Barbara Ellicott: Hypertension, Marathon Runner

Updated May 6, 2013

barbara_ellicott01-2055026I am 62 years old and work as a speech/language pathologist. As a ’41 ‘model’, I was raised in a family where consuming meat, potatoes, veggies and lots of dairy was considered the norm. Although I was a relatively active child, I was ‘chubby’ and was the target of teasing, hated “phys. ed.”, and was chosen last for a team, if at all. As an adolescent, I decided to diet and since high protein diets (complete with high protein bread, no less!) were the fad of the day, I diligently began one. Much to my parent’s concern, I lost 50 pounds, but before I was a senior in High School, I had gained nearly all of the lost weight back.

After having my first child at age 25, I was encouraged to drink as much dairy as I could possibly consume, because that practice was believed to “help produce the best breast milk”! While in the hospital I suffered from extreme edema, which had only been recognized by my roommate, who happened to have been an RN. Three more children later at age thirty four, my weight continued to see-saw in spite of my relatively high activity level; I had taken up jogging for fun, ran in several competitive races and raced my first marathon in l983 at nearly 43 years of age. Still, not only did my weight continue to fluctuate, but I was told that I had hypertension; my BP reading was 190/110. My MD, who was a sports medicine specialist, refrained from prescribing serious blood pressure medications, but did prescribe diuretics, which I had been off and on for years for fluctuating BP and edema in my ankles. To make matters worse, I had been told that I had mitral valve prolapse and mild scoliosis and that I should refrain from jogging least my spine compression might injure my nerves! I disobeyed and ran even harder, which enabled me to feel and look so much better!!

barbara_ellicott02-1345695In l994, I was brutally attacked by a pit bull while on an early morning run! The wound in my calf was almost as deep as the bone and was wide. Following hospitalization with a Cipro antibiotic drip, I became somewhat of an invalid for many months and couldn’t commence physical therapy until the wound closed naturally. When it finally did, I was told that I’d have permanent nerve damage and that I would never be able to run and/or balance properly again! I was devastated! I had gained much weight and felt like a frustrated sloth! I was my biggest – 70 pounds overweight. My BP was elevated again and my cholesterol was up. All of this, plus the hormonal flux of menopause, left me feeling like a 90 yr. old.

THEN several things happened which would change my life forever!! My daughters encouraged me to go to the North American Vegetarian Society Summerfest in Johnstown, PA. (My two daughters, as well as one of my sons, had long been vegans and in my less informed days, I worried about their health!) Reluctantly, I went, and to my surprise, I was elated at such inspirational lectures as those given by Dr. John McDougall, MD and Ruth Heidrich, PhD – she would become my ‘big sister’ mentor! I purchased and read Ruth’s wonderful book, Race for Life, and viewed her video of the same title and was ever so inspired!!! I was able to identify with many of her negative accounts with MD’s, nurses, etc., as well as, with her rebellious and determined spirit! I was extremely impressed with Dr. McDougall’s reference to the fact that she COULD beat cancer following her mastectomy and w/o chemotherapy or radiation IF she barbara_ellicott03-5045659began a VEGAN DIET! I knew the diet was the essential ingredient, because Ruth had been a daily runner for 14 years before she developed breast cancer, so intensive exercise alone had not saved her. (See the January 2003 newsletter article, “Building Your Own High-Performance Athletic Body” and the “Star McDougaller, Ruth Heidrich” at www.drmcdougall.com.) I thought, “If this extraordinary woman, with a life-threatening disease (invasive breast cancer) could modify her life so positively, then why couldn’t I?”

I completed the Boston Marathon and received the “finisher’s medal” in April 2001! I vowed that I’d run at least one full marathon every year for the rest of my life, and I have done just that. In less than one year after becoming a vegan (a diet with no animal products), my cholesterol fell from 202 mg/dl in 1997 to below 140 and my weight dropped significantly – 70 pounds. I am at trim weight and my BP finally normalized, as well. I have never taken medication nor have I taken vitamins. I am passionate about life!

P.S. Virtually EVERYONE in my family suffers from SAD = The Standard American Diet!! Good thing I know family history can be changed with a good education.

Mother—arteriosclerosis, left bundle branch block, various heart problems

Father—died of myocardial heart attack

Sister—is approximately 100 lb. over wt. and has diabetes

Uncle (mother’s brother) – had cardiac bypass surgery twice!

Grandparents (all deceased): one had the gout and diabetes, all were grossly obese, two had severe hypertension, one died of heart attack etc.!!

Dr. McDougall’s Comments:

“What is your life worth?” That is the question my flight instructor used to ask me when I debated about buying a new piece of safety equipment for my airplane. For example, one time after surviving complete failure of my attitude indicator – the instrument that keeps the airplane upright when flying without visual aids – while flying in the clouds, I had to decide whether or not to spend $2000 on a back-up attitude indicator – just in case this potentially catastrophic loss happened again. Was my life worth $2000? I didn’t think twice about that one!

What was Barb’s life worth to her? For “Marathon Barb,” as she likes to be called, her life after near-total failure was worth a complete change in her diet and a daily exercise routine. She didn’t think twice about it once she realized she was facing serious “permanent” disability. An enraged pit bull and pill-prescribing doctors – threats of similar gravity – made her reevaluate the importance of her health, the value of a quality life, and the inner strengths she had to change all that.

So what is your life worth? Think about it for a minute; there are a finite number of years left for you on planet Earth. How do you want to spend them and how many of more these precious years do you want? Are you satisfied with spending the next 20 to 30 years: Fifty pounds overweight? Dependent on medications that are costly and with serious side effects? Feeling sick? Not able to physically do all the things you want to do? Not able to run a marathon? To walk to the store? To tie your shoelaces?

Try writing this question, “What is my life worth?” on a piece of paper and sticking it to the refrigerator door or next to your walking shoes. You have a choice – and it is your choice alone – once you realize that with some simple, almost cost-free, dietary and lifestyle changes – like exercise and quitting alcohol, coffee, and smoking – you can have the life you deserve.