Heart Health

Here’s How One Woman Reversed Congestive Heart Failure in Her 80s

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With her health declining rapidly due to congestive heart failure, doctors told 80-year-old Millie Donahue to get her affairs in order. But today, at 91, she is living an active, full life — thanks to a simple change in her diet!

Living With Congestive Heart Failure

Millie Donahue didn’t know what was going on. The then-80-year-old denizen from Scarborough, Maine often felt tired and cold, her ankles swelling at random times. But one day, as her daughter, Meg, picked her up to go shopping, Millie suddenly felt short of breath and had chest pain. “We’re going to the hospital,” Meg said as Millie collapsed in her seat.

Tests showed Millie was in congestive heart failure, a condition that occurs when the heart can’t pump as it should. Certain heart conditions, such as coronary artery disease and high blood pressure (Millie had both) can leave the heart too weak or stiff to function properly.

Time was of the essence.

“This is your new normal; you will have to manage this for the rest of your life,” her doctor said, prescribing medication. Within four months, Millie was too weak to care for herself and moved in with Meg. Millie’s “heart ejection fraction” rate — the measurement of how much blood the left ventricle pumps out with each contraction — was less than 10 percent, dangerously lower than a normal 50 percent to 75 percent. With Millie too weak for surgery, doctors told Meg to arrange for end-of-life care. That’s not going to happen, Meg thought.

Millie’s Miracle Cure

Desperate for help, Meg began doing her own research and came across a book by Caldwell Esselstyn Jr, MD, Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, about the benefits of a plant-based diet. Filled with green vegetables, legumes, brown rice and fruit, Dr. Esselstyn explained that this diet optimizes the production of nitric oxide — vital for vascular health — while lowering cholesterol.

Because Millie’s health was so fragile, Meg started making her soups and smoothies, and in two months, Millie was feeling a bit stronger, sitting up and walking to the bathroom with the help of support bars. Meg then began preparing solid meals, like bean chili and veggie stir-fry.

With each passing week, Millie miraculously improved. After three months, her blood pressure fell and her medication was lowered. In six months, she could walk around the driveway and was able to hold her grand-baby.

By her one-year anniversary of going plant-based, Millie was driving again and going to the pool three times a week. Today, at 91 years old, her heart ejection fraction is at a normal 56 percent. Meg was so amazed by Millie’s success that she co-founded the company MamaSezz to deliver plant-based meals to others.

“I amaze my doctors,” Millie says. “At 80, I didn’t think I’d get better. Today at 91, I have no aches or pains and I’m living life to the fullest. Life goes by fast. I am grateful to be able to enjoy it!”

The Astonishing Heart Benefits of Plant-Based Eating

Eating a diet rich in fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes, and nuts enhances heart health in several ways, asserts Saray Stancic, MD, an expert in nutritional medicine who eats plant-based herself. “It will lower total cholesterol by up to 30 percent, which is on par with medicines,” she says. “It also lowers blood pressure and blood sugar, helps keep weight under control and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease by 40 percent.” Credit the fiber and powerful antioxidants that these foods provide. What’s more, it’s accessible to everyone, and it’s never too late to gain the benefits, she says, adding that the diet may even reverse heart disease.

For free classes and tips on eating a plant-based diet, visit the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

This article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.

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