I had my first heart attack at 41, the same age as my father, when he passed away.
My name is Lyndall Shick. I’m a 65-year-old retired counselor, grandmother of six and avid horse enthusiast living in rural Oregon. I’d like to tell you my story in the hope that it might provide you with inspiration, as so many of the Star Stories have provided for me. By the time I was eleven, I had lost seven close relatives, including all of my grandparents and my father who died of his third stroke at age 41. All but one died of heart disease. Needless to say, this left a huge impression on me. Death seemed to be the underlying theme of my young life.
When I was 41, the same age my father had been when he died, I had my first heart attack. The doctors couldn’t believe it. I was at a very low weight (at that particular time), didn’t smoke, wasn’t diabetic, was pre-menopausal, and exercised vigorously and regularly (at that particular time). I looked really fit. Family history was my only risk factor, and what was I going to do about that?
After a very expensive life-flight trip to the nearest large hospital, I had an angiogram followed by an angioplasty, was handed a load of prescriptions, the American Heart Association diet, and sent on my way. I really tried to follow the diet, but it was ambiguous. Nevertheless, I’d try to follow it for a few months, forget my resolve, and slide back into my old habits. This was taking a toll and by now I was clinically depressed. I was also up to 12 prescription drugs and trying every supplement thought to benefit hearts and moods. Thus began a long series of health incidents.
Between 1992 and 2004 I had nine surgeries or procedures. I was falling apart! Those related to cardiovascular disease included an endarterectomy to scrape plaque out of a carotid artery after a TIA (stroke precursor); another angiogram, angioplasty and implantation of stents; a second heart attack (at 210 lbs) while in ICU following a horseback riding accident; then another angiogram with more stents put in. I remember one cardiologist telling me something I’ve always remembered: “Lyndall, we now know WHAT will kill you, we just don’t know WHEN. That’s up to you.” I was shocked. I went home, lost 40 pounds and started an exercise program. For a few years…
No one had told me that stents are good for about ten years. Mine worked for a bit longer than that, but in 2013 I began having angina, which radiated up into my jaw while doing water aerobics, a routine I’d done easily literally hundreds of times. My weight was around 155, I was eating better, lifted weights, walked, and rode my horse in addition to water aerobics. The jaw pain would go away if I slowed down, so that’s how I managed it.
About eight months later I had a crisis in the pool. I could no longer stop the angina by slowing down, or even resting. That day, something new was happening. I was nauseated, weak, and sweating. After a trip to the ER and a night in the hospital for observation, I was referred to the cardiologist once again to see what had changed. He explained that my angina had progressed from stable to unstable, meaning you neither know what brings it on nor how to stop it. An angiogram showed that two coronary arteries were in very bad shape. I didn’t need medical training to see that these vessels, which looked like raggedy little twisted strings, were gravely damaged. Looking at the monitor with the doctor, I was flooded with compassion and gratitude for my arteries. I had pushed them to the limit, but they kept on serving me. I was admitted to the hospital and told I would be having coronary by-pass surgery. Scared, uninformed, and incredulous, I did as I was told. I was in trouble. Doctors know best.
The surgeon spoke with me for about ten minutes the day before the surgery. He didn’t tell me that 60% of the people having this operation need another one within six to ten years. He didn’t tell me he would stop my heart in order to sew on it. He didn’t tell me that a pump would circulate blood through my body for four hours, or that 50% of patients on this pump lose 22% of their cognitive function and that the loss is permanent. He didn’t tell me the morbidity rate was more like 3%, not 1%. He didn’t tell me that some patients have strokes during the surgery. I learned all of this only afterwards while desperately searching for help.
Why was I desperate? Because the first day after surgery, when an aide began walking me around the unit, my jaw suddenly ached. It felt just like it had two weeks and $125,000 ago! I was devastated. This was NOT supposed to be happening!
I went from incredulous to incensed. Words won’t describe the seething anger I felt. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but it wasn’t going to be more of the same! I have had heart disease for decades, and nothing that traditional medicine offered has stopped its progression. Although I think they meant to help me, and their skills are truly amazing, I knew I was not going back to the cardiologists.
So, in desperation, I went to the local health food store in search of something, anything, that might give me an idea of what to do. If I didn’t trust the doctors, what then? The book shelves were full of all sorts of books, including one entitled “How to Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease.” I passed that one up, thinking “that guy’s some kind of quack just trying to sell books, everyone knows heart disease can’t be reversed!” Instead I got a copy of “Forks Over Knives.” At least it would have some good low-fat recipes, right? When I got home, I was shocked to see that the fork on the book’s cover was a fork, but the knife was a scalpel. I raced through that book!
Next, I got the documentary film “Forks Over Knives.” Holy cow! (Or should I say Holy carrot!?) Here were doctors telling me there IS something that I, myself, can do to take charge of my disease and even cure myself. I began reading everything I could find by Drs. McDougall, Esselstyn, and Campbell as well as the others featured in the film. I purged my kitchen, stocked it with new food, and started, all at once, eating only whole grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits. NO OIL, not even avocados and nuts. I think my friends thought I was crazy and probably in the grip of yet another fad diet. Or maybe I was militantly vegan and would soon burn my saddle and throw out my goat’s milk soap!
I asked my adult children and their kids to come watch FOK with me. Halfway through the film they offered to go whole foods, plant-based to support me and to enhance their own health. What a gift! I wouldn’t have to do it alone.
Since September 1, 2013, I’ve been 99.9% compliant with the diet. Almost everything the diet promises has already happened in 14 months. I eat all I want, and surprise people by the sheer volume of food I consume! I’m no longer afraid of carbs, and home, not restaurants, is the best place to eat. I’ve thrown away all supplements, and reduced medications. My weight has come down to 120 lbs., without dieting, and my total cholesterol is 123mg/dl (down from an all-time high of 345mg/dl) the lowest it’s ever been in my life. Blood pressure is a non-issue. Sleep apnea has disappeared. Depression is much improved. I have more energy and sleep better. The afternoon slump is gone. I no longer keep magazines next to the toilet because, although I’m there frequently, I’m never there long enough to read! I have all new, little clothes. It’s sooooo much easier to get on and off my horse, and she’s sooooo grateful that I’ve taken such a load off her back! Although I still have some angina when my heart rate elevates, it has greatly improved. I look forward to the day when I can hike briskly for an hour, up a mountain trail, pain free. That’s my goal.
In order to strengthen my resolve and hang tight to all these wonderful gains, I knew I needed to stay focused on this new life, free myself of the pleasure trap (thanks Dr. Lisle), break the food addiction (thanks Dr. Barnard), keep cooking and eating carbs (thanks Dr. McDougall), and remember that moderation kills (thanks, Dr. Esselstyn.) So, I read Dr. McDougall’s newsletter every month, watch McDougall Moments twice a week, and read every book I can get my hands on. I found some other ways to stay focused, too.
Last December I traveled to Santa Rosa for a weekend seminar with the McDougalls. In May I flew to Cleveland and became Dr. Esselstyn’s patient. In October I began Dr. Campbell’s Certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition course on-line through eCornell. I don’t know yet what I’ll do with the certificate, but I hope to be able to help educate people in need of and interested in dietary changes. Whatever I do, I’ll have more credibility than some pissed off old lady who bought a couple of books at the health food store!
Thank you from the bottom of my heart, you leaders of this movement, whom I affectionately refer to as the “plant whisperers,” for pioneering a gentler way of taming disease. Because of your work I plan to dance at my grandchildren’s weddings.
P.S. Since I wrote the above story some exciting things have happened in my new life. I received my Certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition in December; I lost three more pounds without trying, and am now at the weight I was in at age 16 when I was the runner up in a beauty pageant; next, I contacted Margarita Restrepo, Founder and Chief Editor of Naked Food Magazine, to applaud her important and beautiful work, and to beg her to get a really good copy editor before the next issue! She said, “I’m out of money! Do YOU want to do it!?” I didn’t hesitate. So now I’m editing the magazine; my angina is almost completely gone, and I trust that in three more months I will be pain free at my desired exercise goal! After that, the coordinator of continuing education at the community college asked me to teach a class, which I titled “Eat your Veggies, Save Your Life!” Most recently, the health food store where I started this journey asked me to come speak at a public forum they sponsor. I guess the Universe has a plan for me after all. I’m only too happy to jump in!