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At the age of 80, Millie Donahue’s heart was failing so severely that doctors had run out of treatment options—hospice care was their only recommendation. But a loving family and a whole-food, plant-based diet turned things around and today, at 89, Millie is going strong and living a full life.
“It was very touch and go,” recalls her daughter Meg. A mother of five, Millie is an independent woman, and despite a diagnosis of congestive heart failure in 2010, insisted on living alone. As the deterioration of her health continued, so did her reluctance to move in with one of her children.
Then, after months of hospitalizations, things changed. Millie’s ejection fraction—a measurement of how well the heart is pumping blood—dropped to 10 percent, which doctors consider a point of no return. (A normal ejection fraction is between 55 and 70 percent.)
Starting the Road to Recovery
Just as her mother was at her worst, Meg, at the age of 49, gave birth to a daughter, three months before the due date. With her premature baby in intensive care and her mother in the hospital, Meg had her garage renovated into a separate apartment for her mom, and brought both mom and daughter home.
That’s when the real work started. Millie had many prescriptions. “I needed a spreadsheet to keep track of the drugs,” says Meg, and she started researching what could be done to restore her mother’s health.
“I looked for who had survived this level of heart failure,” she says, and discovered promising nutritional regimens. After trying various approaches, she found one that worked: a plant-based diet designed by Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., MD, described in his book, Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease.
Using recipes in the book, Meg transformed the way the whole family ate. And slowly, her mother started to regain her health and brought her heart function up to the low end of normal, with an ejection fraction of 55—enough of an improvement that doctors reduced the dosages of some of her medications and took her off others altogether.
For the first few months after leaving the hospital, Millie was very ill. She needed food that didn’t require more than 5–10 seconds to chew, was easy to digest, was very rich in nutrients, and provided a lot of energy in a small serving.
“Anything that wasn’t a small size was really overwhelming to her and she didn’t want to eat it,” says Meg. “That happens when people get sick and they stop eating.” Lack of appetite was another problem, and foods with some natural sweetness were more appealing.
Some staples that helped Millie recover included a small bowl of squash soup with hemp seeds, smoothies, and small salads served on small plates. Salads included a lot of greens and other brightly colored vegetables, with some chopped pears or dates, tossed with
avocado and garlic. Salad ingredients were finely chopped into pieces no bigger than one-quarter inch.
Smoothies included almond milk; cacao powder; banana; hemp, flax, and chia seeds; and a little date syrup. “It would feel sweet and cool in the throat,” says Meg, “and she could have a cup of it and get in 400 or 500 calories.”
Meg adds: “It helps if you have loving people around you.” And as Millie got stronger, she was able to hold and play with her granddaughter, who also helped give her a new lease on life.
Doctors Were Surprised
Millie’s doctors couldn’t believe her improvement and asked her what she was doing. But despite witnessing her dramatic recovery, local doctors weren’t sold on her diet. They considered the results anecdotal, rather than scientific, and it seemed too hard for most people to follow. “Sure, compliance is a hurdle,” says Meg. But it can save your life. To help others follow this path to wellness, Meg has cofounded a company that delivers plant-based meals, Mama Sezz.
Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease: The Revolutionary, Scientifically Proven,
Nutrition-Based Cure by Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., MD
The Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease Cookbook: Over 125 Delicious, Life-Changing, Plant-Based Recipes by Ann Crile Esselstyn and Jane Esselstyn