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A Part of Your Heart Has Died

Oct 24, 2023

Guest post by Dr. Ron Wilder

Some dates you just don’t forget. They are the stuff of happy memories and are the dates you hope to have lots of over the course of a lifetime: your wedding anniversary, the births of your children, the Red Sox winning their first World Series after an 86-year drought. Good times. And then there are other dates you’d wish would pass by like any other but never will again: the day your father died, the day you were divorced…your first heart attack.

 

“Grace, something really bad is happening.”

I sat on the side of the bed and tried to run through in my mind what might be wrong. My body had never felt this way. I knew something was seriously off, but I had no frame of reference for it. No previous ailment to connect it to. I just knew it was bad.

January 9, 2016, proved to be the beginning of a new phase of life for me. It’s not a day that I remember fondly or am in any hurry to relive, and it was not the beginning of a phase that was instant or simple or without its scary moments and hills to climb. To this day, I carry a little metallic reminder of ‘the event’ in one of my arteries; a reminder that will always be there, no matter how much I may have changed what I put in my body or how I take care of it.

And that new phase didn’t begin smoothly. I was in denial for a few months after that small piece of plaque separated from my arterial wall and caused a 50% blockage that slowed my breathing, made me nauseous, stiffened my jaw, and numbed my arm. I was living in Shanghai, China, at the time, fortunate then to have a partner who spoke Mandarin fluently and who knew enough to know that, when you need to get to a hospital fast in Shanghai, you flag a taxi rather than call an ambulance.

After the stent was placed in my artery by the Chinese cardiologists, who thought it important to assure me that the mesh device was “American” and that they had done hundreds of these procedures, I simply rejected the notion that anything that I had been doing (including the previous 6-months on a ‘paleo’ diet) had anything to do with the current state of affairs I found myself in. I was athletic, practiced martial arts, worked out regularly. It was a fluke, I thought. Just bad luck. I had so convinced myself of this that the first meal I asked for after the angioplasty was a Big Mac Meal. No joke.

I spent eight days confined to a bed in Intensive Care but by the end of that week was actively rejecting any notion that I would have to change my behavior in any real way. On the day I was released, I was sent home with five different medications and, when I challenged the insistence that I would have to be taking these meds for the rest of my life, the Chinese doctor with pretty good English again showed me the blood panel for about a dozen different markers and said: “This one, too high. This one, too low. This one, way too high. Listen, a part of your heart has died. This isn’t something that gets better. Only worse if you are not careful.”

 

A part of your heart has died.

I was back at the hospital less than a week after I was released. I lived in fear. I began having panic attacks because every single twitch or twinge felt like it could be the start of something potentially fatal. The young resident on duty in the ER gave me tiny nitroglycerine pills for angina. My first thought was that prescribing nitro was meant to make you so afraid of dropping them that it took your mind off your heart, but I later learned that they actually serve a legitimate purpose in opening arteries and increasing blood flow and would not, in fact, explode if dropped. Blessed reassurance.

Panic attacks and frightening ailments of an unidentified nature would send me to the hospital twice more over the next six months: once in Korea while visiting my sons and their mom for my 51st birthday, and once after relocating to southern California with my boys. But there were lots of times I didn’t go to the hospital when I thought I should, and there were more times that I cried my way through every re-processing or re-telling of that afternoon in January. I would think about all of the things that had to go right that day for me to survive. I would think about everything I almost missed. I was afraid and paranoid and grieving, and it was paralyzing. And I just didn’t want to live that way.

 

The things that matter

I can be stubborn. Anyone who knows and loves me would say that. But I am also a thoughtful and sensitive person. When I think, I even have a tendency to overthink, and when I feel, I can get pretty emotional. People matter to me. My family matters to me. Hearing my boys call me “Papa” matters to me. The moment we die, we lose all sense of knowing exactly what matters. It’s only by living that we might realize what we would never have been around to see. And so I thought and felt about that a lot. I also thought an awful lot about what aspects of my life I had prioritized previously, and how little most of that really mattered. Then things got very simple.

Grace and I began to bat around the idea of trying to “go vegetarian.” Grace was an exceptional cook who rarely let me near a stove unless it was to clean it, so what did I have to lose? We had done a lot of research, collected tons of recipes that looked good, kept them tucked away in an Evernote folder, gathered enough research-based information on plant-based eating and watched enough videos to convince us that, not only was this do-able for us, it would likely improve our health significantly. I hoped, as Dean Ornish’s book claimed, it could even reverse my heart “disease.”

Vegan was still a bridge too far at the moment–I grew up putting cheese on everything–but this was a good first step. It was also important to me that I reclaim that date, January 9, so Grace and I set the next January 9, 2017, as our vegetarian kick-off day—one year after “the event.” We agreed that we would be vegetarian for a year, reassess, and if all went well, would take the leap to fully plant-based exactly one year later. We didn’t last the year. Instead, at the beginning of December, 2017, we got way out over our skis and went fully plant-based, a month early. We felt we were ready, and by then I had decided that cheese and ice cream really weren’t all that important to me (and there are great alternatives now when they are!).

My adoption of a plant-based lifestyle did not end my research or interest in learning more. I need to be convinced. And convinced again. In fact, as I so often found myself having to defend my new eating choices to others, I read books, articles, studies, watched videos and documentaries, and tried to become an armchair expert and a voracious consumer of the plant-based lifestyle. And Grace and I weren’t the only ones coming onboard. After a few years of slowly watching my three high school and college-age sons move reluctantly and skeptically in the direction of plant-based, one viewing of the superb Game Changers, and one section in particular, pushed them over the edge (if you’ve seen it, you’ll know the section I’m talking about!). Almost four years on, all three of these similarly stubborn, body-conscious athletes are still completely plant-based.

For me, the journey since becoming fully plant-based/vegan has been one of exploration, discovery, study, advocacy…even evangelism. I am a true believer in a plant-based lifestyle for health. More importantly, living plant-based has brought my health and my values into complete alignment. While I began my plant-based journey for personal survival, I have also integrated all aspects of plant-based living into something that is no longer dissonant for me as a human being who values compassion, empathy, and concern for others as personal virtues. To me, being deliberate about my food choices has committed me to minimizing harm and eliminating cruelty towards animals, and to preserving a planet that is most certainly the biggest ‘victim’ of animal-based eating and living–you know, apart from the animals. My choices aren’t holier-than-thou. Believe me. I’m so deeply flawed as a person it isn’t funny. I simply need to try and live in alignment with what I know intellectually and experientially and what I feel and believe as a human being who may think too much and feel even more.

At the end of the day, what we put in and on our body is a very personal, identity-defining decision that is steeped in culture, tradition, force of habit, and the information we have at hand. These choices are as personal as our family and our politics and our faith, and are not easily swayed or shaken by numbers or facts or research or studies. And like many of these decisions, it is often the emotional and the personal that sets us down a different path. Maybe it’s the academic and intellectual that keeps us there. But when those two motivations are aligned and integrated, I think the choices become obvious and undeniable. At least they are for me.

In the Spring of 2018, I made the decision to finish the medication I had been prescribed for my heart and not to refill the subscriptions. I went in for a full panel of blood work and, with the exception of my cholesterol level, which is unquestionably a hereditary issue in my family, all of my markers were within a normal and healthy range. I don’t know how much faster or how much stronger I am today than I might have otherwise been. But I do know that I am healthier and more energetic than I was at 50. I recover faster after exercise, rarely get sick, and almost never have the headaches that used to plague me. In the last few years, I jumped out of an airplane for my oldest son’s 21st birthday (parachute included, duh), ran a half-marathon the day before my 58th, and I still kick the asses of about 80% of the men and women half my age in my spinning and F45 cross-training classes! I work out hard, 5 or 6 days a week, and am planning to cycle 700 miles of the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland, if I can coerce my somewhat less enthusiastic sons to come along for my 60th birthday.

I also don’t know how many animals, or gallons of water, or trees I have saved by becoming plant-based. I only know that I have not wasted or destroyed these things needlessly, and that matters to me. I don’t know how many years I’ve added to my life or how many life-changing, once-in-a-lifetime moments I will still get to see. But I do know about the years and the moments I haven’t lost. I was able to see my sons all graduate from high school and my oldest graduate from university and get married. I’ve spent countless hours watching my youngest son pursue his passion for soccer into college, cheer him on in his successes and counsel him through his disappointments. I’ve gotten tattoos and learned to ride motorcycles with my middle son, and then spent the time since then asking myself the question: what the hell were you thinking? I’ve watched my boys’ mom and my ex-wife find the love and happiness she richly deserves again.

Grace and I didn’t work out in the end, but I was around to tell her that I am forever grateful for the fact that she was in my life for a time and, in a very real way, saved it. And I am most thankful and joyful to have a life partner now who makes me a better and happier person and a better man than I would ever be alone or with someone else, while walking this plant-based life alongside me.

And that matters to me.

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