At age 42, a heart attack was the last thing on my mind. Never would I have guessed that a major chronic disease lurking in my veins was slowly taking my life. Back then, I always felt healthy.
I had smoked throughout all my teenage and adult life, but so did over half the people in my life at that time, and although I heard people say on occasion smoking was bad, I never personally witnessed anyone die from it, so I did not see it as a major health crisis. I never seemed to get sick any more than the other people around me – maybe a cold once or twice a year or the occasional flu every few years.
To me this was my normal, or what I considered healthy. I routinely had checkups and yearly physicals that resulted in doctors telling me I was healthy. I figured my diet was healthy; after all, it was the same diet most in our family had been raised on, and they are all very much alive, not to mention the same diet has kept my grandmother alive for over 92 years. To this day, she lives independently, drives, and takes no medication, so I had no reason to believe the foods I ate where somehow unhealthy.
Most of my life, routine checkups revealed borderline high cholesterol and high blood pressure levels. I was told by doctors on several occasions the reason was most likely genetic, leading to me to believe it was just something I needed to accept. One day at age 39, during a yearly employment physical, a doctor recommended I take medication to lower my cholesterol and blood pressure. As he put it, “my levels were on the high side of the caution zone.” He went on to say my elevated cholesterol and blood pressure levels, though not dangerously high, would eventually become so if we didn’t head it off with some medication.
He was also the first doctor who advised me to stop smoking. Other than smoking, he never recommended any dietary or lifestyle changes. I listened to everything he said, and after more than a few failed attempts, I finally quit smoking. I continued taking the medication as prescribed and had routine checkups to monitor my levels. Both my cholesterol and blood pressure levels were now lower and within limits from the medication. The fact I was doing everything the doctor instructed left me feeling in control of my health and heart attack-proof, right up until I had a heart attack.
At the time of the heart attack, I was working in Afghanistan as a wartime contractor. Wartime logistics and geography meant I was more than three days away from the nearest cardiologist. Unfortunately for me, the delayed cardiac intervention resulted in heart damage, and three weeks later I experienced sudden cardiac arrest, actually falling to the floor, laying there dead, while someone performed CPR and summoned medics to bring a defibrillator. Thankfully, after a few shocks my heart got its rhythm back, and I took a helicopter ride to the regional heart center. I had a 31-day stay on the ICU cardiac floor where I was patched up and given a pacemaker/defibrillator before being sent home with some instructions and a bag full of different medications.
I followed all medical advice and took all my medications, believing that my condition would become stable, but then I experienced a spontaneous coronary artery dissection or SCAD. In the days, months and early years that followed, I went from a relatively young guy, to an old guy dying from heart disease.
Early on during my treatment, things started looking hopeless to me. I was taking a lot of medication and suffering though countless side effects, yet my heart condition failed to improve. The only fact any of the doctors seemed to agree on was that heart disease is irreversible and eventually results in death.
I was complying as best I could with everything recommended. Basically I was given guidelines to follow that included a low sodium diet and easy exercise like walking, along with instructions to take all my medications as directed. But despite following directions, I continued to feel worst. At some point I lost track of the times I listened to doctors say things like, “heart disease is a hereditary/genetic trait, and all we can do is manage it with medication” and “It’s not reversible” and “The bad side effects of the medications are better then what will happen to your heart if you don’t take them.”
Hearing things like this time and time again from the doctors who had saved my life really made me feel completely powerless over this disease. I felt completely dependent on the medications and medical procedures to stay alive, and I found this feeling very disturbing. My quality of life was deteriorating, right along with my health at that point, and I was desperate for change.
One day while searching for answers at Google university, I read some very convincing and compelling clinical research belonging to Dr. Caldwel Esselstyn of the Cleveland Clinic’s world-renowned heart center. Dr. Esselstyn was able to show clinical reversal of atherosclerosis in cases deemed so severe that even surgery was no longer an option. He did this simply by changing the patient’s diet, instructing them on following a whole foods plant-based diet, with no oils. This was not the first time I had read or heard about people reversing heart disease using a plant-based diet, but for some reason that day I was ready to learn more, embarking me on a life-changing journey.
It took a few months of getting things figured out before the majority of my diet was coming from whole plant foods, but it didn’t take long before I was seeing amazing improvements in my health. My heart symptoms started to become less severe and frequent. My blood pressure started going down, and my cholesterol right behind it. It wasn’t long and I was calling the doctor to lower my medication because my blood pressure was too low. Within two years of beginning this diet, I was 100-percent medication-free with the exception of a baby aspirin once a day.
Fast forward nine years from that heart attack and heart disease remains but a distant memory, just like the 13 different medications I was once told I would need for life. Despite being a 50-year-old cardiac patient with a history of congestive heart failure, sudden cardiac arrest, atherosclerosis of the arteries, a stent in my circumflex artery, a stent in my coronary artery, and an implanted cardio defibrillator, I’m doing great. I am completely symptom-free, medication-free and have continued experiencing awesome health. I have not been sick since beginning this lifestyle over five years ago. No colds, no flu, no anything. Testing at the Mayo Clinic has shown zero progression of heart failure over this time.
Wounded Heart Project is my way of sharing with the world the lifestyle habits that saved me from the throes of heart disease. Heart disease kills more people than any other disease. It is the number one killer of our day, and the standard treatment protocols currently being administered by the health care industry have not been able to change this single fact. More people die from this disease every year, despite the hundreds of billions of dollars currently being spent on medications and procedures, than from any other disease. While to some people the lifestyle measures I have implemented may seem extreme, I can attest they are not nearly as extreme as waking up in the hospital and being told to accept a new normal of being sidelined and heavily-medicated for the rest of your now-shortened life because you have congestive heart failure, and your heart can no longer supply all the demands of your body.
The lifestyle changes I adopted over the course of dealing with this disease are what have made the difference for me in the long run and continue to enhance my quality of life to this day. There is no doubt that without the medications and lifesaving procedures I initially underwent, I would have been become one of the statistics that keep heart disease ranked as the number one killer. For this I am grateful.
But let there also be no doubt that moving forward from that point on, had I not radically changed my lifestyle habits to include only the healthiest, nutrient-dense whole foods into my diet, I would never have reached the point I am at today. The point I am living at today includes awesome health and enough energy to work fulltime as a seasonal carpenter, while actively pursuing life and my new passion of running. This will be my tenth year living with congestive heart failure, and to celebrate I am signed up to run my first-ever 50-mile race – one mile to celebrate each precious year of my life.
Life need not end from a diagnosis of heart disease…
While working on a construction contract in Afghanistan in 2008, I experienced a heart attack, (myocardial infarction) due to a fully blocked circumflex artery. I was treated in a Slovenian field/tent hospital for three days while awaiting ambulatory care to a heart center. After three days of only being treated with pain medication and nitrates, I was moved to a heart center in Dubai, UAE where stents were placed in my circumflex artery to restore the flow of blood. Unbeknownst to me at this time, the heart attack and subsequent delayed intervention had caused considerable damage to my heart and soon after resulted in an episode of cardiac arrest, (ventricular fibrillation.) Luckily for me, there was a witness; if that person had not been there going into cardiac arrest right then would have resulted in my immediate death. Fortunately, I was one of the few who have been able to be successfully resuscitated during an out of hospital cardiac arrest.
After receiving the appropriate cardiac care which included the installation of a dual lead ICD, my condition stabilized, but not without consequence. All my medications and the multiple surgeries triggered a plethora side effects. Within a one year, my weight went from 230 pounds to 280 pounds. I got dizzy and light headed every time I stood up; sometimes to the point of blacking out and falling to the floor. I constantly felt fatigued. I was not able to do a lot without the smallest efforts leaving me tired and short of breath. At this point, the only exercise for me was simply getting up and slowly peforming daily chores; cooking, shopping, eating, ect… Due to the Plavix and Coumadin thinning my blood, and my constant dizzy state causing me to constantly keep tipping over and bumping into things, I was always bruised, sometimes to the point that people would comment about it. I was having extremely intense muscle pains/spasms in my back that were caused from the high dose of satins I was taking. By the time I recognized the statins as the cause of the back pain, it became so debilitating that it stopped me from being able enjoy most of the activities I enjoyed prior. At this point I couldn’t walk more then five-ten minutes without experiencing pretty severe pain in both my upper and lower back muscles. This was just the beginning I soon realized as many other health problems seemingly blindsided me out of nowhere. When my weight uncontrollably shot up to 280, my sleep apnea became so bad that I needed to wear a C-pap machine/mask at night. I was tired all the time at this point and would doze off so easily while doing any activity that I didn’t even want to drive more then a few miles anymore. I felt completely drained of energy. Even using the C-pap machine/mask at night didn’t completely cure my problem of sleep deprivation because by this point I needed to use the bathroom at least 8 times a night to empty my bladder so it was pretty rare to sleep for more then an hour or so even with the mask and machine. At that point, it seemed like a waste of time even trying to use the mask, and it didn’t stop there. I had multiple bouts of the flu, strep, multiple colds plus I was still experiencing chest pain and shortness of breath frequently as my heart was still very weak. I was at the clinic every week for one thing or another during the first couple years and I needed to carry a big box of medications everywhere I went. If I wanted to leave the house for any amount of time I needed to make sure I had enough medication to take with me, and make sure I had my C-pap machine/mask, and would have a place to plug it in if I would be staying somewhere.
By now I had became really depressed over how miserable I was feeling and how my life had seemed to turn out. One day while visiting with an old friend, he somehow convinced me to read up on juicing as a way to try improving my health so that I could possibly eliminate some of the medications I was taking to see if it made me feel better. After months of reading on the subject of juicing I figured I had nothing to loose so I bought a juicer and began my journey back to health. At first I mainly juiced fresh fruits but little by little i began to concentrate more on juicing fresh vegetables; and little by little I noticed my health begin to improve. It wasn’t long before the doctor was lowering the dosages of many of my meds as my condition started to improve. I continued to read everything I could find on heart healthy foods, and before long I seemed to become more driven from my success triggering even more healthy changes to be made in my life. For the better part of four years, I turned all my attention to learning everything I could about health and natural healing. I began consuming mainly organic/GMO free whole foods while doing my best to eliminate all heavily process foods and toxic ingredients. By now I had read books such as Dr. Campbell’s (China Study), Dr. Esselstyn’s, (Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease), and Dr. Ornish (Reversing Heart Disease). My diet at this point pretty was very similar to what was laid out in these books.
Slowly, I began to exercise pretty regularly while being very cautious since I had been convinced by the doctors that my heart was very fragile. In the beginning, riding my bike for short but frequent bike rides began to pay off and started providing me with renewed energy and confidence to try other activities like ice skating, kayaking, snowmobiling, dirt biking, and many other activities to numerous to mention . It wasn’t long and I was back to doing everything I was able to do before my heart condition(s). The combination of exercise and dietary changes quickly knocked off all the post trauma weight I had gained. I was now 80+ pounds lighter and everything was continuing to get better. In the first couple years, exercising seemed difficult at best. My heart was pretty weak and up until this point I had been given the impression by my doctors that my heart was very fragile and so I need to be careful. Sitting around trying to be nice to my heart had allowed the rest of my body to become very weak so it was slow going at first.
Within a year, my back pain had started to subside enough that I was able to start exercising everyday. I had began to run pretty much every day and could tolerate at least an hour of exercise without being plagued by so many of the symptoms that stopped me just the year before.
Fast forward three years and my health has completely been transformed. I now feel better physically then any other time in my adult life. In three years, I have not had any illness and that includes the mundane ones like the flu. My heart condition does not limit me like it once did. Since experiencing this health transformation, I have competitively competed in many different running/sporting events up to and including a couple marathons. My heart keeps getting stronger.