A Stroke of Bad Luck
Fifty years ago, a young medical student performed an
autopsy on a 9-year-old girl with golden-blonde hair and a
slender athletic body.
As the attending physician during her illness (he was a
second-year medical student at the time), Charles Attwood
was also required to perform a careful dissection of the
internal organs upon his patient's death. A few years ago,
he described to me, firsthand, the pain of holding her heart
in his hands.
What Dr. Attwood found in her coronary artery affected him
greatly, and shaped his future medical career. Bright yellow
thickening of the arterial wall indicated heart disease. Her
artery was clogged with atherosclerotic placquing from
On Wednesday morning, my dearest friend suffered a stroke. I
spent part of the day with him in the emergency room at
Englewood Hospital in New Jersey while a CAT scan and other
tests were performed.
The Tuesday night before his stroke, he ate the "steak-
special" at Charlie Brown's Restaurant. This was the 24-
ounce New York cut that came from a cow and was finely
marbled with delicious saturated animal fat. The meal was so
good, that he splurged a bit and had cheesecake for dessert.
When indigestion and reflux threatened to rob him of a good
night's sleep, he took that one reliable medicine which
always works to buffer the acid in his stomach, vanilla ice
During dinner, his stomach immediately went to work
digesting that steak. After dinner, the cheesecake
neutralized the acid in his stomach, preventing that organ
from performing the task it was designed to do. During his
pained act of indigestion, the vanilla ice cream neutralized
the stomach acid once more, and the contents of his stomach
sac emptied into his large intestine where the remaining
food containing three extra-large doses of saturated fat
were absorbed into his bloodstream.
I have heard Caldwell Esselstyn, a cardiologist at America's
premiere heart hospital, the Cleveland Clinic, describe a
pint of blood taken from a man who had previously ingested a
similar saturated-fat lunch. An hour after the blood was
drawn from the man's vein, a thick coating of fat had risen
to the top of that pint, and had to be skimmed before the
donor's life fluid could be infused into a recipient. Much
like fatty cream rises to the top of a container of milk
(before homogenization), so too did the saturated animal fat
from the foods he ate coagulate into the arteries and brain
of my friend, the man who suffered his stroke.
He is a warrior, this friend. He lives by that three-pronged
sword otherwise known as a fork. Live by the sword, die by
that sword. The stroke subtracted from the efficiency of
many of those normal daily functions that we take for
granted. His speech is now slurred. His vision is impaired.
His gait is not as lively today as it was on Monday. The
doctors do expect a full recovery. The stroke was a signal
from a body under siege. A body fashioned by the most
intelligent of forces, designed to send a series of signals,
first subtle and then powerful, when things go wrong.
Indigestion, discomfort, strokes, heart attacks. Some
signals are soft, and some are like the crashing of cymbals
at the conclusion of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. Each of
life's warning signs are designed to alert the mind of the
body to alter an inefficient or improper behavior.
We as a society eat meat and dairy products because they
taste so good. Because they are so-called comfort foods.
Because the saturated animal fat creates wonderful taste
sensations upon our taste buds. Two out of three of us who
eat such food as our body's fuel will die of a
cardiovascular event such as a stroke or heart attack.
It is never too late to reverse heart disease. Day one
begins with a recognition of gastronomy's cruelest joke.
That which tastes the best, pizza, barbecued ribs, ice
cream, hamburgers, does the most damage. The choice is to
either live a life free of heart disease, and not spend ten
to twenty years dying like the average American does, or
give up those most delicious hard-to-digest foods, and live
a longer, healthier, and more active, pain-free life in
which the body and mind remain true to the initial design
My friend will improve. He may or may not return to that
same diet which causes strokes to occur. The quality-of-life
decision for him to continue eating delicious fat-filled
foods may result in shortening his life. Some people say
that a meal consisting of steak with ice cream for dessert
is "to die for." In the end, it is up to him to come to
terms with his future.
ICE CREAM AND STROKES
The dairy industry recently featured a milk mustache ad with
the Three Stooges.
The advertisement posed Curly with a milk mustache, just
after he had been hit over the head with a crowbar--one of
the many slapstick routines used frequently by the Three
CURLY: Wait a minute. You know I'm temperamental! MOE: Yeah,
95% temper, 5% mental.
What better role model could dairymen have chosen to
represent them than an out of shape, obese drunk with
In the early 1940's, Curly's health began to deteriorate.
His eating habits, combined with his constant drinking and
smoking, caused him to gain enormous amounts of weight, and
he developed high blood pressure.
On January 23, 1945, Curly was diagnosed as having extreme
hypertension, a retinal hemorrhage, and obesity. He remained
at the hospital for tests and treatment and was discharged
nearly three weeks later.
On May 6, 1946, during the shooting of a movie, Curly
suffered a stroke and was rushed to the hospital where he
was placed on a strict vegetarian diet.
After Curly left the hospital, he went back to his old ways
and suffered several more strokes. In 1949, Curly's health
took a severe turn for the worse. The latest stroke left him
partially paralyzed and confined to a wheel chair.
This time, Curly's doctors placed him on a diet of boiled
rice and raw fruits and vegetables. This diet successfully
lowered his weight and blood pressure.
On January 18, 1952, Curly died at the very young age of 48.
His brothers outlived him by many years. Moe died at the age
of 73 and Larry died at the age of 78.
Just about the same time that Curly suffered his first
stroke, the nation of Japan got their first dairy cows.
In Japan, every year since 1946, tens-of thousands of
persons have been interviewed and their diets carefully
analyzed. 21,707 persons from 6,093 households were included
in the sampling. The results of the study were published in
Preventive Medicine (Yasuo Kagawa, Department of
Biochemistry, Jichi Medical School, Japan, 7, 205-217,
According to this study, the per-capita yearly dietary
intake of dairy products in 1950 was only 5.5 pounds.
Twenty-five years later the average Japanese ate 117.4
pounds of milk and dairy products.
While milk and dairy consumption increased from 1950 to
1975, cerebral vascular disease (strokes) increased by a
factor of 38 percent.
Dr. Benjamin Spock wrote about a related medical crisis that
changed his life. Spock was America's best known
pediatrician, and sold 85 million copies of his book, Child
Care. Spock wrote:
"Ever since I wrote my first edition of Baby and Child Care
in 1946, I have always put the emphasis on the need for
eating lots of vegetables, fruits, and whole grain cereals.
But due to the fact that dairy products and meats have been
considered ideal foods for so long, I was hesitant to talk
about their hidden disadvantages. In fact, I was not
entirely convinced, until recently, that all parents should
be alerted, and in some cases made to feel guilty, when they
continue to give these foods to their children. What changed
my mind was an episode in my own medical history.
In 1988, I fainted crossing the lobby of a hotel and
spattered the marble floor with blood. After a week's
hospitalization it was concluded that my condition was
partly due to the irregular rhythm of my heart (atrial
fibrillation), a familial condition I'd had for several
years. Also, I had a supposed narrowing of arteries in my
brain from arteriosclerosis, which had stopped or interfered
with the heart beat enough to allow blood to clot in my
heart. A piece of the clot presumably broke off and plugged
an artery of my brain long enough to cause the faint. Not
long afterward, I had a brief episode of speaking gibberish
instead of English. I was put on a digitalis medication to
slow and steady the heart beat and given a pacemaker to
substitute for my heart if it decided to stop again. Since
my mother and two sisters died of strokes, that was enough
to remind me that I am mortal like all humans, a fact that I
had ignored until then.
In recent years, we've discovered that a high-fat diet,
which means eating relatively large amounts of meat, dairy
products, and fried foods, is the main cause of
arteriosclerosis, coronary heart disease, stroke, certain
forms of cancer and obesity. Experts in these diseases
realize that the true cause is the excessively high animal
fat content of the average American diet including dairy
We should all learn from Dr. Spock's wisdom. My final
message: Get well soon, Dad. I am happy to see containers of
soy-based ice cream and sorbets in your freezer instead of
that "other stuff."