A Plant Based Diet: Live Longer, Leaner and Livelier
By Kate McGoey-Smith, DipNrsg, MSW, RSW, FM
You know what it is like because you live it every day. Work, kids, meals, homework, housework and it is a repeat cycle of “busy” until the weekend. Weekends are just as jam-packed until they are broken by Mondays and the start of the weekday cycle of activity all over again.
Life is very full with three kids going through the turbulent times of junior high and high school, each needing attention for any number of tween and adolescent crises. Then there are the demands of nurturing along a career. My job as a manager and clinical supervisor of free, on-site counselling services for children from kindergarten to grade twelve for a rural school division involves dealing with problems each day, every hour of every day. That is the reality of the job. My joy is having the privilege of meeting and working with people. People of tremendous courage who are trying to find ways to solve their problems.
As you can imagine, there was little time to spare for myself. Still, I loved every minute of my hectic life. I would spring out of bed every morning looking forward to the challenges of each new day. My husband, Andrew, would affectionately refer to me as the “Energizer Bunny” as I darted out the door ready to take on the world!
However, in the fall of 2006, I started to notice something that became increasingly more alarming as the months went by and the school year was coming to a close. I was finding myself dealing with a persistent dry cough and feeling increasingly fatigued. This fatigue could be best described as having to wade through knee-deep water.
I was having to come home and nap before doing the “second shift” on the home front. Then I began skipping my regular exercise sessions at the local gym. Then another change – a kind of creeping of lower leg and abdominal swelling (fluid retention) that I at first attributed to the hotter summer weather.
Come September of 2007, my level of exhaustion was steadily increasing – I still managed to fulfill my work obligations except the home front was different. I was coming home and getting right into my pajamas. I was ready for bed before my kids. The swelling in my lower limbs and abdomen were even more pronounced. This lead to a visit one night to our local urgent care unit where I was put on a doctor’s leave for two weeks to deal with being newly diagnosis with type 2 diabetes (A1c blood glucose level of 15.2 percent) (the range for those without diabetes is 4–6 percent) as well as being scheduled for further investigation for suspicious heart abnormalities.
Months of more testing revealed a diagnosis of both severe right-sided heart failure and severe sleep apnea. Six months later, my sleep specialist informed me that I had idiopathic pulmonary arterial hypertension (IPAH). A right heart catheterization resulted in me being classified as a WHO level 3 out of 4 and told that this is a rare (2-4 in a million) disease, characterized by high blood pressure in the pulmonary arteries of the lungs with no apparent cause. It also has no cure and comes with a terminal prognosis: two years to live without treatment and five years to live with treatment.
Suddenly, my life as I knew it was wiped out. I had to stop work immediately, and within months I required a nasal cannula and had to carry around a heavy tank of oxygen, like a scuba diver on land! The deterioration continued rapidly with the loss of my eyesight, which was caused by a combination of a lack of oxygen to my eyes, diabetic retinopathy, and the prescribed IPAH drugs. My medication list was a page long, and I stayed at home except when attending up to three medical appointments a week, keeping more than five specialists busy. My disease progressed to the point that I was placed on a monitoring list for a lung transplant. I continued on a variety of drug combinations ranging in cost from $36,000 to $100,000 per year. These potent drugs take a physical toll. I felt like I had the flu every day and the stomach flu every night; waking every morning incontinent. This went on for over five long challenging years!
Then one evening, I turned on the TV. CBC host George Stroumboulopoulos was explaining that the documentary Forks Over Knives had changed his life and might do the same for viewers. My husband, Andrew, and I watched it from the front row of the movie theater—the only place I could see it with my limited vision—and we were on board. In November 2012, after a year of trial and error, I reached out to one of the featured doctors in Forks Over Knives: Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn Jr., MD a retired surgeon who currently directs the Cardiovascular Prevention and Reversal Program at The Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute. This phone consultation changed my life.
The next month, with the generous support of friends and church members, I attended a five-day intensive program at Dr. McDougall’s Health and Medical Center, founded by Dr. Esselstyn’s colleague John McDougall, MD, another featured doctor in the Forks over Knives documentary. It was there that I gained the tools and knowledge to adopt a whole plant-based lifestyle, making food my first medicine.
I taught myself how to cook while legally blind and too weak to stand. I started by choosing meals I love to eat—healthy, delicious versions of international cuisine—for example, Indian chana masala (chickpeas cooked with tomato and onions) and Chinese stir-fried veggies cooked in no-salt veggie broth or water. I followed Dr. Esselstyn’s evidence-based research and I ate a fistful of steamed greens six times a day with a sprinkle of flavoured vinegar.
Fifteen months later, my eyesight was fully restored, I was off the lung-transplant monitoring list, I needed oxygen only at night, and I no longer required any insulin. My right-sided heart failure was gone, and so were symptoms like neuropathy, dizzy spells, and fainting. By June 2013, I had lost more than 110 pounds. My respirologist downgraded my IPAH to level 1 (from level 3) and took me off my IPAH drugs and my endocrinologist considers me a non-diabetic!
Today, I safeguard my health and maintain my weight loss by eating a whole plant-based diet and exercising daily. These are all activities I take forward in my next challenge. My kidneys were compromised by my combined past history of diabetes and potent drug therapies which included a 2013 allergic reaction to a pediatric dose of an intravenous antibiotic. Evidence-based nutritional science indicates I am on the healthiest diet possible for my kidneys and overall health. I am very grateful.
I have put this gratitude into action by finding ways to help others also gain the benefits of preventing and reversing degenerative lifestyle diseases like diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune diseases and even some forms of cancer (breast, prostate, colon). To get the message out, Andrew and I host a monthly meet-up community potluck. This occurs the second Thursday of each month beginning at 6:30 pm at Calgary’s Bridgeland SDA Church gym. It offers a delicious array of food and a ‘vegucation’ lesson with each gathering.
We are also hosting in Calgary on April 27 and 28, 2018, the Fork Smart Two Day Why and How Summit: “U-turn Illness and Optimize Your Health”. It will feature both Dr. Anthony Lim, JD, MD, Medical Director of McDougall Health & Medical Center and Dr. John McDougall, MD, joining him live via Skype for the question and answer period following the keynote address of the “why” food can be medicine. Day two will feature nine presentations addressing the “how” of a healthy whole lifestyle.
Tickets are available online at summit.forksmart.org
Another project underway in Calgary is a three- day weekend retreat to go even more in-depth as to the “whys” and “hows” of successfully living a whole plant-based lifestyle that can prevent and reverse degenerative lifestyle illnesses. There will be stimulating talks, easy-to-do cooking demonstrations, meal planning and more. Included are six delicious meals to enjoy during this Friday evening to Sunday afternoon, day time retreat.
Tickets are online at https://ti.to/forksmart
While others empowered me with knowledge and support, the change came about because of me—and what I chose to put on the end of my fork!
DipNrsg, MSW, RSW, FM