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Heart patients find new lifestyle in health program

May 11, 2003|by CANDICE BOSELY

Susan Files wasn't sure how she was going to manage without meat as a part of her diet.

Max Weaver was a bit leery of the yoga and meditation.

Both, though, enrolled in City Hospital's Dr. Dean Ornish Program for Reversing Heart Disease.

Files, 43, was at risk to develop serious health problems and wanted to reduce the amount of medications she was taking. Weaver, 71, had a heart attack in 1996 and wanted to clear his arteries of all obstructions.

Recently Weaver, Files and the others in the program, along with its staff, gathered at City Hospital's classroom for a pot-luck dinner.


You would not find hamburgers, potato salad or green bean casserole, though. As part of the program, participants switch to a healthy, vegetarian diet.

For some, that may prove too big a hurdle.

Files still has to cook different food for the rest of her family, including her two teenage sons.

"Up until that point in time, I never dreamed of a time without meat on my plate," she said.

Files found herself eliminating not only meat from her diet, but also complex carbohydrates, processed foods and caffeine.

At the pot-luck dinner, bottled water was the drink of choice. Corn on the cob, salads, brown rice, pasta made from whole grains and fat-free desserts rounded out the menu.

Weaver, who has been with the program since it started last May, was honored with a framed certificate and a potted plant meant to symbolize his rebirth.

Ornish is the founder, president and director of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, Calif., according to information from his Web site. He is clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and has written several health-related books.

Ornish bases his program on several principles, including exercise, nutrition and stress management. Members also rely on support from other members in the group, meeting occasionally to swap stories and recipes.

To participate, one must have some sort of heart condition or have high risk factors such as diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Those without any problems, but who are concerned with their health, can participate in the abbreviated Ornish Advantage program, which lasts six weeks.

Ornish participants tend to see a drop in their cholesterol levels, including LDL or "bad" cholesterol. Their exercise capacity increases, while their blood pressure decreases.

"The program is a holistic approach to help them gain a balance in their life," said Judy Warner, nurse case manager.

Although the program is not designed as one for weight loss, many participants shed some pounds. Files said she lost around 30 pounds.

Occasionally, people drop out of the program, often for personal reasons or scheduling conflicts, said Dr. Robert Bowen, the Ornish program's medical director.

Most are pleased.

"I think people are surprised (by the program)," Bowen said. "They often come in skeptical. But the proof is in the pudding."

That's fat-free pudding, most certainly.

The Ornish regiment

For the first 12 weeks, Ornish participants meet twice a week for four hours at a time, including a meal. After that, they meet once a week for two to four hours, said Dana DeJarnett, City Hospital's program director.

Files said she accomplished her goal of reducing the amount of medications she was taking.

Before enrolling in the Ornish program last September, Files said she never would have considered using yoga or meditation to manage stress. Now, she said recognizing the value of those two tools has been one of her biggest benefits.

Three 20-minute exercise sessions a week were recommended, but for consistency's sake, Files went to the hospital's workout facility six days a week.

Along with running on a treadmill, Files rides a stationary bike and does weight exercises for her upper and lower body and her abdomen.

Officially, Files' Ornish program ended a couple of months ago since she did not need to participate for an entire year. Now, she has a treadmill at home to use and continues stress management sessions privately.

The Ornish staff members will do follow-up sessions whenever needed.

"Everyone is right there if you need them," Files said. "I fully think the program is absolutely wonderful."

'Lot less stressed'

Weaver had heard of the program before and was immediately interested when he heard City Hospital planned to offer it.

After his four-way bypass surgery, doctors told Weaver he had small veins. They were not sure whether he'd live.

"I was looking for something that I could do," he said.

Since Weaver enrolled in the program last spring, tests show his arteries are clear, which was his main goal. Also, he said his lung capacity has increased, he is exercising smarter and he has more muscle strength.

Exercise helped, as did unforeseen allies in meditation, yoga and group support.

"They've been as helpful in learning how to feel what's going on inside your body, knowing what your body is like, being tuned in to yourself," he said.

Weaver was initially leery about the benefits of yoga.

"Plus, I think most men have a lot of difficulty with opening up about how they feel," he said.

Sessions at the hospital are not too invasive; participants do not have to bare their souls, Weaver said. Inquiries center on how they are feeling and what's going through their minds.

"I found it very useful," Weaver said. "I'm a lot less stressed. I feel better about myself."

Now, Weaver said he plans to continue with the program even though his official stint is also now over.

"This is a lifestyle that I've taken on that's going to take me through from here on out," he said.

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