• 69 percent of Aroostook County residents are overweight or obese
• 26 percent are obese
• More than 30 percent of County residents reported not exercising
• More than 13 percent of County residents experience depression (8.1 percent statewide)
Sources: 2009 Maine Center for Disease Control, Aroostook County Community Health Assessment 2010
When Wesley Rankin joined the Healthy Hearts Healthy Community program at Cary Medical Center in Caribou in May 2012, his speech was slurred, he weighed 268 pounds, he was falling down frequently, and he could move only the thumb on his right hand.
A pair of strokes in February had damaged his brain and the resulting disabilities forced him into early retirement as a long-haul truck driver. His doctors said his veins were 50 percent to 60 percent blocked and he was at high risk for a third stroke that he might not survive.
“I had never been so scared in my life,” said Rankin, who is 63 and lives in Caribou. “I’m a Vietnam vet and I was scared then, but not like this. It’s a scary thought that you’ve seen your children for the last time. It’s not a good feeling.”
After one month of practicing the lifestyle changes required by the Healthy Hearts program, he could speak more clearly, he had lost weight and was able to make a fist.
“People in the program noticed the changes right away,” he recalled. Today he has no effects of the stroke. He has lost more than 50 pounds and is finishing renovation projects on his house that were suspended after he was stricken.
“I eat like a pig all day long and still lose weight,” he said. “I’ve been losing 10 pounds every month. I feel good. I have more energy. My cholesterol was 200, now it’s 81. My blood sugar is stable. If I keep going like this, I can control (my diabetes) with diet instead of pills. My doctor says it’s phenomenal.”
Rankin is one of a number of participants in the 12-week Healthy Hearts program who have experienced profound improvements in their health by changing what they eat. Based on the research of Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn Jr., director of the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute and author of “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease,” the dietary program follows a low-fat, plant-based diet that includes vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes (beans, peas or lentils), and does not include any added oils, animal products (beef, poultry, pork or fish), dairy products or eggs. Esselstyn’s research produced evidence that this diet can stop the progression of cardiovascular disease and, in some cases, reverse its effects.
“We’re not suggesting it’s right for everyone,” said Bill Flagg, director of public relations at Cary. “We just want to give people with heart disease another option if they want to reverse it. We are not making judgments about what anybody else eats.”
Aroostook County averages 240 deaths from heart disease per year, representing the highest death rate in the state and among the highest in the nation, Flagg said, citing Maine Center for Disease Control statistics. Van Buren has the highest rate of sudden cardiac death in the nation.
In 2010, Cary initiated efforts to prevent and reduce cardiovascular disease in northern Maine and won a $180,000 grant from the AstraZeneca HealthCare Foundation under the “Connections for Cardiovascular Health” program.
The grant made Healthy Hearts Healthy Community possible. Hope Walton, a registered nurse at Cary, is the program’s clinical nurse educator, partnering with Norma Watson, a behavioral health specialist from the Aroostook Mental Health Center, to help participants through the transition to a new lifestyle, both as a group and one-on-one.
The first group of 10 patients began in August 2011 and the second group of 15 in May 2012. Twenty participants have been accepted into the third session, which began this month. Participants must be referred by a physician and are encouraged to attend a daylong information session before starting the 12-week program. Monthly meetings include a plant-based meal and sharing of experiences and recipes, along with weight and body measurements.
The success of the program earned Cary a second grant of $280,000 from the foundation for another year — an unusual award not likely to be repeated. That does not mean the program will end, according to Flagg and Walton, who are exploring ways to maintain the services it provides.
One option is obtaining sponsors for the weekly half-hour television program on WAGM TV 8 that airs patient testimonials and presents information on how to prepare plant-based meals. Rankin will be featured on the program at 7:30 p.m.Saturday, Sept. 29.
Restaurants in Aroostook County also are participating. Every month, a different restaurant offers a plant-based meal for $5 (with help from the grant). Anyone can come, as long as they register. This week, 80 people signed up for a plant-based buffet Thursday at the Northeastland Hotel in Presque Isle.
“It’s a great way to introduce people to a different way of eating that is healthy,” said Walton. She said diners receive information on plant-based eating and are encouraged to watch “Forks Over Knives,” a documentary film about the effects of Esselstyn’s research.
Joe Thibodeau of Stockholm has found he doesn’t have to wait for the monthly offerings at restaurants if he wants to eat out. He can call a cooperating restaurant a day or two ahead for a plant-based meal.
Thibodeau, 55, was the first participant to sign up for the first Healthy Hearts session in 2011. After a heart attack and triple-bypass surgery in 2006, he resolved he had to do something different. He began to change his eating habits after contacting Dr. Esselstyn and reading “The China Study” by T. Colin Campbell, whose research also documented the value of plant-based diets.
“When Cary started Healthy Hearts I was the first one banging on the door,” he said. “I was really dodging bullets. I feel like I have been given a second chance. It’s not just a diet, it’s a lifestyle change. I don’t feel like I have heart disease.”
He is off prescription drugs, his cholesterol is below 100, his blood pressure is normal and he has lost weight. When he exceeded 13 minutes on a stress test, his doctor said, “People with heart disease don’t do 13 minutes on a stress test.”
“I eat all I want and I don’t count calories,” Thibodeau said, adding the program gave him the tools he needed to maintain a healthy lifestyle. He takes every chance he can get to spread the word.
So does Carol Pierson of Caribou. An August graduate of Healthy Hearts, she is now wearing size 12 clothes for the first time in eight years, and is eyeing size 10.
“My blood pressure is normal. I take no medication. I have so much energy. I feel better than ever before,” she said. “It has made a huge difference in my life. I feel 30 years younger.”
Like other advocates of the program, Pierson, 66, says she does not miss the foods she used to enjoy and is not uncomfortable around others eating them. “There’s a whole world of food out there,” she said. “I crave the foods I make. I never have that stuffed feeling and I can eat as much as I want.”
She also craves the 2-mile walk she takes daily, a distance she could not have endured a year ago. “It’s addictive. The day is not complete until I’ve had my walk.”
Occasionally, Pierson will run into fellow group member Vaughn Keaton in the grocery store and they will read labels together, exchanging recommendations for recipe ingredients. Group support is another benefit of the program that continues beyond the twelve weeks. Keaton, 62, who dropped from 243 pounds to 180, has taken cooking classes enabling him to prepare favorites, such as pizza, lasagna and chili, with substitutes for the unhealthy ingredients, to the surprise of others who can’t believe they are not eating cheese, meat or oil.
“It’s a mind-set,” he said. “People need to get educated. We’re going to end up losing a lot of our population if we don’t change our mind-set.”
Wesley Rankin changed his mind-set. “I thought I was overweight because I was a truck driver and didn’t exercise,” he said. Now he knows it was also the food he ate that not only added pounds but also clogged his blood vessels until he had a stroke, and then another stroke.
“I feel like somebody threw me a lifeline,” he said. “I thank Hope and the people who started the program. Without the program I wouldn’t be talking to you. It saved my life.”
For more information visit gohealthyhearts.com.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.