmas Eve after all, and who has anything serious on Christmas Eve?
Pete sat on the sofa with his iPad, and I went to check on him, asking him if he wanted to go lie down. He complained about tightness in his chest. He placed his fingertips onto his sternum, explaining exactly where he felt it. He said his hands tingled. His iPad opened to “heart attack symptoms.”
I (astutely) suggested the ER, which was followed by a discussion about how it was Christmas Eve, as if that offered a reason we should hesitate. Only there was no question. We live about three minutes from the nearest hospital. We hopped in the car.
Note: If you are experiencing heart attack symptoms, call an ambulance no matter how far from the hospital you live. Intervention may begin sooner this way.
The rest was like a bad dream. At the ER, staff took Pete back right away, leaving me to sign in. I found him a few minutes later, learning an EKG indeed showed heart attack. With a burst of activity, nurses handed me a pile of Pete’s sweaty clothes and his shoes. They rushed him to another room where a team of doctors and nurses swarmed. I ran along to keep up.
Someone offered me a chair and introduced me to the hospital chaplain.
I really couldn’t believe it. Pete had no significant family history of heart attack. We were both competitive swimmers growing up and through college. We both exercised and maintained normal weight as adults. He never smoked, and his cholesterol was satisfactory at a recent checkup.
Three hours later, I met Pete in recovery. Two stents cleared an arterial blockage. A catheterization showed blockage in two other arteries, but nothing significant enough to warrant further surgery. Pete would be OK. The next morning, Christmas morning, the kids and I hauled Christmas gifts into the hospital. It was the most unusual and surreal Christmas.
It’s one thing to know you are overweight and need to watch your diet, or to know you have high cholesterol and take steps to reduce it, or to quit smoking when you’re a smoker. But where do you go next when you thought you’ve been doing everything right to prevent another heart attack?
A friend suggested we watch Forks Over Knives, the documentary featuring Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr. and T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D., who wrote The China Study. We watched it the night we returned home from the hospital about three days after Christmas. It was eye opening. It was also relieving! Here was information we had not known before! Here was something we could do, benchmarks we could aim for. Heart disease can be reversed, not just managed, but REVERSED, not with further surgery or medication, but with simple-old food.
Note: In our family, we take prescribed medication as directed. We do believe improved diet goes hand-in-hand with doctors’ medical advice. Often, medication doses can be reduced or eliminated as weight, cholesterol or blood pressure readings improve. This happened for Pete. We follow doctor’s orders.
In the years since the heart attack, I learned we should require more of ourselves, meaning we should not eat meat at every single meal, every single day. We should eat plants! Our ancestors ate far less meat and far more plants. If we change our diets, we have significant control over our own health. I wish we had known. We often say we wish we had known all this before.
Likewise, we also often say we wish we knew before how delicious a vegan diet could be. We order vegetable dishes in restaurants and say, “Wow! I wish we had known about this!” We try new recipes all the time and buy different food at the grocery store and local market. We often say we feel sorry for the carnivores. We feel sorry because they don’t know what they’re missing.
Our transition has been complete and positive. For us, it’s an exciting new area of interest. We focus on what we CAN eat, not what we can’t eat. We have a sense of humor about it, because we know friends think we’re crazy. On the other hand, friends have been VERY supportive and willing to play along with us. For those who are interested, we started our very first week of vegan eating with recipes from Mark Bittman’s New York times article, No Meat, No Dairy, No Problem. It’s a useful article including some very basic vegan meal ideas.
Here is a photo of me and Pete April of 2012, just months after the heart attack. We were already doing better, both of us. On that trip to New York from our home in Pennsylvania, we visited our first all-vegan restaurant, Candle 79 on East 79th Street. Delicious!
A Little Humor Goes a Long Way
I would like to say I enthusiastically embraced a vegan diet because of Pete’s heart attack. It was a big event for us, after all. But the truth is, I’ve always been afraid. I was born afraid.
Afraid of what, you ask.
Well, death, of course. Although not really death, but pain or illness that may precede death.
I’m a “glass half empty” kind of girl, and what remains in the glass is wine to drown sorrows. Silly, but that’s how it is!
This fear took hold especially when I was a little girl after I heard the horror story called “Madeline” by Ludwig Bemelmans. (Yes, I said horror story.) My dad read it to me before bed.
Madeline is a little girl going to bed.
I am a little girl going to bed.
Something is not right!
Let’s review the story, so you can see what I’m talking about. The protagonist is a little girl. (The scariest character in a horror story is always a little girl, as in “The Grudge” or “The Ring” or “The Exorcist.” Madeline fits the bill.) This is the first picture in my book:
(Be forewarned. That’s her MIDDLE finger.)
The story begins right here in this haunted house.
Nothing good happens in a vine-covered, haunted house.
The beginning follows the classic horror story formula where everything is nice and peaceful.
Twelve little girls are cute.
They’re all clean and disciplined.
Soon enough, though, in classic horror-story fashion, events take a fearful turn! Don’t look now, the story says, no matter how cute, clean, disciplined and good you are, you cannot control your appendix!
Madeline is rushed to the hospital and fixed good as new.
The part with the toys at the end is supposed to make you feel better.
Madeline’s schoolmates are gaga about the toys. They cry because they want appendectomies and toys too! Dumb girls. What are they thinking? Listen up girls! Don’t trade your health for toys. That’s a bad trade! What you want to do instead is use your looks and your cleaning skills to attract a PRINCE. (Like Sleeping Beauty or Snow White.) This way you can have unlimited toys, BECAUSE YOU WILL BE A PRINCESS.
A princess WITH an appendix.
The book taught me about my appendix and put me immediately on alert about how it might feel at any given moment.
How is my lower-right abdomen now?
How about now?
It went on like this until my friend Pam introduced me to the fact that you could also have a hernia, occurring on your lower-left abdomen. Pam knew, because Pam had it and surgery too. From then on, I had “ahernia” and appendicitis almost every day unless I was distracted by eating ice cream or playing tag. (I loved tag.)
The point is, whether it’s the appendix or the heart, I look for every opportunity to control things that are probably out of my control. In the case of heart disease, I turn to a vegan diet for comfort no further heart attacks will get us in the middle of the night or on Christmas Eve or at any other time. I believe diet can help.
I do things imperfectly. I’m not healthy all the time. I’m not an ideal weight all the time. I’m determined to have a sense of humor about my fears and my dietary goals. I’m happy to pass along the things I’ve learned in the four years since our health scare.
I hope you’ll play along.
That’s all there is. There isn’t any more.