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Published on March 01, 2016

Ornish program helps Jacksonville resident go from 'miserable' to healthy

By Charlie Patton, Florida Times-Union

When Gregg Adair was 50 years old, he suffered a heart attack and underwent quintuple bypass surgery.

He was not restored to perfect health. Five years ago his doctor told him he might need another bypass surgery. He held off. By last year, he constantly suffered “tremendous” chest pain (aka angina) despite wearing a nitroglycerine patch (nitroglycerine helps someone with chest pain by relaxing their blood vessels).

“I was a couch potato,” Adair said. “I was miserable, depressed. Who wants to live like that?”

So the 65-year-old decided to do something about it. He had read about a new program offered by St. Vincent’s HealthCare at its Riverside campus.

Developed by physician Dean Ornish, president and founder of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute and a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, the Ornish Reversal Program promised to actually reverse the effects of heart disease through dramatic lifestyle changes.

Jacksonville businessman Mel Gottlieb learned about Ornish’s program in 2009 after his doctors told Gottlieb, who had already undergone quintuple bypass surgery in 2002, that there was no surgical answer to his ongoing heart disease.

Gottlieb and his wife, Debbie, flew to Silverton, Ore., enrolled in a weeklong immersion program and returned to Jacksonville determined to follow the Ornish lifestyle, which includes a healthy diet almost entirely free of animal products, regular exercise, stress management and participation in a support group.

The program worked so well for Gottlieb that he eventually convinced St. Vincent’s HealthCare to bring the Ornish program to Jacksonville. The first group of students enrolled in the nine-week program last August.

Adair said his participation in the program, including exercising, something he hadn’t done in a long time, “wasn’t difficult.”

“They work you through it,” he said. “I saw progress almost immediately.”

His progress has included losing 33 pounds and seeing his cholesterol drop from 420, which is very high, to 195, which falls into the desirable range. He now lifts weights regularly and walks about five hours a week.

“My whole life has changed,” he said. “All my blood work has returned to normal.”

Making dramatic dietary changes doesn’t mean dieting, said Kat Pitocchelli, manager of the Ornish Reversal Program.

“We want our people to eat abundantly,” she said. “We want them to eat the rainbow.”

The diet Ornish recommends has about 10 percent fat, she said. It includes no animal products except egg whites and non-dairy creamer.

“It’s a complete change, a complete turnaround,” Adair said. “You have to understand it. But once you get the information you realize there are plenty of things out there to eat. It’s not like you’re hungry.”

So far, those people who have passed through the program are showing excellent results, Pitocchelli said. The adherence rate for Ornish patients once they have exited the nine-week program is 87 percent, she said.

People who have completed the program at St. Vincent’s have lost an average of 9.3 pounds, seen their systolic blood pressure reading (the higher number) drop 10 points and seen an average decrease of 87 points for people with cholesterol over 200. Many patients have seen dramatic decreases in the medications they must take.

Completing the nine-week program doesn’t end a patient’s association with it. Each cohort is urged to stay in touch and meet regularly, serving as a support group for one another. Adair’s group meets monthly, usually at a restaurant.

Candidates for the Ornish Reversal Program are people who have a had “a fairly major cardiac event,” including heart attack or the placement of a stent, in the last year, Pitoccelli said. Participants can be referred by physicians or they can self-refer, as Adair did. At any given time, there are two cohorts of 15 people participating in the program. The youngest graduate of St. Vincent’s program is 44. The oldest is 86.

The Ornish Reversal Program is reimbursed by Medicare and other some insurance companies. Interested patients can go to or call (877) 888-3091.

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