In 1989 I was 32 years old. It had been two years since I had quit my 17-year smoking habit, and I had adopted a rigorous physical fitness regimen. I truly felt on top of the world, and nothing could stop me. In addition, having developed a greater level of self confidence, I began life as a student again at a local community college. All of these successes empowered me to continue striving and believing in myself, something that had not come easily to me before. This was an entirely new era for me. Little did I know, however, that the confidence that had blossomed within me would soon be tested.
To help curb my tobacco withdrawal cravings I had begun working out at a gym, and was surrounded by very strong, fit people. One such person was a former Marine drill instructor and Mr. World contender who became my personal coach. Each day, he would encourage and educate me about fitness. He made the experience fun for me: a new addiction had been spawned. During this time I was also learning how to make healthful dietary changes, and I did so gladly. Living in California at the time, with fresh produce not only abundant, but available year-round, helped making dietary changes easier. I had never felt so good in my entire life. What a revelation!
And then I woke up on April 17, 1989, one of the darkest, most life-altering days of my life. As I got out of bed I was shocked to find that my left leg collapsed under me. It felt heavy and would not support my weight. I erroneously passed it off as a pinched nerve. My doctor couldn’t find any cause for it, so it became a “watch and wait” situation. I dragged that leg around for more than six weeks. I continued to work out but was unknowingly worsening my condition every day. Almost as soon as this first symptom began to wane, a new symptom of tingling on the right side of my body began. More doctor visits and tests were ordered, but nothing was determined.
Following this I had roughly six weeks of very odd sensations on one side of my body that couldn’t be explained. While additional tests were conducted, I continued to believe it was all fairly harmless. How could anything bad be happening to me now? I was certainly on a high of optimism, so much so that I ignored all the signs (tingling, burning, fatigue) my body was giving me and continued my gym workouts. Nothing was going to stop me.
When the fourth symptom—very fuzzy eyesight in one eye—occurred, I was sent to an eye doctor. He diagnosed me with optic neuritis and suggested that I see a neurologist as soon as possible. My family doctor scheduled an appointment with a neurologist in Phoenix, Arizona at a well-known neurological institute. My doctor warned me ahead of time that the physician he was referring me to did not have a pleasant bedside manner but that he was very proficient in his field.
How can one hour, one day, change a person’s life so dramatically? The MRI was performed and the follow-up meeting with the neurologist went something like this: “The MRI shows that you have multiple sclerosis. You are among the top third of the worst cases we’ve ever seen here. You have a few good years left.” The neurologist delivered the news with as much compassion and sensitivity as a weatherman might deliver the day’s highs and lows. Talk about devastating! The fact that I had had four exacerbations within a five-month time frame further made for a dismal prognosis.
My mother had died of systemic Lupus at the age of 33, and here I was at 32 years old thinking, “I guess this is it.” When I asked if there were any dietary changes I could make to help my symptoms, an emphatic “No” was given. I was told that my exacerbations would be treated with high doses of steroids given in the hospital. Having watched my mother go through her agonizing decline, I wanted nothing to do with hospitals or doctors ever again.
Fortunately, within a short amount of time, I discovered Dr. Roy Swank, MD, Ph.D, the head professor of neurology at Oregon Health Sciences University. I learned that he had studied multiple sclerosis (MS) since 1946 and, based on his scientific findings, had successfully treated MS patients through a healthful diet. His track record and credentials were impeccable. I was truly fortunate that he was still practicing in his 70’s. As broken-spirited and emotionally shattered as I was when I first met Dr. Swank, his words to me were the most healing balm for the soul there was: “If you do as I say, Donna, you can live a normal life.” With those words he gave me back my life. I was a patient of his for the remaining ten years of his practice.
Hearing his success stories about controlling the progress of the disease through dietary measures was inspiring. I studied the program intensely. I ate a very low saturated fat diet (15 grams max a day) and ate lots of clean, whole foods. I didn’t look at it as a diet but as a lifestyle, one that I enthusiastically embraced. Also, to help reduce my symptoms, I was instructed not to do exercise that would overheat my body’s core temperature, and to reduce stress as much as possible while making time for daily rest breaks. As time passed in that first year, I not only regained all the functions that I’d lost, but I felt increasingly better.
No one can believe how this program has stabilized my health. When I share my story, most people want to hear the details, which I am happy to share. I feel that if I don’t talk about my journey at least once a day, I’m not doing my job. I now search out open-minded physicians—not closed-minded authoritarians—who will work with me as a partner in my health care. Nowadays when I learn that someone has been diagnosed with MS and put on a drug protocol, it saddens me greatly. Many patients are shattered, as I was after my diagnosis, and feel that they must follow their doctor’s advice. To them I say, okay, but incorporate a healthy diet as well. For every day lost, it’s going to be harder to regain ground.
Multiple sclerosis, a disease of the central nervous system, affects around 350,000 Americans (mostly Caucasians, and more often women than men). Its numbers are higher in populations where typical diets are comprised of beef, butter, cheese, and other saturated fats. The addition of so many trans-fats has also escalated numbers. MS is often treated with one of three or four very expensive and toxic drugs. Dr. Swank’s work, however, is completely nutrition-based and carries no dangerous side effects.
It’s been 18 years now since I first met with Dr. Swank, and today I do not use any kind of aids or devices (such as a walker, cane, or braces), but I do take the daily rest breaks that he strongly advised (to allow my body’s compromised nerves adequate time to rest and recover). I am grateful for each day of health that I enjoy, and only occasionally do I feel some extremity tingling (when I’ve allowed myself to overdo it without rest).
I volunteer at a local hospital and cook healthful and tasty meals for my very supportive husband and myself. Keeping to a simple diet of brown rice, legumes, fresh vegetables and fruits, as well as minimizing fats, has done a world of good. I also volunteer for the Swank foundation as a mentor, via email, to the people who find their way to the Swank program or to those who simply need a comforting, friendly ear.
To Dr. McDougall, a heartfelt “Thank you!” for your dedicated efforts to continue the work of Dr. Roy Swank. The legend lives on because of you. I’ve since adopted Dr. McDougall’s low-fat, plant-based diet as another layer to my health restoration and preservation. To quote Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, “Let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food.” This is certainly the message in the work of Dr. Swank and Dr. McDougall.