In July 2014, Bob White underwent a coronary angioplasty with stent placement to open up two of the arteries in his heart that were significantly blocked by plaque. One stent was inserted into the left anterior descending artery (LAD): the main blood vessel feeding the front wall of the heart. The LAD is sometimes called ‘the widow maker’ because plaque buildup in key parts of this important vessel can trigger a fatal heart attack.
Bob was terribly shocked to learn that he had coronary artery disease (CAD). He was physically fit and had none of the symptoms associated with CAD, which can include shortness of breath and chest pain. Bob remembers, “I asked my doctor for those routine cardiac exams provided by Medicare. I wasn’t worried because my labs were good and I felt good too. I started taking statins in 1998 and was told that as long as I kept my total cholesterol under 200 mg/dl, I would be ok and could eat anything I wanted. I ate bacon, beef – everything! I was physically active, my labs were good, but I still had plaque and my LAD was over 90% blocked”.
Fortunately, those routine exams discovered the blockage in Bob’s coronary arteries, and he was promptly scheduled for surgery. Bob continues, “If I hadn’t done that voluntary testing, the doctors estimated that I would have had a fatal heart attack within one year.”
After surgery, Bob received some life-changing guidance and words of wisdom. Bob recalls, “The day after surgery, I got thorough counseling from the dietitian. She recommended the Mediterranean diet and also gave me a stern warning. I was getting ready to leave and wanted very badly to go home, but that warning really stuck with me. She told me I had to change what I was eating every day if I wanted to live.”
Bob was referred to the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program at YRMC, where he learned more about diet, lifestyle and heart disease. While in rehabilitation, Ann Saxerud, RN, steered Bob toward books written by Dr. Dean Ornish, a cardiologist who, for over thirty years, has studied the impact of diet and lifestyle on the development, progression and reversal of heart disease. Bob also met with Registered Dietitian Rita Carey Rubin, who agreed that a plant-based diet, as demonstrated by Dr. Ornish and other prominent cardiologists, was the best plan for Bob to follow. She encouraged Bob to ramp up his intake of vegetables, grains, nuts, beans and fruit, and to avoid or limit his portions of animal-based foods, including cheese, meat, and poultry.
Bob remembers a flyer posted in Cardiac Rehabilitation about Dr. Ornish and the Reversing Heart Disease Support Group that meets monthly at the YRMC Pendleton Wellness Center in Prescott. “I memorized the information on that flyer because I stared at it everyday when I was working out on the arm ergometer, the most boring machine in the gym! I started going to the Reversing Heart Disease Support Group and, in October, really began changing my diet. I went through the cabinets and threw everything out. The flyer in Cardiac Rehabilitation included a quote by Ornish that really hit home: ‘When people make comprehensive lifestyle changes, most find that they feel so much better, so quickly, it reframes the reason for changing from fear of dying to joy of living. Joy and love are powerful, sustainable motivators, but fear and deprivation are not’.”
Bob’s diet is now what he calls a ‘Mediterranean/Asian mix’. He avoids processed foods, and enjoys vegetables, beans, whole grains and other plants in his meals every day. He even signed up for ‘Culinary Rx’, an online plant-based cooking course from the Rouxbe Cooking School, which he highly recommends. “I learned about the Rouxbe cooking course at one of the Reversing Heart Disease Support Group meetings. The course was a great eye opener. When I saw graphically the difference between a whole grain and a processed grain, I understood why whole grains are so much better for me. I made big changes because of that course and have been able to be more imaginative with cooking because of it. For example, I never had cauliflower before, but the cooking course gave me some great ideas. I now steam cauliflower for 8 minutes and finish it with olive oil, lemon juice, turmeric, cumin, and caraway seed. It’s delicious and I grab it out of the refrigerator for a snack”.
Bob still eats some meat, fish and poultry, but his diet is very different from what it was before he discovered he had heart disease. Plants take up the biggest space on his plate and animal foods, if they are present, are served on the side. He’s pleased with the results. “My latest labs were great, with my total cholesterol at 114, HDL at 48, LDL at 55, and triglycerides 53. In 2011, I weighed 202 pounds, but now weigh 172”.
Bob concludes, “This is a lifestyle change that was a stiff mental challenge for me. But I have something I want to live for. I look at my wife and say – I want to be here with her many more years and I know I can do that. My mom is 92 and healthy, so the genes are good! The diet changes have become easy. I enjoy learning to cook and I don’t feel deprived. I eat plenty of food to be satisfied, my extra weight just fell off, and I feel great”.
The Reversing Heart Disease Group is free to anyone in the community and meets the second Monday of each month from 3-4 pm in the YRMC Pendleton Wellness Center, 930 Division Street, in Prescott. Each month, group participants learn about lifestyle strategies for reversing heart disease, including diet, exercise and stress management. For more information on the Reversing Heart Disease Support Group, Cardiac Rehabilitation, and other Wellness Center services, call 928-771-5794.