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Name: Jim

Age: 77

Location: Hamot (Legacy Site)

Health Challenge: Congestive heart failure in 1998. Suggested heart transplant.

Greatest Motivation: I went out with some guys from my cohort and played golf again. First we played 9 holes, eventually we played 18—and I’ve played at least a hundred rounds since. It’s been 16 years since I had two doctors tell me that I needed a heart transplant, and I’ve been okay. I got off the oxygen tubes. I’ve done things that I never could have done without the program.

In 1998, I had congestive heart failure and was in the hospital for 25 days. They told me that I had a virus that attacked my heart—idiopathic dilated cardio myopathy, and that my ejection fraction was only about 25 percent. I also had to be on 2 liters of oxygen every night when I got home, which was extremely uncomfortable. At the time, I didn’t have one doctor tell me that I needed a heart transplant; I had two of them tell me. And that really scared me. When I was recovering, quite frankly, I thought I was a “cooked goose” as they say. For several months there in 1998, I was more or less just lying on the couch. I had a visiting nurse. I was really concerned that I wouldn’t be able to go out and do things—do my normal activities.

“It’s been 16 years since I had two doctors tell me that I needed a heart transplant, and I’ve been okay.”

Luckily, before I moved forward with a possible heart transplant, a friend sent me a note about the Ornish Lifestyle Medicine Program (Intensive Cardiac Rehabilitation) in Pittsburgh. I was immediately intrigued, so I went and listened to a talk about it. At that talk there was a fellow next to me who also had congestive heart failure, and who said that he had seen definite improvement using the program. He was a much younger man, but he inspired me. A couple months later, I was in my cohort. If I didn’t have the program at that time, I would have been a lot more depressed about my diagnosis—I wouldn’t have had much hope for the future. The group support in particular helped me more than I could have imagined that it would. I live alone, so the group gave me a sense of community and of leadership that had been somewhat lacking. And it inspired me; I loved to hear the stories that other people would tell, it gave me confidence—it alerted me to new ideas about the heart. Plus, from a psychological standpoint, the group support allowed me to feel a little bit less stressed about my situation; listening to my group members gave me hope. You know, you have to be optimistic in a situation like that, and that’s what the group helped with. I could have taken the viewpoint of being a victim when I had the congestive heart failure, but instead I took the viewpoint of the group. And that optimism has helped me greatly ever since.

The way that I like to look at the program is with the Three Rs: roadmap, reinforcement, and reward. First, the program provides a roadmap; the four components of the program are the roadmap to lifestyle change. The second component is reinforcement; you go in, you listen to the leaders, you bond with the group, you do the exercise, you feel good—which reinforces the tenants of the program. The third R is the reward; the sense of accomplishment, the sense of feeling better about things, that feeling that “yeah, I can do this. And I’m benefitting from it.” I definitely did benefit from the program. In addition to the group support, my ejection fraction showed improvement, and my cardiologist said that I didn’t need a heart transplant. I also continue to exercise several times each week, and I can walk up the stairs without holding the bannister anymore, so that’s an accomplishment. Hey, I can’t run a 4 minute mile, but then again I couldn’t do that before the heart failure. I’m not feeble. Overall, the program makes me feel a lot better. You know, everyone wants to live forever, although I hear it’s pretty unlikely. But hey, as long as I can ambulate, urinate and cogitate, I’m doing O.K.!

Perhaps the biggest benefit was that after one year on the program, I didn’t need the oxygen at night any more. That was definitely an improvement because—as anyone who has had the experience can tell you—wearing those tubes in your nose every night is not the most enjoyable thing in the world. But my oxygen saturation level increased from 86 to 98 percent while on the program, so my cardiologist told me that I didn’t need the oxygen any more. I told him that was just fine with me. The oxygen company was pretty surprised when I asked them to come pick up the tanks!

The program has also had non-medical benefits for me. I like to golf, and after the heart failure I couldn’t golf for at least a year. But after 3 or 4 months on the Ornish Program, I went out with some guys from my cohort and played again. First we played 9 holes, eventually we played 18—and I’ve played at least a hundred rounds since. In the fall of 1998, I never expected, never thought that I would be capable of golfing again. I’m really glad I was wrong.

Another thing that I did was volunteer to teach a geography course at Carnegie Melon University. I taught the course about 8 times and enjoyed it tremendously. I’ve had a love for geography since I was a boy and I spent, I’ll bet, at least 500 hours putting that course together and modifying it as I went along. It’s been wonderful for me. Before I did it, I thought I knew something about geography, but when I did it I found that I actually knew very little, which was great. I probably would not have even tried teaching without the Ornish Program. I would have thought “I’m not up to that,” because it’s not the easiest thing to stand in front of a class for an hour and a half and talk. It was rewarding, but it wasn’t easy—I definitely have a newfound respect for my old professors!

Ultimately, to someone who is thinking of joining the program, I would say “Go ahead and do it. And stick with it.” It’s been 16 years since I had two doctors tell me that I needed a heart transplant, and I’ve been okay. I got off the oxygen tubes. I’ve done things that I never could have done without the program. The Ornish Program was one of the best things I ever did for myself.

Contributed by

Adam Farina
Contributor

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