The Last Heart Attack — My Thoughts

Last year I had the privilege and and honor of being interviewed for CNN by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who visited our home along with his producer extraordinarie Danielle Dellorto and spent the better part of the afternoon hanging out with Julie and me to talk about my journey from an overweight couch potato to the plant-based endurance athlete I am today.

Sure, we talked about fitness.  Training for Ultraman.  How I got through EPIC5.  Over Julie’s gourmet plant-based lunch, we talked a lot about our families; stories about our children.  Then the subject turned to the subject of the hour.  

Food — in particular, plant-based nutrition.  Although not a vegan himself, I found the doctor curious.  Extremely open-minded.  Refreshingly anxious to learn more.  Maybe even give it a try himself.  You could almost see the wheels of his fertile mind turning as he mulled over the possibilities.

Then the subject turned to heart disease.  And food as preventative medicine.

I explained that the pivotal moment in my journey began on the eve of my fortieth birthday.  Fifty pounds overweight, I was winded, buckled over and almost passed out one night after a simple flight of stairs.  A moment in which I truly feared for my life.  What was most present in my mind were the words of my mom over the years: “Rich, you need to take care of yourself.  You know heart disease runs in the family.”  True enough, her father had passed away quite young – when she was still in college — from a heart attack.  And Richard Spindle was no couch potato.  Far from it in fact.  In the late 1920’s through the early 1930’s, he was one of the great swimmers of his day.  A peer of Johnny Weissmuller, my grandfather even held the national record in the 150 yard backstroke (yes that was a legitimate race back in the day).  He was captain of the University of Michigan Swimming Team — arguably the greatest college swim team of the era — under the tutelage of famed coach Matt Man.  And he missed making the 1928 Olympic Team by only a hair.  Throughout Dick Spindle’s later years, he remained very active and fit, continuing to swim in his beloved Lake Michigan.  Yet long before the days of fast food, GMO’s and high fructose corn syrup, he nevertheless passed away all too soon.  Just another victim of what has now become America’s #1 killer.

In so many ways, Richard Spindle isn’t just my namesake, he is my doppleganger.  A man who died long before I was born, and yet the person whose life has most informed my own.  If you look at his old U of M team photos that line the walls of the Matt Mann Natatorium in Ann Arbor, the resemblance is unmistakeable.  When you ignore the old sepia tone of the images, the wool body suits and just look at his face, it’s like seeing a ghost.  A twin brother from another age.  Had he been alive throughout my youth, I know we would have been close.  He would have loved following my own swimming career.  Yet due to heart disease, it was not to be.  But not a day goes by that I don’t feel his presence.  An angel that never leaves my side.  And keeps me focused on why I do what I do.

The death of her father at such a young age had a profound impact on my mother.  It’s the very reason why she encouraged me to swim at such a young age.  A means of keeping her father’s memory alive by infusing in me the passion that informed his life.  A love of the water that in many ways has defined who I am.  Today those old U of M swim team photos hang above my desk.  And Dick Spindle’s letterman blanket — a dark blue wooly drape with a block “M” in bold maize and his name in elegant cursive embroidery — rests on my bed.  Both gifts from my mother.  Daily reminders of where I came from.  Talismans to represent the rationale behind my decision to change my life.  And why I remain committed to this path of expanding the boundaries of health and fitness.

So that fateful night on the staircase, I had an epiphany.  I didn’t want to suffer my grandfather’s fate.  A fate I knew was almost certain if I did not change my ways.  Quickly and drastically.

That change took the shape of a plant-based diet.  And a passion for endurance sports that only continues to grow.

People often ask me — you are skinny and fit now.  Why not have a little fish or chicken?  What’s wrong with the Paleo Diet?  Setting aside issues of ethics and environmentalism, and focusing purely on health, the answer is simple.  I look at those old swim team photos of the grandfather I never met.  I think about the pain my mother suffered, deprived of her loving father when she was still so young.  And everything comes into perfect focus.  Because I cannot lose sight of the fact that the entire catalyst for this journey was to reverse and prevent the onset of heart disease.  And the evidence is compelling that a plant-based diet is the most optimal path for not only heart health, but the prevention of a litany of congenital maladies that plague our McDonald’s obsessed, GMO monopolized and over processed food culture.

So it was truly an honor to relate my story to the good doctor Gupta that day in October 2010.  And quite astounding, I must admit,  to see it air on CNN (click HERE to see the interview and a piece I wrote for CNN.com) — particularly from where I sat just a few years prior.  But by far the most gratifying thing to come out of that day was watching Sanjay’s special last week — The Last Heart Attack  (viewable in full length below).  A long form documentary in which he took our little discussion not just one step further.  But a bold and fearless leap forward, introducing what has become so instrumental in reshaping my own life to the most mainstream audience imaginable.  Exploring the scientific evidence behind the profound impact of a plant-based diet on the prevention and reversal of heart disease.  Interviews with Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, author of Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, as well as Dr. Dean Ornish.  And getting up close and very personal with people — from President Bill Clinton to the everyman — whose lives have been literally transformed — just as mine has — by this lifestyle recalibration.

No, I was not mentioned in the segment.  But I’d like to think that in some small way I planted a little seed in his brain that afternoon.  A seed that germinated into this fantastic documentary.  And which will undoubtedly bear fruit far beyond the parameters of my little story — taking shape in the form of many lives transformed.

The piece has aired and re-aired several times over the last week.  And has been so widely applauded and welcomed that CNN uploaded the entire documentary to its website before the conclusion of scheduled CNN cable broadcasts – from what I understand basically unheard of in cable news programming.  All evidence to support the beginnings of a paradigm shift.  And so I don’t just hope — I know — that our culture has the potential to massively rethink the way we look at the food we eat.  Take health into their own hands.  And heal ourselves.  True preventative medicine.

As Dr. Gupta sagaciously inquired on Twitter the other day: “100 years from now, looking back: what will be considered more radical — a plant-based diet or the typical american diet?”

It’s my mission to do everything I can to ensure it’s the latter.

If you want to learn more about how I eat and why, enter the word “beet” into the search window of this site to pull up relevant past blog posts.

And if you are ready to give it a try yourself, you can start by checking out our JAI SEED eCookbook– a 77-page digital download coffee table style cookbook for the iPad generation bursting with color and a wide array of very easy to prepare and delicious plant-based recipes certain to sate even the most distinguishing palate.