Health: Here’s To A Brand New Start

When Katherine Michalak’s husband, Joe, an amateur athlete and healthy eater, dropped with cardiac pain a few months ago, life changed. Here is her story:

Katherine and Joe Michalak


“This has nothing to do with your lifestyle… This is family history plus stress. You need to accept that you have cardiac disease and you’ll probably be on medication the rest of your life. Some interesting research out there about a plant-based diet. That’s what Bill Clinton has done. Why don’t you try it. Watch Forks Over Knives, do a little research and let’s see what happens with that and the meds.” –Cardiologist’s advice upon hospital discharge, June 2012.

Father’s Day Weekend. My fit, healthy, amateur-triathlete husband started the lawnmower and ended up in the hospital with chest pains. Within a few days, he underwent an emergency cardiac intervention stenting arteries and surviving The Widowmaker at age 41. He left the hospital with prescriptions, instructions, a silly t-shirt from the gift shop, and the challenge to try veganism during recovery. I drove him home, still in a fog.

We got started with our assigned homework, watching Forks Over Knives. Truly a MUST-SEE. Simple, straightforward, entertaining brainfood, explaining how animal-based foods injure the lining of the arteries.The damaged tissue accumulates plaque from the fat and cholesterol in a traditional diet. A whole-food, plant-based diet drastically reduces, or eliminates, that cycle of damage allowing the body to heal.

Neighborhood friends for “Joe Knows” heart walk

Full kitchen clean-out necessary for us. We’d already converted to whole grains years ago, so the pantry didn’t hurt.  But, the freezer…whoa. My cache of chicken, bacon, sausages, ground turkey, stews, ice cream all had to go. No wasting food here, so all visitors coming to impart their well wishes upon the patient left with a goodie bag of frozen chicken tenders and pounds of Hormel Black Label as though guests at a Meat-Themed Birthday Party. “Thanks for stopping by, please take some andouille, a ham hock, and y’all come back now, ya hear.”

Restocking everything proved an expensive step, but not difficult — we’re near Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, luckily, but even our Kroger and Publix have impressive selections. Some items are pricey, but simply worth the extra cost. The budget actually didn’t take as hard a hit overall after eliminating meat. A 16 ounce can of organic beans will ALWAYS be cheaper than a pound of ground beef. We’ve chosen to keep fish in our menu rotation every few weeks, as we found the research conflicting; this also allows us restaurant alternatives should a vegan/vegetarian entree be unavailable.

Then, we just started. No gradual lead-in, no carnivore 12-step program. Just “what’s for breakfast today, okay now lunch, then dinner.” No dwelling on things we’d “never eat again” or potential cravings. All those thoughts would have been overwhelming. I’d been overwhelmed quite enough, thank you very much.

We could do this. We’d be united in our support of Daddy. We’d be conscious of a family history that could effect all three boys. We’d follow my long-held mantra “this is a kitchen, not a diner. I’m cooking one meal, like it or leave it.” The kids can eat what they want outside the house, but at home we’re ALL vegan. (Well, actually, they’re vegetarian. We’ve kept small amounts of organic dairy and eggs in the boys’ diet, mostly for convenience and a little mommy guilt.)

The Michalak family

Honestly, I didn’t think long-term planning was necessary. I confess, I didn’t truly believe this would significantly impact Joe because we’d been such healthy eaters prior to “The Cardiac Event.” I thought we’d see a few changes, but nothing dramatic. I was wrong. Very wrong. At his one-month appointment, Joe’s cholesterol had dropped almost 100 points. Even the cardiologist was shocked. Simultaneously starting the medication and plant-based diet immediately after the procedure was giving Joe’s heart the absolute best possible conditions to heal. What could test results be in 6 months? A year? Could we really do this?

Joe never wavered, but I weakened. Accumulated stress frayed my edges a bit, I felt the primal urge growling louder the more my adrenal glands pumped away. I’d hallucinate like those old Looney Tunes cartoons, the kids transforming into roast turkey mirages, complete with the little paper cuffs about their wrists. One afternoon last September, I found myself alone in the back booth of a diner, in a full-on lip lock with a meatball sub, brazenly cheating on my beloved husband. Barry White music hummed from somewhere beneath the mozzarella, as the marinara left a telltale “A” smeared on my blouse. I confessed my sins to Joe that night, not that I could have scrubbed the garlic from my guilty hands (or breath). He absolved me completely without judgement, giving me full pardon from the Vegan program. My own body was not as gracious. The meatball sub hitting my stomach, 3-months devoid of meat, brought forth gastric penance for my indiscretion.

Here is a great book about embracing a plant based diet

Atonement drove me more fervently into recipe research, daring myself to try unfamiliar ingredients and techniques — rinsing quinoa, sweating tofu, adding nutritional yeast flakes for cheesy flavor. I’ve learned mushrooms give a beefy flavor to stews and sauces, vegan “bolognese” made with portobellas now preferred to the former version. Beans, an inexpensive concentrated protein source, absorb the seasonings of their dishes allowing successful substitution in a variety of recipes. Our vegan version of Pasta Amatriciana, another favored in its lighter version, switches out cannellini beans for chicken or pancetta.

The boys have rallied, willing to try anything at least once, as though we’d all set out on a culinary adventure together. They devour Vegan Lasagna and PadThai with Tofu, though not without politely asking upon initial serving, “Mommy, why are there erasers on top of the noodles?” The supreme rulers, as most requested entrees: Sweet-Potato & Black Bean Tacos with Chipotle-Honey Sauce, Vegetable Stir-Fry and Vegan Gumbo.

After 6 months, there are very few items any of us miss. None of us are aching with cravings. So, we’re pushing forward, all very curious and hopeful about Joe’s next evaluation. We’re all committed to seeing where this experiment takes us…though, fairly certain to bypass meatball subs. Wait, Morningstar Farms Veggie Meatballs, Marinara Sauce, Soy Cheese, Whole Grain Rolls… I’m getting an idea!


Thank you, Katherine!

For documentaries on food, including Forks Over Knives, see StyleBlueprint’s top picks, here.