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Published on August 25, 2015

One of Us: Reformed meat-eater Mel Gottlieb helps bring Ornish heart disease reversal program to St. Vincent's

By Charlie Patton, Florida Times-Union

Jacksonville businessman Mel Gottlieb grew up a classic meat and potatoes man.

The son of a butcher, he loved a thick, well-marbled steak. Even after he suffered a heart attack in 2002 that led to quintuple bypass surgery, he didn’t change his diet.

“I’d been fixed,” Gottlieb says, describing his post bypass attitude. “I went on with my life. I didn’t make any real changes.”

He then started having chest pains in 2009. He went back to the doctor hoping to get fixed again. But, following a profusion stress test that showed Gottlieb’s damaged heart wasn’t receiving enough oxygen-rich blood, the doctor told him there was no surgical solution. He recommended a lifestyle change.

That’s when Gottlieb got interested in Dean Ornish, a California physician who developed a program aimed at reversing heart disease. He and his wife, Debbie, read Ornish’s book “Reversing Heart Disease,” and became vegetarians.

“We read the book, but I didn’t know if we were doing everything right,” Debbie Gottlieb said.

So they flew to Silverton, Ore., and enrolled in a week-long immersion in the Ornish Reversal Program.

“We learned how to shop, cook, read labels, exercise and manage stress,” she said. “Then we went home and diligently stuck to this program.”

One year later, Gottlieb underwent another profusion stress test. The test showed that Gottlieb’s heart was back close to the normal range at absorbing oxygen. He has before and after images showing dramatic changes in his heart.

Gottlieb, 69, who now rides a bike 20 miles three times a week, became a complete convert. He changed the culture of Martin Gottlieb & Assoc., a medical billing company, for which he is CEO. He put health snacks in the vending machines and when they didn’t sell, he began making them available for free. He built a gym for employees, hired a trainer, offered to subsidize gym memberships, has a yoga instructor who visits regularly and a dietitian who visits quarterly.

“There is a return,” he said. “Our turnover is exceptionally low, our employees are healthier and happier and our insurance premium has been the same for three years.”


Gottlieb’s life isn’t perfect.

“Look, I’ll be a vegetarian, I’ll exercise,” he said. “But they are not going to change this type A person into a type B.”

But he works at relaxing.

“Controlling stress has the same positive effect as diet and exercise,” he said.

Gottlieb, a longtime supporter of St. Vincent’s HealthCare, spent the last several years working to bring the Ornish program to Jacksonville. Last week the first cohort of enrollees in St. Vincent’s “Undo It With Ornish” began the nine-week program which aims at reversing heart disease.

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