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Thursday, March 09, 2017, 7:20 AM 4:34 PM

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Heart Attack Leads to Hope, Better Quality of Life 

New program helps people reverse heart disease with healthy lifestyle changes

Elbert Eloriaga was on a red-eye flight to New York when he felt the worst heartburn of his life. He wasn’t too concerned, but his wife, Kenda, felt in her gut that something wasn’t right. She urged him to visit a nearby walk-in clinic. There a nurse ran an electrocardiogram (EKG) test and told him, “You’re having a massive heart attack.”

Like 580,000 Americans every year, Elbert had a heart attack for the first time. “I didn’t think it could happen to me,” he said. “I work out every day. I’m only 46.”


Change Your Life One Week at a Time

Elbert’s Aunt Gigi, a nurse at Saint Joseph Hospital, suggested he try intensive cardiac rehabilitation. A joint program of National Jewish Health and Saint Joseph Hospital, it helps people manage and even reverse their heart disease.

Based on Ornish Lifestyle Medicine™, the program is one of only three of its kind in Colorado and the only one in the city of Denver. Participants focus on four areas of lifestyle change: exercise, nutrition, group support and stress management.

Over a nine-week period, participants attend four-hour sessions twice a week. In each session, they spend an hour working out with a certified fitness instructor. They spend the next hour sharing their concerns, frustrations and successes. An hour of yoga and/or meditation follows. Each session ends with a heart-healthy meal.


Support Fuels Success

Elbert was part of the class that completed the program in April 2018. “Having a heart attack weakens you. It wears on your psyche. But this program has given me hope,” he said.

“The staff is amazing. They care and they are consummate professionals,” said Elbert. The clinic team includes cardiac specialists, certified fitness and yoga/meditation instructors, licensed therapists and registered dieticians.

Talking with others who are having the same doubts and struggles also played a vital role in his success. “The group support was worth its weight in gold for everyone in our group,” Elbert said. “A conversation can change your entire outlook and show you how you’re going to succeed.” He and his cardiac rehab classmates talk at least once a week.

“You need as much support as possible,” Elbert said. His wife, Kenda, has helped him by embracing the program herself. She meditates and eats the same low-fat, plant-based diet. “Elbert and I are a team,” said Kenda.

“It’s really hard to make these kinds of changes on your own,” she said. Support doesn’t have to be from a spouse, she explained. It can also come from a friend or family member committed to helping participants stick with the program.

Even with support, Elbert admits that a major lifestyle change isn’t easy. “The first or second week feels uncomfortable. After the second or third week, you want to be there,” he said. “I’ve seen military guys open up and do yoga. It’s amazing.” What started as a difficult change has become a lifelong commitment.


‘I know the program is working … I feel amazing’

“I’m doing this program for the rest of my life. I’ve got too many things I still want to do,” Elbert said. “I know the program is working because my body is changing and my lab results show it.” His score on a recent blood test that measures blood protein and inflammation dropped from 1.4 to 0.24. He has lost 25 pounds in addition to the 30 he shed before his heart attack.

Well before the weight loss, Kenda said she could see a change in her husband. “By Day 6, he started to become himself again,” she said. “He had more energy, seemed younger and had a better outlook. He started becoming the husband I had before.”

Kenda has also seen big changes. Her LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, dropped by 32 points in the first six weeks she was on the program. “I can fit into clothes from 15 years ago. People tell me, ‘You look amazing!’” In addition to looking and feeling younger than her 46 years, she said she also has better mental clarity and no longer has that daily afternoon lull.

Elbert also has more energy. “I feel amazing,” he said. “You give up meat, but you find substitutes for it.”  Meat alternatives from companies like Gardein® and Morningstar®, and great vegetarian restaurants make the transition easy, he explained. “When you know you’re doing it for your health, there’s an extra incentive. It’s worth it.”

Creativity and planning ahead are key to making the meal plan work, explained Kenda. “I took the flavor profiles of our favorite foods and incorporated them into our new diet,” she said. “The hardest part is knowing what to buy the first two weeks. Once you get it down, it’s like putting on an old shoe.”

For social events like barbecues, they plan ahead and bring heart-healthy options. They’ve even managed to help family members make healthier choices. “We don’t miss out on anything,” Kenda said. “We don’t feel deprived.”


Feel Better, Improve Quality of Life

Elbert knew his life would change after his heart attack. He just didn’t know how. Since starting the cardiac rehab program in February, he has continued to exercise. Group support, meditation and a low-fat, plant-based diet are all part of his new life. He said he feels healthier now than he did before his heart attack.

And though he and Kenda love the numbers they see in lab results and on the scale, Elbert said the program’s biggest payoff can’t be put in a chart. “The real value is in the quality of life you get.”