Apples, Peanuts, and Tofu

An essay in 4 parts.

Part 1–A sneeze

I was standing in the kitchen folding laundry, listening to a podcast.  It was a Sunday afternoon.  Amanda was taking a nap; the kids were upstairs playing video games.  It was a quiet, normal, peaceful day.  It was April 25, 2015.  

I sneezed.   

Suddenly, the right-hand side of my body goes limp.  I was confused.  I ripped out my headphones and walked the 10 steps to my bedroom.   We had a large mirror that was on the floor, propped against the wall.  I sat down in front of it, to see if I looked any different.  Amanda had woken up and was asking me if I was fine.  As I was telling her what happened, she grabbed her phone and called 911.  

I got up and went to sit on a chair in our dining room.  Suddenly I couldn’t move or talk.  Where a moment ago, I could. I couldn’t now.  Amanda was by my side, trying to keep me talking, as we waited for the ambulance.  I remember seeing her smiling face, reassuring me, while I’m sure, she was completely panicking on the inside.  

She decided we needed to meet the EMTs outside, so she helped me up.  I honestly don’t know how I made it to the Adirondack chair in our front yard.  I remember struggling to make my right leg work.  

It was so frustrating, I was being peppered with questions and I couldn’t make my mouth form the words I was thinking.  Somehow, the EMTs got the information they needed and loaded me into the ambulance and I was off.  

Amanda’s midwifery partner lived one road over, just across from a park. Amidst the chaos, Amanda had told our 3 kids (Asher was 12, Atticus was 10, and Ivy was 8) to go to Marrianne’s house. Without question, she entertained and watched our kids, while her husband drove Amanda to the hospital.

I was whisked off the ambulance and taken immediately to an MRI.  I don’t remember laying still for the MRI–but I didn’t have much of a choice.  People were still talking to me and asking me questions.  I just kept thinking “Why are they asking me all of this, they know I can’t answer them.”   Amanda come into the ER bay once they had completed the MRI.  A doctor was talking with her–telling her about the medication they wanted to give me–TPA–a drug that had a 7% mortality rate.  In my, increasingly foggy brain, I just remember thinking, “Ok, the person who doesn’t take ibuprofen for anything, isn’t going to allow that”.  To my surprise, and I remember this very clearly, she said “Do whatever you have to do.”  

The doctors jumped into action and told Amanda that what she was about to see may be disturbing.  The TPA was going to think out my blood and dissolved any clots–to the point that I would start bleeding out of any scratch or cut I had.  At some point, someone had put two IVs into me.  One in each arm.  Once the drug was pushed through the IV, I immediately started bleeding:  from the scratch on my leg, around the needle from the IVs, from the hangnail on my thumb.  Any clot that had existed in my body–including those that were healing over– was now gone allowing the blood to trickle down my arms.  

The only thing we could do now was wait.  

I was taken to the ICU and prepped for my hospital stay.  By the time I had been undressed, bathed, had IVs hooked up, and settled into bed I was exhausted and just wanted to sleep.  However, I was not sleeping that night.  A nurse would come in and take my vitals every hour.  I would drift off to sleep, and she would come barging in to take my temperature and blood pressure and give me a neurological test.  I understand why they were giving them to me now, but at the time, if I had to point to pictures one more time and describe what I saw, I was going to lose it.  It was so frustrating–my mind wasn’t affected at all.  I was groggy, but I knew what I wanted and needed to say, I just couldn’t.  I would make some noises, that sounded like words, they seemed appeased and would leave–only to repeat the whole process an hour later.  

Amanda never left my side.  She stayed with me in my room the entire time I was there.  She told me that her mom had picked up the kids from Marrianne’s house and they had gone to stay with her sister.  I knew they were fine and distracted at Liz Camp.  

Sometime in the middle of the night, I was once again woken up and asked to describe this stupid picture of a house (I think that was what it was)–my words were working.  It was like someone had decided to turn my right-hand side back on.  It was that quick.  I was able to formulate words from my thoughts.  I asked for a pen and was able to sign my name.  The TPA had worked.  I had regained the use of my body, and in my mind, I was better.  The nurses still kept waking me up every hour, but I was able to communicate.  They seemed pleased.  I just wanted to sleep.  

Over the next few days, they poked and prodded me, did more blood tests, performed neurological tests, and finally stopped waking me every hour to have me describe pictures to them. I was released from the hospital two days later, on April 28, 2015.  I went home and took the longest nap.  

Part 2–Being vegan isn’t just a fad

Soon after I had regained full use of my body, the doctors shared my lab results with me.  My cholesterol was so high, it wouldn’t even calculate in their system.  They had a dietician meet with Amanda and me–but that was a joke.  She came in and told me to eat more veggies and lean meats.  This was in direct contrast to my doctor’s warning:  eliminate all saturated fats from my diet.  

The doctors prescribed blood pressure medications and a statin to control my cholesterol.  Amanda and I also resolved that I would go on a vegan diet–that was the only way I would get and stay healthy.  

I slept for about a week after I was released from the hospital. I had taken off work and slowly built up my strength by resting and taking it easy.  

Amanda was gung-ho about my diet.  I was motivated by the necessity of it.  I didn’t want to end up in the hospital again, and I couldn’t shake intrusive thoughts that would creep up from the back of my brain:

What if this happens again? 

What would have happened if I had my stroke while asleep?  

What would have happened if I hadn’t been near a major hospital? 

Would I survive another stroke?  

If I did have another stroke would I lose control of my entire body forever?

So I got used to drinking my coffee black with almond milk.  Normally, I would make my coffee sweet with milk or use a flavored creamer.  It was a sacrifice not to be able to eat cheese–before my stroke, I had mentioned that I didn’t know what I would do if I couldn’t eat cheese.  Proof that the universe does have a sense of humor.    Amanda would make me salads.  Giant salads chock full of veggies, with very little to no dressing.  I started eating avocado toast every morning for breakfast.  Sometimes, if I were feeling daring, I would add a piece of vegan sausage to it.  

My two snacks of choice became apples with homemade (well, homemade from the Publix deli) peanut butter and roasted peanuts in the shell.  I think I lived off of these two things for quite a while.  I also started playing around with tofu.  It isn’t bad and doesn’t taste like toenails (like my father would tell me as a child).  It has no flavor and absorbs whatever flavors you add to it.  As I learned to navigate eating vegan, I found out which vegan items are good (vegan bacon!) and which were disgusting (the vegan “lunch meat”).  I also started figuring out what I could eat in restaurants.  We used to live near a fast-food Chinese restaurant.  One of my favorite things to order was tofu in General Tso’s sauce.  I’m not sure how “healthy” it was, but it was delicious.  Unfortunately, that restaurant closed.  

I donated blood about 6 weeks after my stroke–really, just to get the lab results that are done on your blood.  With the medication and my diet, my cholesterol had dropped dangerously low.  We immediately called my doctor and he took me off the statin and told me to control it with my diet.  The other major thing was that I started to lose weight.  I went from 250 pounds to 200 pounds in about a year.  It felt good to get my weight down and to know I was doing everything I could to prevent another stroke.  I was doing it for Amanda.  I was doing it for my kids.  But I was also doing it for myself.   I felt positive about how I looked after having lost weight.  But most importantly, I was healthy.  

And then life started to creep in and my focus wandered.  

Part 3–I was always a member of the Clean Plate Club

I was able to stay on my diet successfully for a few years.  But slowly, I started sneaking bites of non-vegan food.  I would think, one bite is not going to make a difference.   I would try and convince myself that I would start eating more “healthy” food–chicken is healthy, right?  I’ll just avoid red meat.  A small smear of cream cheese on my toast won’t make a difference, right?  Slowly, I started eating regular food again.  The urgency was gone and I was deceiving myself.  

The weight came back–I got the heaviest I have ever been–275 pounds.  I ate whatever I wanted whenever I wanted.  

I will admit it, I have a problem with eating.  I don’t know if I would classify it as an eating disorder, but I enjoy eating. Enjoying food isn’t the problem–not being able to control it is the problem.   I find comfort in eating.  I eat when I’m stressed.  I eat more when I’m full because it tastes so good and I enjoy the taste.  I mean, is there anything more delicious than some warm brie on crusty bread?  How delicious is the crunchy fat from a piece of steak that has been grilled?  Can the taste of hot wings, dipped in blue cheese dressing be beat?  

As a child eating dinner, we wouldn’t get dessert (and who didn’t want cookies or ice cream or cake?) unless we finished all of our food and joined the “clean plate club.”  We even had a song that went with it.  I ate a healthy 3 meals a day, plus snacks.  I was always ready to “fill that hollow leg” as my mom would say.  As a parent, I came to the realization that kids will eat when they are hungry and it isn’t worth forcing food on your kids, just for the sake of eating.  As an adult, I eat when I’m bored.  I eat when I’m full.  I don’t know when to NOT eat.  

I knew I needed to lose weight–I didn’t feel healthy and none of my clothes fit anymore. But even more importantly (and dangerously) the urgency of a repeated stroke wasn’t at the forefront of my brain anymore.  

Fast forward to March 2023.  

Part 4–Two Conversations

A lot of life happens in 8 years.  The kids grow up, you move houses, you live through a pandemic, you start a new job, you lose some weight and gain it back.  Much can change, but the biggest change is that you are no longer healthy.  You know it.  You feel it.  But most important, others notice it.  Amanda and I had a serious conversation–she shared that she felt nervous about my health.  After my stroke, I was seeing my doctor every six weeks, then we went to every six months, then it got to be a nuisance to schedule the appointments and get there after work, and just like my commitment to my diet, I eventually stopped.  

After Amanda and I had that initial conversation, I told her I would make an appointment for a check-up.  A few weeks later, I’m nervously sitting in the doctor’s office.  At one time he had been congratulatory and happy about my success.  Now I’m here to admit defeat.  Thankfully, he didn’t appear to be judgy as I go through everything that happened since I had seen him 3 years ago.  We go over my bloodwork.  My cholesterol is high and I ask him to put me back on a statin.  He agrees and tells me to try intermittent fasting and to avoid carbs.  I honestly don’t know which is harder–giving up cheese or giving up rice.  

I get home and Amanda and I have serious conversation #2. 

I tell her what the doctor recommended and she listens silently.  She is surprised that I am back on a statin, I tell her I need immediate help.  She agrees.  I tell her what the doctor said about avoiding carbs.  She quietly asks me if I remember what the doctor in the hospital said after we met with the nutritionist.  My memory is one of the few things that was affected by my stroke–I tell her no.  She remembers what he said word for word: unless she wants to be back in the hospital, but this time with her dead husband, my diet needs to be regulated and I must avoid all saturated fat.  No ifs, ands, or buts.  

I sat there without saying anything.  I really had been living on borrowed time over the last 8 years.  

“I have to go back on my diet.  End of discussion.”  

And that evening, I made beans and rice for everyone (my comfort food).

So, where am I now?  I have started losing weight again.  That’s a plus.  I have not eaten any animal products.  I do eat quite a bit of avocado, rice, beans, salads, hummus, and falafel.  I have not ventured into the realm of specifically prepared vegan foods–honestly, they are gross.   And honestly, it is hard to avoid foods that I would eat without a second thought a few days ago.  On Friday, the kids asked if we could get Chick-Fil-A for lunch.  I started to say, “Yes, that sounds really good.” But then remembered, I can’t.  Selfishly, I really didn’t feel like eating a side salad while they enjoyed chicken sandwiches and waffle fries.  

One of the first things I did when I made the commitment to go back on my diet was to go to Publix and get foods that I could eat.  What were the first three things I put into my shopping car?

Apples, peanuts, and tofu.  

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