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A moose no longer: How I faced down my fears of heart disease

We’ve partnered with Inspire, a company that builds and manages online support communities for patients and caregivers, to launch a patient-focused series here on Scope. Once a month, patients affected by serious and often rare diseases share their unique stories; the latest comes from Florida resident Ian Welch.

A moose will hide behind a tree when it senses danger, no matter how small the tree is. The moose figures if it can’t see you, you can’t see it.

I hid behind a virtual tree, in denial, when I began to feel symptoms of heart disease. Perhaps I was also naive, thinking I was okay because there was no history of heart disease in my family.

I hid behind the knowledge that three of my grandparents lived into their 90s, eating pretty much anything they wanted. I was also comforted by recalling memories of the athlete I was. I ran a marathon at 13, and I was a competitive swimmer. I didn't think it was possible for me to become part of the 2/3 of Americans with a chronic disease.

However, deep down I knew something was wrong. I could jog but had to walk the first mile. I had pains in my jaw and neck. My blood pressure was high and my weight gain was unprecedented. Classic angina. My family doctor felt medication was the best solution.

I've always been leery of medication, and the recommendation from the doctor seemed cold and generic. There was no explanation of why this was happening to me. Nor an explanation of inflammation or even a few moments spent explaining the surgery that was knocking on my door.

There was also no diagnosis of blocked arteries - yet. And so I began to blame my angina symptoms on the medication, and I eventually stopped taking the meds. I started lying to my wife about my blood pressure readings at night because I didn’t want her to worry. But finally, I couldn't continue hiding from the truth. I went to a cardiologist and he found I had four major blockages in my heart. Instantly, the twig I was hiding behind disappeared. In retrospect, not taking the medication might have saved my life. Rather than masking the symptoms and creating an artificial well being, I had to face the symptoms head on.

And so on March 23, 2011, I checked into the hospital for an operation during which for three hours my heart stopped beating on its own as a surgeon grafted various veins from my legs to my heart. I stepped out from behind the tree and faced my fears that day by having a quadruple bypass at the age of 40. I was now a part of a new club - the "zipper club" - with millions of other members who have also undergone open-heart surgery.

Learning of my disease was the single most valuable experience that I've ever had. I'm a different person than I was prior to the diagnosis, and I understand now and relish the fight to improve my situation.

I used the experience as an opportunity to transform my life. I quickly realized that my refrigerator had tried to kill me. (I had spent years avoiding lightning and buses when the biggest threat to my health was twenty feet from my sofa.) I completely dismantled my entire nutritional pyramid and I flipped it upside down. Plants were now my foundation, and everything else was replaced. By simply having a plan, I was now in control of my disease.

Now, my dilemma is riding the fence between the medical and wellness industries. I have shed over 40 pounds from my top weight of 235. I eat less than 10 percent fat and thrive on a diet based solely on plant-based nutrition. I exercise 90 minutes a day, with Bikram Yoga during the week and long runs on the weekends. However, my last cardiologist (I have yet to find a primary doctor) insisted I attack my disease with heavy doses of statins, fenofibrates and niacin, despite recent evidence of the ineffectiveness of that regime. I'm unable to find a doctor yet willing to meet me halfway, to acknowledge the ability of the body to reverse heart disease through nutrition.

So, I've stopped straddling the fence. I move forward as the CEO of my own plan. I've moved away from the tree, into the open, and I accept the consequences of the decisions that I've made.

Ian Welch, 43, lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.  with his wife. Ian's day job involves managing municipal bond portfolios. He is an avid long distance runner & Bikram Yoga practitioner. He blogs at www.WholeFed.org, and he recently published the book “Instead of Flowers: Harness the Power of a Chronic Disease.”

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