On August 13, my beloved father decidedly took his last breath. There is so much I could share about his life journey (like having assisted Jacques Cousteau for two weeks while serving in the Navy as a hard hat deep sea diver), but for the purposes of this blog, I will keep it focused on the amazing healing power of food, a direct extension of universal love.
My commitment to become a nutritionist happened just before my father underwent an emergency double-bypass surgery at the young age of 48. To increase my chances of being accepted into UC Berkeley’s Nutrition and Clinical Dietetics Program and his chances at living a longer life, I voluntarily led a county-wide nutrition education program for the American Heart Association. I quickly became aware of the importance of a ‘heart healthy’ diet and gave him a copy of Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease. Admitted into the nutrition program, my education was furthered through my studies and practice with cardiac patients in various hospital settings.
But there were unexpected challenges. For example, I will never forget having ten minutes to educate a 65 year old man about how to change a lifetime of eating habits while he lay in his hospital bed after having a triple-bypass.
“Can I have an omelette with sausage and hash browns on Sundays after church?” he asked.
“Once in a while,” I answered.
“What about a hot dog and beer when I’m at the baseball game?” he continued. “And what about cake and ice cream at my grandson’s birthday party?”
While this was a completely understandable line of inquiry, the experience I had with my father was significantly different. He had a fierce will to live and was more than willing to make whatever changes were necessary to allow him ‘to see more things during his life.’ (Access to a nascent nutritionist and a wife who was willing to cook food differently than before were also tremendous assets!) I believe that ‘we do what we want most,’ an insight that seems to ring true no matter the subject. In my father’s case, he wanted to live more than he wanted to enjoy his standard Big Mac and Filet-o-Fish Sandwich with fries and Coke at McDonald’s. He wanted to attend his grandsons’ birthdays more than he wanted birthday cake with ice cream at their parties. He wanted to know he was doing the best for himself (and us) more than he wanted to participate in nostalgia by bringing his own snacks to sporting events rather than indulge in the fan faire.
Witnessing the huge changes and challenges one faces when confronted with a chronic disease clarified my desire to focus upon prevention rather than treatment and to reach as many people as possible. I next pursued a Master’s Degree in Public Health Nutrition, also at UC Berkeley. Alongside my studies, I worked as a nutrition researcher for Project LEAN (Lowfat Eating for Americans Now), a grocery store education program intended to influence consumers to purchase lean cuts of meat. At the time, it fit my perspective of moving the public towards ‘heart healthy’ diets. But I remember one of my colleagues teasing me with a scornful tone that I was working for ‘that meat project.’ Indeed, it was a program funded by the California Beef Council. In my professional immaturity, I hadn’t quite grasped the political and financial undertones of the program.
As I often repeat, we are in a dynamic and life-long relationship with food. And, we can only make the best decision possible with the information and experience we have at the time. Well, I next attended Holy Names College in Oakland, California, to study Culture and Creation Spirituality. Pregnant with my first child during that time (1996), I served as a living example of concepts central to the program: creativity, transformation, and compassion. During one of our class meditations, I had an image of being pregnant with the earth which (long story short) propelled me into adopting a plant-based diet.
Of course, I shared my new perspective on food with my parents and they, too, began to adopt more plant-based meals. Soon after, a dear friend told me about JuicePlus+. It was a bit shocking to her that I wasn’t familiar with the product, but it made sense since the company doesn’t use traditional forms of advertisement. After doing loads of my own research, I enthusiastically ordered the supplements for my own family and encouraged my parents to do the same. They did and we never stopped. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that taking JuicePlus+ every day for the last 15 years helped extend and improve upon his life. He even took his supplements the night before he died (and probably that morning, too). He was, indeed, committed to the things he knew were helping him!
Fast forward to 2017, my father was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and given three to six months to live. My mother’s health was sharply declining as she suffered with dementia (albeit, always with a smile on her face). In 2018, he was additionally diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, placed on immunotherapy, prescribed eight medications, and, once again, given another three to six months to live. This diagnosis came just months before my mother passed away, so there were many sources of strain on his heart. With so much fluid retention and other factors that made life difficult, he asked me if I could do anything to help him pass. As such, we went through all the steps required to give him end-of-life medicine. But, perhaps selfishly, I thought, ‘It’s now or never. Have I done everything I can?’ Because his cooking skills were limited to pouring himself a bowl of cereal, I began preparing all of his meals (using organic ingredients whenever possible) and decided to take him off the immunotherapy. Within several weeks, the red blotches on his face had disappeared and the excess water weight came off. We also restricted his fluids and sodium intake. Fortunately, the food still tasted good and he ate whatever his daughter put in front of him. I also fortified his daily shakes with mushroom extracts that benefit the lungs. The hospice team could hardly believe what they were observing and eventually ‘graduated’ him. As time passed, he got off all medications except one for his thyroid that he had been on since his 30’s. He looked great and was able to do all the things he liked to do.
We continued on this track for almost three years! But, in time, it became too difficult to breathe and activities were increasingly limited as the cancer grew. He was back on hospice, albeit continuing to surpass the odds and amaze the nurses. With the eventual realization that there was ‘nothing more that the doctors (nor his daughter) could do about the shortness of breath' and that the path ahead was simply not his style, he made the decision to depart from this world. It was a peaceful transition. I held his hand until his last breath.
We keep what we have by giving it away. My father gave me an education in nutrition - definitely a worthwhile investment; I used that education to extend and improve upon his life. His openness to my recommendations helped expand my capacity to heal. His steadfast commitment to nourishing his body provided testimony to the healing power of food. May my father’s commitment towards life gift you with an ongoing reminder of the mighty healing power of prayer, love, and food.
A Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with degrees in nutrition and spirituality, Lisa is uniquely qualified to help us understand our dynamic relationship with food. Her passion about the unbreakable links between food and spirituality is the result of over twenty years of academic, professional, and personal exploration. In 1987, she graduated from UC Berkeley with a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition and Clinical Dietetics and received the Nutrition Sciences Departmental Citation Award. In 1990, she earned a Master’s Degree in Public Health Nutrition from UC Berkeley with High Honors. In 1996, she obtained a Master’s Degree in Culture and Creation Spirituality from Holy Names College, and is a Shamanic Soul Coach with certification from the Integrative Arts Institute. She is the Founder of the Imperfectly Vegan movement and author of The Sacred Art of Eating.
A sustainable lifestyle for ourselves and the planet.