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Reversing Heart Disease

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Blogcritics types who like books have an edge over the general population in preventing, surviving heart attacks or even surviving longer with Congestive Heart Failure. I know because I had the heart attack more than 10 years ago and CHF which is fatal. I am still here pounding at the keyboard.

As soon as they let me out of the hospital that first time and allowed me to drive; I did what I always do in response to new situations. I went to the library — in this case the Woodstock, NY library that I do miss now that I am retired here in Mexico. The library (it is quite small) offered a shelf or two of books on heart disease, prevention, first-person narratives and, of course, diets. I piled them up in my weakened arms and went back to my bed to try to get over the problems without scary stuff like surgery. I read them all. Good and bad and indifferent and right and wrong. At least I was doing something since otherwise I was taking short walks with a cell phone to call 911 and learning to cook without anything but olive oil, no meat, no sweets, and to live without cigarettes. Sure cigarettes were bad but grandparents who died of heart disease were equally bad.

There was first the comic book stuff and handouts from the hospital and the American Heart Association. Simple, easy to follow and only to change the lives of the worst meat-eating, smoking, drinking, sedentary, walking cardiac challengers. There is a book of AHA diets here and I cannot say anything bad of them. The ideas are great: reduce fats, stop frying, look for alternatives, cut down on salt and sweets, lose weight, exercise. How can you go wrong?

The AHA guidelines and diets and recipes are good and mean well and will help but they do not solve serious cardiac problems. Information helps.

When I left the hospital after a week in intensive care and another pacing the halls still wanting a cigarette and the return of my health; I was not warned about possible complications other than to call an ambulance if there was chest pain for more than 15 minutes and 3 hits of nitroglycerine.

Luckily, I had read the first person narrative of a physician who had suffered a heart attack and later edema and congestive heart failure. He wrote of his, a physician’s own denial in that he began to suffer classic symptoms (chest, arm, jaw pain, cold sweat, weakness) while in the hospital and managed to ignore it and continue on his rounds until he collapsed and colleagues rushed to help. I was alone in my darkroom in the wee hours after days of denial of a nagging chest pain that mimicked an earlier car accident where I smashed my chest against the steering wheel. I, too, was a fool; but in good company.

Later in his book he describes going hunting with his son and, alone in the woods; suffers “flash edema” where the lungs fill suddenly with fluids as the heart can no longer pump effectively. He knew to stay upright until help arrived. It was that story that saved my life when I began to feel badly and my wife said “if you don’t feel well call an ambulance”. For once I did saying that I had had an M.I. was having trouble breathing. In the area between two small towns in upstate New York we had a GREAT ambulance service (Diaz) but even at high speed at 2AM in summer it took them nearly 20 minutes. I was working on the theory, that if I breathed long enough, there would be something to resuscitate when they got there. Happily they arrived first at a run and began jabbing needles and oxygen and other fun stuff in my body. They worked an hour before moving me to the ambulance and only freaked when my Rastafarian musician neighbor who is 6’+ appeared out of the night to see what was going on. Then another hospital after the local one– a regional hospital where a clod cardiologist started an angioplasty and broke the artery. Then, on the run, to the by-pass O.R. where I said “Nice to meet you, doctor” to some guys in green masks, one of whom held a tiny Skill saw.

Everything was saved by seconds. Not having read the books; I would have retreated to more denial and lost those seconds. Up with books and save the libraries!

Then I settled down to learn how to live with a mortal disease in which they gave me 3 to 5 years maximum. The statistics, then, offered 10% surviving 10 years.

One major savior was Dr. Dean Ornish whose book on “Reversing Heart Disease” may not reverse it; but does work to help control it in the very sick and probably helps decrease its’ effects in the less ill and could actually control cardiac problems in those who are only developing the condition. He outlines a plan that is more strict than others but also more inclusive. He calls for exercise regularly under supervision or with a “target heart rate” to be reached as you increase your activity level. Then a diet basically without meat or anything fried, even limiting tofu due to its’ fat level. The diet relies on vegetable protein, vegetables, carbohydrates (no matter what the latest diet craze), and meals boiled, steamed, even stewed. Fish is allowed on occasion and I have had to drop my beloved shrimp because I feel the effects of their low-fat, extremely high cholesterol.

After exercise and diet he gets into the really hard parts of his program: meditation, yoga, positive attitudes and optimism. “Opening up your heart”, he says. It is a great idea and I know I would have died by now had I continued that tempting level of depression of the modern world. By coincidence it was yesterday that I saw a study showing that depression in persons with congestive heart failure leads to a higher death rate. This, however, for us worriers; is the absolutely hardest part of the program. He, like other such writers, also reminds you that if you go backwards (like falling off the wagon); just get back on. However, there was a study just recently released that showed persons fed a low-fat breakfast one day and a McDonald’s breakfast the next day showed an 81% increase in triglycerides (not good) following only one high fat meal!. McDonalds says the test was not about their food, just fat content.

I mentioned that I have stayed around for over 10 years now with serious, then severe, and recently “final stage” congestive heart failure. Heart function recently improved with the implantation of a Guidant bi-ventricular pacing device and defibrillator. And basically following Dr. Ornish. Survival happens with hard work. Better yet by far is to read Dean Ornish and the Heart Association materials long before any of this happens and then it may not. In which case you get to continue being a photographer (or whatever) and eating some Black Forest cake now and then and a filet mignon (but no hot dogs). It is definitely the better plan: prevention. Enjoy your swim or run or walk or row tomorrow before heading to the doctor for a physical and the greengrocer to load up on good stuff.

And equally important: do that thing that you love or care about. Don’t keep going to the boring job that suffocates your spirit. It just isn’t worth it. And read a book in between.

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About hfdratch

  • Thanks for sharing that, Francisco! Hope you’re still doing well…