I was only a kid when doctors sent my grandmother home in a wheelchair to die at age 65. Diagnosed with end-stage heart disease, she had already had so many bypass operations the surgeons essentially ran out of plumbing—the scarring from each open-heart surgery had made the next more difficult until they finally ran out of options. Confined to a wheelchair with crushing chest pain, her doctors told her there was nothing else they could do.
I think what sparks many kids to want to become doctors when they grow up is watching a beloved relative become ill or even die. For me, it was watching my grandma get better.
Soon after she was discharged, a segment aired on 60 Minutes about Nathan Pritikin. He had been gaining a reputation for reversing terminal heart disease and had just opened a new center—a live-in program where everyone was placed on a plant-based diet and then started on a graded exercise regimen. My grandmother somehow made the trek to become one of its first patients. They wheeled her in, and she walked out.
Later featured in Pritikin’s biography Pritikin: The Man Who Healed America’s Heart, she was described as one of the “death’s door people”:
“Frances Greger…arrived in Santa Barbara at one of Pritikin’s early sessions in a wheelchair. Mrs. Greger had heart disease, angina, and claudication; her condition was so bad she could no longer walk without great pain in her chest and legs. Within three weeks, though, she was not only out of her wheelchair but was walking ten miles a day.”
At that time, reversing heart disease didn’t even seem possible. Drugs were given to try to slow the progression, and surgery was performed to circumvent clogged arteries to try to relieve symptoms (literally bypassing the problem), but the disease was expected to worsen until you died. Today, we know that as soon as we stop eating an artery-clogging diet, our bodies may start healing themselves, in many cases opening up arteries without drugs or surgery.
By the time I became a doctor, giants like Dean Ornish, M.D., had already proven beyond a shadow of a doubt what Pritikin had shown to be true. Using the latest high-tech advances—cardiac PET scans, quantitative coronary arteriography, and radionuclide ventriculography—Dr. Ornish and his colleagues showed that heart disease, our leading killer, may be reversed with the lowest-tech approach—diet and lifestyle.