Denial is not just a river in Egypt.
I frequently saw my father, who died of a heart attack at 59, doubled over with pain. He called
it indigestion . Years later, when I was shoveling dirt in my yard and a tightness across my
chest kept me from continuing, it was, I told myself, muscle strain . Muscle strain was a far
more accurate diagnosis than I ever imagined. The muscle was my heart.
Luck enters into many events that change lives. In my case, it was going to a different
physician. He looked over my medical records and said that my cholesterol was too high. He
noted that my father had died of heart disease and my blood pressure was higher than normal,
making me a prime candidate for a heart attack. When he asked me about any pain I had in my
chest during exercise, I passed it off as indigestion, but he wasn't fooled. He encouraged me to
have a treadmill test, where heart monitors record information while exercising. A borderline
positive result indicated a need for a thallium stress test, a pair of 25 minute heart scans, the first
following an injection of a radioactive isotope and the second after going on the treadmill with
more thallium injected when at the maximum heart rate. This stress test compares how the heart's
blood supply appears at rest and at peak demand. When enough blood doesn't reach the heart
muscles at higher exertion levels, ischemia (iss-keem-ee-a) results. And I had it.
When the thallium scan proved positive, the next step was an angiogram. I wasn't too keen about
this procedure - a catheter is inserted into the femoral artery at the groin and threaded into the
heart. Different catheters are used to test heart muscles and valves and to inject a contrast
medium which lets the cardiologist see exactly where any blockages are. The results were worse
than expected. My heart's right main artery was 100% blocked and the two left arteries were 90%
and 85% obstructed. Polaroid pictures showed me where these blockages were.
I was told there are usually three alternatives. The first is angioplasty, where a balloon is inserted
into the heart (in the same manner as an angiogram) and opened to press the obstructing plaque
back against the artery walls. Angioplasty wasn't feasible in my case, due to the location and type
of blockages. The second alternative was open-heart surgery, a by-pass operation, where a section
of healthy blood vessel is shunted around each of the blocked coronary arteries. The third
alternative was to do nothing except take medication and get my life together so I could die. I
was told that if I didn't have a by-pass immediately, my chances of living another six months were poor.
Here were three doctors, all wanting me to be healthy, telling me I should have a by-pass
operation and have it soon. I was told that every tick of my heart was like the tick of a time
bomb; it could go off at any moment. I couldn't accuse them of having financial motives; I
belong to a prepaid health plan and the by-pass wouldn't cost me anything, the doctors would
receive no extra payment, and the plan would be some $75,000 poorer. The doctors kept
insisting; have a by-pass now!
To get them to give me more time to think it over and explore alternatives, I told them that I
couldn't have the by-pass right away because it was against my religion. They asked what
religion is that? I'm a devout coward, I replied.
Scared to death (more accurately - scared of death), I started reading everything about heart disease I could get my hands on. I was lucky to be retired, with a background in research and statistical analysis. I had time to search through university libraries and using the Internet, read hundreds of articles in medical journals and books. I found out that there was another alternative to open heart surgery that I hadn't been told about.
The scientific articles led me to a bestselling book that showed me a medically sound and proven alternative, Dr. Dean Ornish's Program for Reversing Heart Disease. It became my primer for survival, and it remains my guide to this day. Some of what you will read here has its roots in that book and from communications with clinicians and researchers at Dr. Ornish's Preventive Medicine Research Institute. I learned that I could have much more control over my own destiny than I had ever realized. It taught me that my eating habits and lack of aerobic exercise in the
past were the reasons for my medical problems today. It explained how to change those habits, to not only stop the progression of the disease, but how to reverse the damage that I had done to myself. It sounded reasonable, but I was hesitant to make major lifestyle changes on the basis of one book. Especially when my cardiologist and personal physician had doubts about this approach. So I kept on reading.
I found a number of books by Dr. John A. McDougall. These backed up much of what I had
learned in Dr. Ornish's book, and went much further in explaining why the changes I should
make would help me prevent many other illnesses, improve my general health and even relieve
other conditions, such as allergies, I'd had for most of my life. I learned more about what
atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) is, how it forms, what it looks like, and how it can be
About this same time, a friend and sailing partner began to have severe angina and shortness of
breath. He went through the same series of tests that I had, but was told that angioplasty would
be helpful. Two days after his angiogram, he had balloon angioplasty to push back the plaque
that was blocking his coronary arteries, and a few days later he was home and active again.
While I had changed my eating pattern completely, he continued eating the same things as
before: meat, cheese, potato chips and cookies with lots of shortening. A few months later he
was again suffering severe chest pains and shortness of breath. After more tests he was back in
the hospital for a by-pass operation. I had given him Ornish's book when his heart problems first
started, but it took a major surgery before he would see the need to read it. He has come to
understand the message and he's now living in a way that will make it unlikely that he'll need
surgery again. His experience reinforces the danger in putting off changes in lifestyle. It's worth
your life to begin them as soon as possible.
As I read more about Ornish's program, I learned that one of the important factors for reversing
heart disease is being in a support group. I called all the local hospitals, associations, and social
agencies in the hope of joining one, but there was none in Honolulu. My next step was to
convince someone to start one, but the same reply kept coming back; if you want one so badly,
why not start one yourself? I called the nearest medical center, met with the persons in charge
of health education who agreed it was a good idea, but they didn't go ahead with it. After six
months of meetings, Kaiser Permanente, Hawaii's largest health maintenance organization, and
Castle Medical Center agreed to let me start groups. Suddenly, I was to lead two groups. When
we had our first meeting at Castle, an hour and a half drive from my home, the room was
swamped with 77 people wanting to join. To take as many as possible, we split into two groups,
one in the afternoon and one in the evening. Counting driving time, that made an 8 hour day.
Leading three groups a week and using a great deal of time preparing information, recipes and
charts, I found myself spending about 40 hours a week on the Healing Heart program. So much
I have been leading free support groups in Hawaii for over six years, putting more than 700 participants through a ten week series. The enthusiasm of the group members and the amazing improvements in health they report has made it a rewarding experience. Group members report they have learned much from our groups, and I have learned much more from them than I could ever have found in books alone, gaining more knowledge and understanding about heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and many other cardiovascular related diseases. I learned for myself how life-long allergies disappear when certain foods are given up, notably dairy and egg products. With each new group, I've learned new ways how others deal with their problems in adjusting to new and better lifestyles as well as hints and tips to make those changes easier. This wealth of information lead to the writing of the Healthy Heart Handbook and is a key to the success of those who seek to improve their health.
Each support group discovers their own new and different ways of adapting to a healthier lifestyle. Finding and joining a local support group will make it easier to follow the program and keep you on target longer. Natural food stores and local vegetarian clubs often have information about support groups in the area. Look at our
for more information.
Next: How the heart functions
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