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Growing up, illness was always a part of my life. Every time I was bottle-fed, I would cry. My mother thought it was colic but when my cries grew louder and stronger, she took me to the doctor. He fed me whole milk and my entire body became covered in giant, red hives. I was allergic to cow’s milk, so I was switched to a soy-based infant formula. When I was 2 years old, I contracted a virus that put me in the hospital for weeks, hooked up to IVs in my arms and legs. Many of my childhood days were spent in bed under a sheet-made tent filled with vaporizer steam to help the croup I got repeatedly. My cough was so bad, my father said I sounded like “a dog barking.” Doctors made house calls back then and it felt like mine was always there with his black bag of medicines and syringes, visiting more often than friends or relatives did.
It feels like I grew up in doctors’ offices and hospitals. My mother began working in a hospital when I was 3 years old and I often spent time after school there, doing my homework in the radiology waiting room. She suffered from allergies, asthma, and skin conditions that took her from one doctor’s appointment to another. My father and grandfather were admitted numerous times for various illnesses and I was the one to sit at their bedsides. Between the ages of eight and ten, I was hospitalized four times for serious kidney and urinary tract infections and was put on a salt-free diet for a while. Stomach pains led to a diagnosis of colitis. I grew up in a dysfunctional, abusive home, so I also suffered from stress and headaches. Between these ailments and my recurrent respiratory infections, I missed more school than I attended. In 8th grade, I actually missed 86 days of school! There were always bottles of cough medicines and antibiotics mingling with my flavored, chewable vitamins.
There was also always food to comfort me, like my mother’s delicious chicken soup with matzo balls. I was a meat lover – steak, burgers, lamb, and chicken. My only vegetables were potatoes, peas, and salad. I was also an “animal lover” but the connection between the animals I petted and the ones on my plate was lost on me. Luckily, I have never had a sweet tooth so cakes, cookies, and ice cream were not temptations for me. But when we went out to a restaurant for sundaes, I ordered the fried chicken dinner instead. I craved salty and fatty foods like potato chips and anything fried. My weight was steadily increasing and my parents took me to Weight Watchers at age 13 after my freshman homeroom teacher suggested I lose weight. I lost 40 pounds that summer and returned to high school a happier, more outgoing sophomore. However, I continued to have chronic bronchitis, asthma, and stomach problems.
My college years were my happiest because a busy schedule kept me away from home more often. I had two majors, biology and psychology, I was pre-med, and had two part-time jobs. My stomach pains worsened and a gastroenterologist diagnosed me with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and advised me to relax as I was on the verge of developing an ulcer. He gave me an anti-anxiety medication but I didn’t take it. I didn’t like the idea of taking medication; little did I know what my future held for me. In my second year of college, during an appointment for bronchitis, my doctor discovered a lump in my neck. I had two rounds of biopsies that both returned “inconclusive.” The endocrinologist started me on thyroid medicine but the mass continued to grow rapidly. Suspecting it was malignant, they removed half the gland. It turned out benign but I would need to take a thyroid supplement for the rest of my life.
In 1999, I became very ill with an autoimmune disorder that presented with a horrible array of symptoms, made worse by their visibility on my body. I was covered with huge hives and welts that no medicine could calm. My eyes, lips, and joint tissues swelled to the point that I was actually sent home from work because I was too deformed to look at. My hair was falling out. I was so fatigued I couldn’t walk my dog around the block. Doctors did test after test and prescribed one medication after another, but nothing helped and they had no answers. I was put on mega-doses of hydroxyzine which only succeeded in knocking me out. Feeling alone and helpless, I turned to the Internet and found a Support group for people with similar symptoms. They suggested taking Lysine in high doses and avoiding foods with MSG, artificial colors, and preservatives and that helped more than any medication had. Tests finally showed I had a gamma-globulin deficiency (inherited from my mother) which made me more susceptible to illnesses and would increase my healing time. I had to change jobs because I could no longer handle the commute to work. Massive doses of steroids finally helped the hives and most of the swelling.
Then, I began having horrible headaches I assumed were migraines. They turned out to be from my blood pressure which was soaring at about 220/120. My doctor put me on medication, then another medication. Then a few more. Feeling old and scared, I once again turned to Weight Watchers. I went to a meeting near my new job in Tribeca. The leader was wonderful. She was fun, used psychology (a big plus with me) and made us sing happy songs at the end of the meetings (“…when you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you.”) I made zero-point vegetable soup and had a loss every single week! My routine was comforting and exciting. I would teach class, then walk to my WW meeting on Liberty St., and pick up another ribbon or star for my success. Then I would head to the Au Bon Pain stand in the World Trade Center and eat my vegetable soup outside in the Plaza in front of the Twin Towers. I lost 50 pounds in 3 and ½ months. On 9/11, the building where my meetings were held was destroyed and I quit again. I tried another meeting in another place but it wasn’t the same. Nothing was the same after that tragic day. Gradually, I put the weight back on.
The years went by with me proclaiming my love of animals while I continued to eat them and gain weight. Fast forward and I am 268 pounds with a host of medical problems and a dozen prescription and OTC medications in my drawer – Nexium, Prevecid, Singulair, Micardis, Asmacort, Mucinex, Immodium, Correctol and more. “I wish I could be a vegetarian but I love chicken too much. I could never give up chicken.” That was my mantra but my world was about to hit rock bottom.
My husband, Tom, (boyfriend at the time) and I started Weight Watchers together to lose weight. Several weeks into the program, I herniated a disk in my back and ended up immobile, on the couch and out of work for over a year. My chronic bronchitis transformed into recurrent bouts of pneumonia that required multiple rounds of high-dose antibiotics. In the span of a few months, I lost my 14 year old dog, Poochie, to cancer as well as what remained of my family. Depressed and in pain, I lay on the couch watching television. Deprived of my usual fattening, comfort foods, I started watching food and cooking shows on The Food Network, The Travel Channel and other local stations. I became a huge Rachael Ray fan, likening her personality to the potential of mine, when not plagued with personal loss. For hours a day, I would watch cooking shows and attempt to “Weight Watcherize” the recipes in order to stay on program. I started ordering Cookbooks and cooking magazines. I was watching food, reading food and thinking food every waking hour.
Health became a concern as I read about high-fructose corn syrup, artificial preservatives and MSG and I cleaned out the refrigerator and the pantry of anything that contained these items. We had nothing left in the house. It was amazing how these toxins had infiltrated their way into almost everything. I also began reading about dogs and cancer, how over 50% of dogs and cats die from cancer and that this was not true years ago. Having lost Poochie to cancer and being involved with the wonderful organization Canine Cancer Awareness, I read about what actually goes into pet food and was horrified. Then realized what goes into us and was even further horrified. Reducing our meat consumption was starting to sound like a good idea.
Then I found Christina Pirello of the TV cooking show “Christina Cooks.” She showed how to “makeover” favorite foods without meat, without dairy, without refined flours or sugars, without cholesterol or saturated fat and I was in awe of her. I bought her books, I watched her religiously, I wanted to be her. She mentioned the word “vegan” but I was not there yet, I was not aware enough for it to register. Even though I had always wanted to be a vegetarian. Even though I loved animals, my food addiction and denial got in the way. I suggested to Tom that we have a few meatless days each week, to which he agreed. I learned how to cook delicious vegetarian meals and realized that the “side dishes” were always my favorites anyway. Lucky for me, I loved vegetables and salad was always a requirement with dinner. With a few vegetarian days each week, my diet was back on track; then I ate meat and felt sick again. The final hammer was about to come down.
After doing some internet surfing, I requested vegetarian starter kits from PETA, Vegan Outreach and Compassion Over Killing. Then I watched the video, “Meet Your Meat.” I cried throughout the whole thing and swore I would never be a part of that suffering again. When my husband came home, I made him watch it and he cried too. We began the journey together and became vegetarians. Little did I know, there was so much more for us to do. I read several books that changed my outlook: “Diet for a New America” by John Robbins, “The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter” by Peter Singer and Jim Mason and “Breaking the Food Seduction” by Dr. Neal Barnard. I learned it was not enough to give up meat; the dairy and egg industry caused even more suffering. We stopped buying dairy products and replaced them with non-dairy alternatives. This was hard for me because I was used to buying low fat and non-fat items for my diet. Non-dairy alternatives did not use these labels and seemed to have more calories but I soon learned the benefits of the non-dairy alternatives. Eggs were the hardest thing for me to give up. I was used to my “healthy” egg white spinach omelet for breakfast and I did not like tofu yet but the sting of hypocrisy was too harsh to ignore and the eggs were soon gone too. I became a proud vegan!
With meat, dairy and eggs out my diet, my symptoms began to disappear. My post-nasal drip was gone, my allergies subsided, my sinuses cleared up and my digestive system was renewed. I haven’t had a case of bronchitis or pneumonia since. Even with my immune deficiency, I have barely had a cold. Even my perimenopausal symptoms such as hot flashes have improved. I have more energy than I have in years. One by one, I stopped taking all of my medications.
After learning about autoimmune disorders and inflammation, I started eating a gluten-free diet. This cut out a lot of the processed, convenient vegan foods. I now eat a more whole-foods vegan diet and I feel so much better. My autoimmune disorders still flare up but when they do, the symptoms are not as severe and last a much shorter time. My blood tests show that all my numbers are completely normal!
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