Heart failure

How a woman reversed heart failure in her 80s

With her health rapidly declining due to congestive heart failure, doctors told Millie Donahue, 80, to get her house in order. But today, at 91, she leads an active and 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 Scarborough, Maine resident, then 80, often felt tired and cold, with her ankles swelling at random times. But one day, when her daughter, Meg, picked her up for shopping, Millie suddenly felt short of breath and had chest pains. “We’re going to the hospital,” Meg said as Millie slumped in her seat.

Tests showed Millie had congestive heart failure, a condition that occurs when the the heart can’t pump Like it should be. 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 running out.

“It’s your new normal; you will have to deal with 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 “cardiac ejection fraction” rate – the measure of how much blood the left ventricle pumps with each contraction – was under 10%, dangerously lower than a normal rate of 50-75%. With Millie too weak for surgery, doctors told Meg to arrange end-of-life care. It won’t happen, Meg thought.

Millie’s Miracle Cure

Desperate for help, Meg began to do her own research and came across a book by Caldwell Esselstyn Jr, MD, Preventing and Reversing Heart Disease, about the benefits of a plant-based diet. Filled with green vegetables, legumes, brown rice and fruits, 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 within two months Millie was feeling a bit stronger, sitting up and heading to the bathroom with the help of support bars. Meg then started making solid meals, like bean chili and vegetable stir-fries.

With each passing week, Millie miraculously improved. After three months, her blood pressure dropped and her medication was reduced. By six months, she could walk around the aisle and was able to hold her little baby.

On the first anniversary of her time at the factory, Millie was driving again and going to the swimming pool three times a week. Today, at 91, his cardiac ejection fraction is at a normal rate of 56%. 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,” says Millie. “At 80, I didn’t think I would get better. Today, at 91, I have no aches or pains and I am enjoying life to the fullest. Life passes quickly. I am grateful to be able to enjoy it!

The Amazing Cardiac Benefits of Plant-Based Diets

A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts improves heart health in several ways, says Saray Stancic, MD, nutritional medicine expert who eats plant-based herself. “It will lower total cholesterol by up to 30%, which is on par with medications,” she says. “It also lowers blood pressure and blood sugar, helps control weight, and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease by 40 percent.” Credit the fiber and powerful antioxidants these foods provide. Plus, it’s accessible to everyone and it’s never too late to take advantage of it, she says, adding that the diet can even reverse heart disease.

For free courses and tips on plant-based eating, visit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

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