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Name: Brenda B.
Age: 63
Ornish Site: Atlantic Health System – Chambers Center for Well Being
Health Challenges: Cardiomyopathy, heart transplant

Greatest Motivation: The overarching support from the staff, other participants, and my husband really made a difference. My husband has also benefited from the program because, now that I can help with daily activities like grocery shopping and washing dishes, a large amount of stress has been lifted off of his shoulders.

I was first diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle, at the age of 18. In my 20s, I was told that I would probably need a new heart. I accepted my heart disease as a part of my life and tried to go on living, but was still resentful about it interrupting my life. I would look in the mirror and see someone that looked so normal, but I could hardly walk up the stairs. Eventually, trying to stay ahead of my health issues became like putting a Band-Aid on the bigger problem – and it became harder and harder to keep up. Over the years, I’ve needed a defibrillator and pacemaker, and by June of 2015, I was walking with a cane and could barely wash the dishes.

Ask your heart, what do you need from me today?”

As a result of my health concerns, I started a local support group for women with heart disease. At one of our meetings I invited Carole, the program director for Ornish Lifestyle Medicine at the Chambers Center for Well Being, to speak about the program. I had read some of Dr. Ornish’s books, but hadn’t realized that there was a full, insurance-reimbursed program available so close by. I realized that I could benefit from a program that looked at the whole picture of health – nutrition, exercise, stress management, and group support – rather than just treating the symptoms of disease. It just made sense.

After my doctor agreed that Ornish Lifestyle Medicine was the right program for me, I decided to enroll. During this time, my heart functions had continued to decline, and I was preparing for a heart transplant. I started the program anyway but had to pause my participation because I was just too sick – my attitude was there, but my body just couldn’t handle the activity.

Soon after having to take a pause from the program, I received my heart transplant. After the surgery I initially thought – “I got a new heart. I’m okay. I’m good.” But that wasn’t necessarily true. I had a lot of down time in the hospital, which caused me to think. Those thoughts weren’t always positive – I was so sick of being sick. During my hospital stay, my doctor visited me and said something that really impacted me; she explained that from now on, I should expect to do something for my heart every day and not feel that it is a burden in doing so. A new heart is a gift and a responsibility that requires follow-up care. Other heart transplant patients told me that this would be the turning point in my life – and they were right.

After the transplant, I signed up for Ornish Lifestyle Medicine as soon as I could. I started about 6 months after my surgery and, shortly thereafter, was able to start walking and moving around better. Then, all of a sudden, I could climb the stairs! Small hills that had seemed like mountains before were no longer a problem for me. After not being able to exercise for over 40 years, doing so was a huge accomplishment for me. After about 3 sessions in the program, everything started to come together for me from an exercise perspective – I learned how to exercise safely and to gradually increase my stamina. Prior to the program, I had no understanding of what a normal heart rate should be, but the team at the Chambers Center for Well Being taught me what I needed to know. I had started the program only being able to walk for 3 minutes, but by the time I graduated, I was continuously exercising for 40 minutes at a time.

In addition to my newfound knowledge about exercise, I learned the importance of eating right, managing my stress, and having a strong support system. I began to understand the role that stress plays in our health. I learned how to read food labels. I made new lifelong friends with the other participants in the cohort. And the staff was another amazing resource – I couldn’t have completed the program without them! They were so supportive and caring. I always felt their dedication to the program and to helping me be successful. The overarching support from the staff, other participants, and my husband really made a difference. My husband has also benefited from the program because, now that I can help with daily activities like grocery shopping and washing dishes, a large amount of stress has been lifted off of his shoulders.

Participating in the program changed my life. I experienced a lot of setbacks during the year it took me to complete the program; some of which might have caused others to quit. But through all 3 program attempts, I kept reaching for the end goal of graduation. Along the way, I told people about my participation in the program to keep me accountable. I knew that if I said it would happen it would; and it did – I graduated from the program in the fall of 2016, and nothing has felt as good as graduating! My advice to people who are thinking about participating in the program is a phrase that is a part of the program’s stress management component: “Ask your heart, what do you need from me today?” That response should be Ornish Lifestyle Medicine. Keep your heart healthy, or make it healthy again.

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