When I graduated from nursing school in 1985, I had big dreams. My birth mother had died when I was only a few months old from melanoma and my mother who raised me as her own suffered from diabetes, high blood pressure, and osteoarthritis. Looking back she also had undiagnosed and untreated depression for many years. I hoped to really help people manage and overcome these awful illnesses and offer comfort where I could. I worked in the hospital setting for many years where most of our patients were in and out of the hospital for exacerbations of chronic illnesses such as diabetes, emphyesema,and congestive heart failure and I witnessed much suffering from strokes and cancers. Looking back, we did our best to patch people up, treat their symptoms with medications and treatments and send them home to do their best to care for themselves and manage their illness. There were people we got to know well as they were frequent visitors to our facility, coming in and out of the revolving door with acute flare ups of chronic illness. These patients were often labeled as non compliant as they would often stop medications that were prescribed to control their symptoms but had side effects that were difficult to bear or were too expensive.
When I transferred to home healthcare in 2003, I again hoped to make a difference as I could focus on patient teaching with one patient at a time. I now was able to get a better picture of why people had difficulty managing their illnesses. Some had little family support, some had limited education, and some were even illiterate and couldn’t read the instructions on their medications. Again, the cost of so many medications was an issue for some. For some, we could find strategies to overcome these obstacles, but for others, they continued to have frequent stays in the hospital, continuing to decline.
This is not to say that we don’t see success stories. We do care for people with acute and chronic illness who are able to learn to manage their medical problems, heal, and return to normal activity. I am constantly amazed by the resilience of our patients and families and am thrilled to hear their life stories. It helps us to remember that people are more than their disease state and had active and vibrant lives before they became sick.
Since my familiy and I learned about plant based eating and how it can help to prevent, improve, and even reverse many chronic illnesses like heart disease and diabetes, it is hard for me to know this information and not share it with everyone I meet. The research is astounding and yet the mainstream medical community does not offer plant based nutrition as an option for patients. The work of physicians and researchers like Dr. T. Colin Campbell, Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. John McDougall, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn Jr, and others is not known by the general public and if I can help to educate people in any way, that is my passion right now.
Even though the statistics around chronic illness and obesity in America are disheartening, I chose not to lose hope. I will talk to anyone who is interested in learning about how to empower themselves and improve their health through better nutrition and have found plant based community in our small town in Northeast PA and our small group is growing and is enthusiastic about the health benefits they have experienced.
I hope that in the future instead of blaming patients for failing traditional medical treatments, we will routinely be offering them the option of eating their way to a healthy mind and body without the worry of side effects, enormous cost and the complexity of managing multiple medications and instructions. I often feel that we are putting bandaids on gaping wounds as we try to treat the overwhelming rates of chronic illness in this country, but then I remember hearing Dr. Esselstyn and Dr. Campbell speak and become reinvigorated by their messages of hope which are contagious. They believe in the power of people to heal if we have faith that they can help themselves and we give them the tools they need.
If you have ever thought about plant based eating, but are not sure if it’s for you, try it for 3 or 4 weeks and see how you feel! There are so many tools available, including great books, free resources online, and wonderful recipes. Enlist a plant based buddy to join you, or find a group of like minded folks online to help you in your journey. More about building plant based community in a future post!