A Heart With Wings

Food for Thought

A strong, regular, and reliable heartbeat is what makes humans hum. Literally, it makes us (and most of the other animals we know) tick. We have numerous sayings and idioms about the heart showing its vital function. For example, as humans, we can have an abrupt changes of heart. So, we like to “keep our fingers on the pulse” of situations. In the course of a lifetime, we can steal a heart, win a heart, lose heart, and take heart. We can have a heart of gold or stone, and either way, our hearts should be in the right place. We can be light-hearted and young at heart. We can also be heart-sick, heart-broken, and nearly have a heart-attack. And that is where this story begins. I have been plant-based for 45 years and a nurse for more than 30 years. That boils down to way more than the usual amount of life experience and formal training in human health. On top of that, I’ve been married to the same man for 20+ years. Say, Hi to my husband, Jeff. He is an ironworker, an entrepreneur, and one of the most creative people I know. He has the heart of a lion meaning he is brave, self-reliant, tenacious, and occasionally ferocious. Jeff is a self- proclaimed Wisconsin meat and cheesehead. He is also a private pilot. Given that Jeff is as described above (a partial description, to be sure), the four aspects of Jeff’s personality that are most relevant here are 

  • Self-reliant
  • Tenacious
  • Wisconsin meat and cheese-head and
  • Pilot

25 years ago, when Jeff and I met, his diet consisted of cheese, pizza, burgers, chili, pasta, French fries, canned baked beans, white or rye bread, coffee, and Dr. Pepper. That’s it. He refused anything green except green beans and asparagus (no more than four beans or two stalks on his plate at a time, respectively). Nothing was allowed from the cabbage or lettuce families, and tomatoes could only be sauce on pizza or pasta.

Over the ensuing years, I’ve tried to convince him that his diet would catch up to him one day, and it probably wouldn’t be pretty when it did. I spoke, and his lion heart laughed. Now let me explain something. I started eating whole grains, seeds, sprouts, etc., when I was 15. I have been living this lifestyle for a long time, way before it was cool, in fact. And as I said, I am also a nurse. And I am a little bossy. So, believe me, I have “coached” Jeff on food and nutrition more times than I can remember. 

Recently, just for fun, I did the math. Here’s the proof for you scholars: We have been together for 25 years. Let’s assume I coached him once a week and took two weeks off yearly for vacation. After 25 years, I would have coached him 1250 times. 1250 times is a total low-ball estimate, actually, because I am sure I have said something about food and nutrition at once twice a day in some form or another, and sometimes at every meal. And I never take two weeks off, but that’s a story for another newsletter. Regardless of the heartfelt nature of my (1250 or 3700) gentle nudgings, they had little impact. In true tenacious Wisconsin meat and cheese-headed style, Jeff punted my advice…many, many times.

OK. Let me be honest. Jeff’s diet did improve a little. Over the years, he switched from Dr. Pepper to sparkling water and would occasionally allow up to three broccoli florets on his plate. Otherwise, He continued most of his eating patterns unchanged, until COVID-19 hit. That’s when I started bugging Jeff to go to the hospital for a coronary artery calcium scan. even though he had no symptoms of heart issues, the results showed he had a moderate to severe risk of coronary artery disease. Based on that, his primary care doctor referred him to a heart specialist. Luckily, we found a plant-based cardiologist locally and Jeff went for his first appointment. The cardiologist told Jeff all he needed to do was “Go Whole Food Plant-Based. No meds, no procedures, no treatments. Just plants. And listen to your wife. She knows what she’s talking about.”

That appointment was a total victory… OK, mostly for me…but, at least the doctor was sure Jeff could turn it all around with a transformed diet. Cool! And with that, the new eating habits started, meaning Jeff allowed salads and drastically decreased the animal products. WoooHooo!

Jeff did pretty well in the first year of transitioning to the new way of eating. In the second year, however, he got a little too comfortable. He stayed 80% vegan, interrupted by some good ole Wisconsin pizza here and there, monthly trips to the corner taco place, and vegan junk – daily. What started as a reasonably clean WFPB diet quickly turned to vegan SAD. I gave up “coaching.” He was content, and I was so tired of being the nag. Well, now fast forward two years. It all came to a head about a month ago. Jeff, in all his independence and self-reliant, ferocious glory, well-bolstered by a tenacious cashew milk ice cream, cookie, and potato chip habit, woke me up at 2am complaining of pain in both arms.Quick aside: there is nothing like waking up to your partner grunting and asking, “How do you know if you are having a heart attack?” 

That sparked a call to 911 and BOOM. We were ambulanced off to the hospital for Emergency services including blood tests, EKG, chest x-ray, COVID nasal swab test, IVs, a second ride in another ambulance to a different hospital with the cardiac cath lab, and ultimately a STAT stent placement. After three days and two nights of excellent care in the Cardiac ICU, Jeff came home, grateful but disgruntled. He was grateful because even though his right coronary artery was 100% blocked, and the “widow maker” was 70% occluded, the heart attack was relatively mild. It only cost him 5% of his heart’s pumping capacity. Now, with the stent placed, he is stable on five medications for 6-12 months minimum. He was disgruntled, however, because by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, either a heart attack or stent placement are “disqualifying events.” That means they are serious enough to cancel his pilot’s medical clearance. As a result, Jeff will have a mandatory 6-12 month waiting period. Then, he must submit medical records, and lab and stress test results proving to the FAA that he is air-worthy before he can fly solo or as pilot-in-command. 

Obviously, it’s a sad day when a pilot gets his wings clipped, but the loss of medical clearance just about crushed Jeff’s already aching heart. Heart-sick The good news is that 1) he lived to tell the tale, and 2) it is entirely possible to regain his pilot’s medical clearance. Reinstatement has motivated Jeff to reverse the previously ignored heart disease, and he says he is mentally ready to embrace the challenge.

After the hospital stay, at the follow-up appointment with Jeff’s cardiologist, the doctor said Jeff was fortunate. He also said, “The most important thing you can do to prevent another cardiac event is to REALLY go WFPB. Really like no messing around because the vegan junk diet obviously didn’t work. And seriously, do what your wife says. I support whatever she says.”   Since the heart attack, Jeff has stopped the vegan SAD foods and is on a 100% healthy vegan WFPB diet. He is reading articles and nutrition labels and asking about ingredients. I count all that as another victory.

Jeff is still not interested in cabbage or Brussels sprouts, but he is learning to try new flavors. He enjoys banana nice cream, no-oil veggie stir fries, and tofu scrambles! This week, he even asked for salads, with lettuce! Can I tell you how my heart is singing!?! Benefits for him include decreased reflux symptoms, reduced joint pain, and a new sense of self-awareness and self-efficacy. He has also lost 20 lbs. Benefits for me include: I cook, he eats, and above all, OMG, I am not nagging! We have a new respect for each other and a deeper appreciation for our lives together. Talk about a heart swelling with gratitude!

Twenty-five years into our marriage, we know we are at the beginning of this part of the journey. We are also keenly aware that lifestyle choices can have a deadly impact on heart health. Life situations can change overnight. Literally. According to our cardiologist, a healthy, whole food plant-based diet could be the one thing needed to prevent your worst nightmare. I encourage you to seek professional and educated WFPB support if you see yourself or a loved one in this story. Also, if you know any pilots, please share this with them. OK… maybe not 1250-3700 times, but ten or twenty might do it. It just might save their life

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