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, and thought of myself as 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 that smoking was bad, I never personally witnessed anyone die from it and therefore never thought of 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 along with the occasional 2-3 year flu.
To me this was my normal and what I considered healthy. I routinely had medical checkups and yearly physicals, and all of them resulted in doctors telling me I was healthy. I thought 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 still alive, not to mention the same diet has kept my grandmother alive for over 94 years. To this day, she lives independently, drives, and takes no medication, and based on such, 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 couldn’t do anything about and just 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 from that heart damage, 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 a couple pages of instructions and a bag full of medications.
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 those 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” or “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, and it didn’t take long before I was seeing some 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 asking him to lower my amount of 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, SCAD (spontaneous coronary heart dissection), a stent in my circumflex artery, a stent in my coronary artery, an implanted cardio defibrillator, I’m doing great. I am completely symptom-free, medication-free and have continued experiencing a run of 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. Despite the hundreds of billions of dollars currently being spent on cardiac medications and procedures, more people die from this disease every year, than any other disease. To some people, the lifestyle measures I have implemented may seem extreme. I can attest to the fact 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 enough blood for 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 received, I would have been become one of the statistics that keep heart disease ranked as the number one all time killer. For this I am grateful.
But let there be no doubt. 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 full time as a seasonal carpenter, while actively pursuing life and my new passion of ultra distance running. Life need not end from a diagnosis of heart disease/failure…
Ten-year update, 10/26/08-10/26/18. It’s now been ten years since that fateful heart attack in Afghanistan kick started this journey. I continue to run ultra/marathon distance races and my health is still fantastic. I have still not had any type of sickness including colds/flu going on six years now (knock on wood). My latest cardiac check up at the Mayo Clinic was on 9-14-18, and my ejection fraction was shown to have climbed into the lower 40’s from the upper 30’s, while my max heart rate was also substantially higher at 187, from an all time high previously of 173. Although my symptoms had improved years before, this was the first time going on ten years that regression of heart damage was clinically noted through improved heart function. Also, I am three weeks shy of following a ketogenic diet for one year now. I switched from a whole food plant based diet, to a whole food ketogenic diet in November of 2017. I will be blogging about the differences personally noted through this transition soon. Stay tuned to my blog for further info on this subject…
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