This is part 2 of a long post on why we do what we do. Here is part 1, Why We Eat Organic.
Jan Gets Sick
Fast forward a few more years. There were more and more organic options in regular supermarkets. Even though the premium that we payed for organic food was coming down a little, we still couldn’t afford to go 100% organic. As long as we eat clean, we told ourselves. That will do until the prices come down and we can afford to eat organic all of the time.
Jan started having aches and pains, then the pain moved up several notches until it could be considered chronic. She went to several doctors, all of them telling her that they couldn’t find any reason for the pain. Actually, because we were self-employed and self-insured, what we heard more often than not was “I can’t find any reason for the pain, that will be $200.”
I’m sure some of the doctors thought she was just trying to get pain meds, but in fact she was hoping to get answers. She was scared. This went on for a few years, then one morning she woke up and both of her knees were swollen so much that they were the size of volleyballs, and she was in such bad pain that I called an ambulance to take her to the emergency room. Taking her myself was out of the question, because she couldn’t bend her knees enough to get into a sitting position. She was taken out on a stretcher, crying and afraid for her life.
I held her hand and told her everything was going to be alright, that we were going to figure this out no matter what it was. A few hours later the emergency room doctor came back with the test results.
The Verdict Is In
“You have an autoimmune disease. That’s what is causing the pain, your immune system is attacking your body.”
We asked a few questions, relief that we finally had a clear enemy to fight against, a name to put to whatever it was that had caused Jan so much pain for the last few years.
“Unfortunately, the tests that I’m able to run here are very broad. It could be one of over twenty different autoimmune diseases. My guess is that it is either lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. You’ll need to see a rheumatologist to find out exactly which autoimmune you have.”
We were to find out that almost all of the rheumatologists within a hundred miles of us were booked up solid for six months, but the emergency room doctor knew of someone who had just opened his practice and gave us his information. The next day, a Monday, we called and made the appointment.
Our Life Changes
“You have rheumatoid arthritis.” We liked Jan’s new specialist. He seemed confident that he could prescribe the right mix of medications to help her feel normal. Then he said something that would drastically change everything.
“You’ll feel normal, but you won’t be normal. You may have to make some lifestyle changes to accommodate the immune suppressant, which is very powerful. What do you do for a living?”
We’d opened a wine and cheese shop a few years before, and after all of our hard work it had become one of the more popular destinations in town. To say that we spent most of our time there is a gross understatement, as we were working a combined 150 to 160 hours a week between the two of us. We loved it, and loved seeing our regular customers a few times a week. The grumpiest stranger could walk into our shop, and after a few minutes with Jan would walk out with several wedges of cheese, a baguette and/or a bottle of wine, and a huge smile on their face.
The doctor looked at Jan. “You can’t be around a lot of people or handle money, because the immune suppressants are effectively going to shut down your over-active immune system. You could get sick and die.”
Then he looked at me. “Will, you can’t be around a lot of people or handle money either, because you’ll bring those same germs home to Jan.”
I was ready to lock the doors and walk away. We were just told that Jan’s life hung in the balance, and we weren’t going to take any chances. One of our friends owned a small boutique in town, and convinced me to keep the doors open long enough to find a buyer. In the meantime I took every precaution I could, practically bathing in anti-bacterial lotion before coming home at night. A few weeks later our friend came through with a buyer, and we sold the business for pennies on the dollar.
It Gets Worse
The medications made Jan deathly ill. In addition to the immune suppressant, she was also on steroids and a low dose of methotrexate, a chemotherapy drug given to cancer patients. She was nauseous all of the time. Her hair began to fall out. She considered suicide.
It was all I could do to keep her spirits up enough for her to fight, to convince her that we were going to beat this. A year went by, and she started having dizzy spells, then full on vertigo. She had trouble moving around our house without my help. She could only walk by holding on to me for support. I found out a few months later that she occasionally fell during the day when I was at work. We went back to her rheumatologist, who offered to give her medication for the vertigo but could otherwise offer no explanation for its cause.
Sometimes she would spend her entire day in bed. She was angry, and although grateful that I was in good health, she could not understand why fate had dealt such a cruel blow to her. Where I could be perfectly happy eating a burger and fries for lunch every day, Jan had practically lived on salads for most of her life. She felt like she was being punished for having good habits. We began to suspect that years of eating non-organic salads had loaded her body with residue from pesticides. We suspected that the pesticides might have been the trigger that caused the autoimmune disease.
Light At The End Of The Tunnel
One Saturday evening I was searching for something to watch on Netflix, anything to keep my mind away from the terrible day we’d had. Jan was in bed, and in fact had been there all day because she just couldn’t see the point of getting up. We weren’t getting along. I knew it was because of the illness, but that only made it a little easier. As I was flipping around the screen a documentary caught my eye, and I hit play.
The title was irresistible. Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead was the story of Joe Cross, an Australian stockbroker with an autoimmune disease who changed his diet and regained his health. I watched the movie from start to finish, then went into the bedroom to insist that Jan come out and watch it with me. The message made sense, and with new resolve we vowed to eat healthier and beat Jan’s illness, focusing not only on organic, but mostly plant-based as well. We saw the light at the end of the tunnel, but we still had a long way to go.
A few weeks later, after getting serious about eating more vegetables and making sure most of them were organic, we were watching a different movie. It was a Saturday night, and when the movie was over Jan, who had been watching in a prone position at the other end of the sofa, reached out to me so that I could help her sit up. She immediately leaned forward, in a sort of upright fetal position.
“What’s wrong, baby? Did you have a spasm?” She didn’t answer, but a few seconds later she leaned back with a dazed look on her face.
“Do you want to catch your breath before I help you to bed?” She still didn’t answer, and I knew something was wrong. I grabbed my cell phone and held it in front of her face.
“Jan, you’re scaring me. Say something, or I’m calling 911.” She didn’t respond, so I dialed the number.
“911, what is your emergency?”
“I think my wife is having a stroke.” I told the dispatcher how she was behaving, and he let me know that he had an ambulance rolling.
If you’ve read this far what I’m about to say next may seem strange, but…
We were lucky.
We were lucky because Jan had been going to sleep at about 9 pm every night, and this night she stayed up later to finish the movie. If she’d gone to bed at her regular time she would have had the stroke in her sleep, and I wouldn’t have known what was going on until it was too late to help her.
We were lucky because the ambulance was coming back empty from another call, and was literally about one minute from our house when I called 911.
We were lucky because after several years of resisting, I caved in and bought a smart phone. While the paramedics were giving Jan’s vitals to the emergency room doctor, I was on my phone Googling “Stroke treatment.” That’s when I learned about tPA, a blood thinner.
We were lucky because she had a clot instead of a leak, so she was a candidate for the tPA.
At this point fate pushed the pause button on our good luck. We had a different emergency room doctor than the first time, and although they weren’t that busy, he was reluctant to administer the tPA.
What I had managed to read about this particular stroke treatment was that patients receiving this blood thinner within the first three hours of the stroke had a 33% chance of making a full recovery. Anything after that and your chance of a full recovery is greatly diminished. Even though Jan had her stroke at almost exactly 10 pm, I built in a half hour cushion and told the doctor that her stroke happened at 9:30 pm, and we had until 12:30 am to administer the treatment.
“You know,” he said, “I’ve seen studies that say patients can have the treatment within 5 hours of the stroke.”
Me: “Show me those studies and I’ll think about it. Otherwise, she’s getting it now.”
Doctor: “Well, hold on, we have to get a CAT scan to make sure that she doesn’t have a hemorrhage.”
Me: “What are we waiting for? Where’s the CAT scan machine? I’ll wheel her in myself!” I could feel that I was moments away from shouting.
He promised me that she would have her CAT scan in a few minutes, and about twenty minutes later he finally made good on his promise.
In the meantime I learned that she was going to be transferred to another hospital that was about 45 minutes away, because our local hospital didn’t have a neurologist on duty that night. The doctor kept insisting that she get the tPA at the other hospital, and I kept insisting that we do it before the 12:30 am deadline.
It was now 12:15 am.
Then our streak of good luck began again.
That Never Happens
Five minutes later two nurses walked into the exam room.
Nurse #1: “I can’t believe we’re administering tPA! We’ve never done that here!”
Nurse #2: “Oh, in Corpus Christi we did it all the time.”
Nurse #2 had just transferred to our local hospital two weeks before Jan had her stroke. She administered the tPA at exactly 12:20 am, two hours and twenty minutes after Jan first had the stroke, well within the recommended three hour window. Fifteen minutes later Jan was wheeled out to another ambulance, and about three and a half hours after the stroke she was checked into a different hospital.
As soon as they put her in the ambulance I drove home and packed an overnight bag for Jan. I’d done everything I knew how to do, and her care and her future was now in the hands of people that I hadn’t met yet. I packed a few nightgowns and some magazines. I grabbed all of her medications because I knew the doctors and nurses at the new hospital would want to know what she was taking. I packed her hairbrush and toothbrush, and made sure that our dogs went to the bathroom and had plenty of food and water because I didn’t know how long I would be gone. I got to the hospital at 3 am, the heels of my shoes announcing my presence long before I got to the end of the long hallway in the stroke ward.
The night nurse asked me if I was Jan’s husband, and when I said yes she assured me that Jan was resting comfortably and wanted to know if I could answer a few questions. She grabbed Jan’s chart and gave it a quick glance, then looked up at me, shocked.
“She got tPA?! That never happens at that hospital!”
Road To Recovery
About 10 am that morning, twelve hours after the stroke, Jan looked up at me and asked,
“What the hell am I doing in the hospital?!”
“You had a stroke baby.” I choked up. A lot.
“You’re going to be okay.”
Jan almost immediately went back to sleep, passed out, really, and the nurse assured me that it was normal, and that she was in fact going to be okay. Everyone on the stroke ward was a rock star, from the newest nurse to the most experienced doctor on staff. Jan could not have been in better hands.
Three days later she was back home. After all of the tests, the cat scans and the EEGs showing no damage to the brain, the neurologists (there were at least two) were shocked at her recovery and couldn’t find an exact reason for the stroke, although they conceded that the inflammation that rheumatoid arthritis patients deal with could have affected the blood vessels in her brain, causing them to contract enough to cause the stroke. They also mentioned to us that rheumatoid arthritis patients have a 40% higher chance of stroke and a 50% higher chance of a heart attack. This was information that our rheumatologist did not share with us, and it’s likely that it’s information that he did not even know.
For a few weeks she would forget the names of things, simple words like “hat” and “coffee cup,” but once reminded of the word she would not forget it again. She made a full recovery. The vertigo was gone. To this day I think, at least in Jan’s case, the vertigo was the canary in the coal mine that warned us of the impending stroke.
Jan had a renewed determination to regain her health. Money had been incredibly tight since we sold the business, but we decided that spending extra at the grocery store to get organic food would save money on medical bills down the road. So far we have been right, and we have no intention of buying non-organic again.
Jan is healthier today than when she first started experiencing pain, a few years before she got diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. She still has pain, but it’s manageable.
Eating organic isn’t a fad for us. We aren’t perfect by any means, and I’ll be the first to admit that I have a few unhealthy habits that I need to work on, but we are firm believers that you are what you eat, that we as human beings aren’t meant to eat pesticides and fungicides, tricalcium phosphate or silicon dioxide. We are meant to eat the same food that human beings have eaten for all of the last thousand years or so, minus the last hundred.
So that’s why we eat organic. That’s why we think everyone should eat organic. That’s why we hope that if you’re reading this, and you aren’t currently eating organic, you’ll start.
Thank you for reading our story.