“I had what I thought was a healthy lifestyle. I’ve never been a smoker, I’ve always done my yoga and meditation and sport but, in actual fact, I was having all the wrong food and I didn’t know it.”
Seven years ago, when Ross Garrick began to experience chest pain as he mountain biked around west Auckland’s Waitakere Ranges, he knew something wasn’t right. His doctor, though, was quite confident about his condition. “You’re too fit,” he told him, “it won’t be a heart issue.”
But he continued to have the same pain with exercise, and it was worse at night. “Penny, my partner, encouraged me to go back to the GP, which I did. He ran an ECG test and sent me straight to the hospital! Tests there showed I had had a mild heart attack and a 50 per cent restriction, but it was in a position that was impossible to stent. I was discharged to be managed medically.”
“As I left, a young doctor said, ‘you’ll be back with a major heart attack’. My thought was ‘like hell I will.’ I didn’t know what I was going to do, but that wasn’t an option. It was three weeks away from our wedding day, and I had too much ahead of me.”
Ross had periodically visited Functional Medicine practitioner Dr Kamal Karl, so he returned to him for help. For Dr Karl, food is the foundation of good health, so it was no surprise that he recommended Ross read Dr Caldwell Esselstyn’s book Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease.
“He said, ‘I don’t recommend this to many patients, but I know you will be able to do this’. I got the book and went cold turkey into whole food plant-based eating – fully SOS (no salt, oil, sugar), or alcohol. It took a couple of weeks to think about it, but I thought, well, this makes sense to me, and I don’t have any other options.
I wanted to enjoy life
“I was just about to marry Penny, and I’m in the last quarter of my life, and I wanted to enjoy it. So, why wouldn’t I give it a go? So I did. I felt better immediately, not only physically but from the point of view of having a bit of control really. And, rather than being a victim of the medical system which just says ‘take these pills, you’ll get some nasty side effects and won’t actually cure anything’ – basically, you’re on the heap.
“Since then, I have read widely and tend to live by Dr. Dean Ornish’s more holistic model of lifestyle as well. I mountain bike, practice Yoga, walk, ride my motorbike, do regular gym sessions and over the past six months, I have added ocean swimming to my activities.
“I also practice meditation, am involved in community work and am building on my spiritual faith. Over the past seven years, I have been a patient of Dr Mark Craig and had help and advice from Dr Luke Wilson and Katherine Matthews (Nutritionist/Naturopath) and Dr Malcolm Mackay and Jenny Cameron from Melbourne. Penny and I are members of the Auckland Plant Pod.
“My blood results have been excellent; cholesterol has gone from 5 + to a 3.2 – 3.4 range with LDL 1.2 – 1.7 on average. I am nearly 73 years old, have plenty of energy, sleep well, never get sick, and I have not had Covid. They sent me out of the hospital with a whole lot of medication, and I gave that away very, very quickly, and I haven’t been on any medication since.
While Ross’s personal dedication to WFPB is clear, he says his focus would never have been as strong or as successful if not for Penny’s constant support.
“I’ve had fantastic support in making this change from Penny with her wonderful meals and moral support. Penny’s family history includes many serious heart attacks and strokes but our whole food plant-based life has turned around her risk of adding to this toll.”
By nature, Ross has always pursued health. He was vegetarian for 25 years but he did have a huge amount of stress. His first wife was in and out of hospital for 30 years. To some extent, he believes, his heart condition may have been related to this.
“I don’t know for sure, but that’s what I put it down to – bouts of high blood pressure, not being aware of it through stress. That will do as much damage as a poor diet. But, by improving my diet so much, even though I was already (in inverted commas) on a good diet, I was still having meat, cheese, all the dairy, chocolate, ice cream, and alcohol. Everything that everybody else has. Knocking all of that off mitigated a lot of the stress on the body anyway.”
Then the blood tests began to improve, and with it came a big boost in confidence.
“When I started on this, I didn’t know anybody else on this diet. And a few people said, ah you know, vegans are very unhealthy. Everybody was saying you should be eating some meat – all that normal stuff. My approach as a person, I like to have all my ducks in a row.
“Being an engineer, I like to have all the information. I’ve probably bought 30 or 40 books over the years, and I’ve read every one of them plus every little bit of information I could find, just to keep giving me confidence. Every time I read something like that, it reiterates that I’m on the right path.
“I’m a person that has a lot of self-doubt, but I’ve made progress now and, well, I never get sick from one year to the next, and I’m nearly 73. A lot of my friends of the same age have got numerous illnesses, and they’re on six or seven drugs.”
These days, Ross says he deliberately tries not to say too much when people of around his own age are suffering from ill health, and he admits to being something of a zealot in this area in the past.
“People would say something, and I would say, ‘give up the dairy. Start with the dairy because that’s the worst, in my view. But people don’t want to do it. Honestly, they would rather face the consequences – or they think they would until the consequences come in actual fact.
“Unless they’ve got something going on in a big way, they’re not really interested. They think they will get away with it, and a lot of people do. But it does amaze me that some people just carry on boozing away and eating all the wrong foods and sort of getting by, but I think they’re not really alive. They’ve limited their life without realising it, but I can keep up with anybody, really, and it’s because of my diet.”
Ross doesn’t deliberately go out of his way to prove himself to anyone else, but he isn’t afraid to turn his hand to anything that requires more than the usual level of fitness for a man his age.
Keeping the fitness up
“I’ve done a bit of building work around here. I worked for a builder for nine weeks, building a penthouse on top of a building in the middle of winter. I could keep up with those guys like I was a 30-year-old. I’m not exaggerating; it’s just due to my health and general fitness, I’m sure of it.
“I could work as hard as they could all day long, still had heaps of energy, and I put it down to the diet. I do 15 hours of exercise a week. I don’t get ridiculous about it, and some days, I don’t go at all, but I can power up the Pakiri hill on my push bike. I can swim a couple of kilometres in the ocean, and I put that down to my general health.
“It’s an old body, but it’s getting everything it needs; it’s performing well, and I’m absolutely positive it’s the diet.”
Looking back on it all, Ross likens his experience to that of Grant Dixon (p.20 Winter ‘22) before his heart event.
“I had what I thought was a healthy lifestyle. I’ve never been a smoker; I’ve always done my yoga, meditation, and sport, but, in actual fact, I was having all the wrong food, and I didn’t know it.”
“Nobody told me when we were eating a lot of meat and eating all that cheese and ice cream and stuff that you have. It’s not good for you. I was quite astounded when I looked at it, particularly after reading Dr Caldwell Esselstyn’s book which I think is a fantastic place for anybody to start.
“He’s very strict, but he produces the results. The facts are the facts, but he managed to help all those people – most of who had had multiple heart surgeries – pretty incredible statistics.”
Ross and Penny keep refining their diet, and occasionally, Ross says, he can fall off the wagon, “not in a big way but maybe with a bit too much sugar.” The secret, as he sees it, is constant motivation to keep learning along with the excellent advice he receives from plant-based doctors, reading the books they produce and, of course, Penny’s fantastic kitchen creations.