Editors' Note: When we met Dr. Steven Lawenda in 2016, we knew we had to share his story with our readers. We are grateful to Dr. Lawenda for granting us permission to print how he positively transformed his own health and used that knowledge to aid his patients. Dr. Lawenda now combines his personal knowledge and medical expertise to benefit his patients in his practice. He is a classic example of the biblical proverb: "Physician, heal thy self."
" I felt as if the huge monkey on my back was gone.
I was no longer depressed or worried about my health and my future."
Dr. Lawenda Transforms Health Care
My name is Steven Lawenda, and I am a Family Medicine physician based in Kaiser Permanente (Lancaster, CA). Late in 2012 I hit a rock bottom both personally and professionally. I just turned thirty-eight, the same age my paternal grandfather had his first heart attack and only seven years away from the age my father suffered his first heart attack. I was so worried that I would suffer their same fate myself.
I knew that one third of heart attack victims didn't survive, and I was deathly afraid that I might not be as lucky as my father and grandfather. I was obese with a BMI of 33 and already had pre-diabetes, fatty liver, acid reflux, and symptoms of sleep apnea. Our first child was only three years old at that time, and I could not imagine leaving her without her daddy.
On top of this overwhelming concern and weighing on my mind like an extra ton of bricks was the memory of two years prior when I had witnessed one of the most tragic and horrible events that have ever happened to my family. My father, fortunate to have survived his first heart attack and coronary artery bypass surgery a few years later, underwent bilateral leg amputations (below the knee) as a result of his type II diabetes. He went from being a fully functional, working, and joyful new grandpa enjoying his first infant grandchild (our daughter), to being a disabled, unemployed, and depressed man confined to a wheelchair.
Patients becoming sicker and sicker
On top of all this, professionally I was burning out. I was so dejected and so frustrated not knowing what to do as I witnessed more and more of my patients gaining weight, getting sicker and sicker, taking more and more medications, all the while becoming more and more miserable and depressed. They would ask me for help, and I felt I had nothing to offer them other than more pills.
One particular patient of mine that in hindsight epitomized what was wrong with modern medicine was a local popular clergyman in his mid 50s. I always enjoyed seeing him -- I'll never forget we had such meaningful conversations with plenty of laughter as he had such a great sense of humor. He was obese with type II diabetes, yet was a model patient -- he took his long list of medications diligently and his hemoglobin A1c, LDL, and blood pressure were always at target.
Bad news from the ER
Yet one day I received the most dreaded call of my career. The local ER called to inform me that this most pleasant and delightful patient of mine collapsed suddenly at home of a suspected heart attack and was taken by ambulance to the ER in full cardiac arrest. Unfortunately, the staff in ER was unable to resuscitate him. Like that, he was gone. In spite of all his medications and his diligence in doing precisely what I asked him to do, with all his numbers at target, he died far too soon. He left behind a young family, a loving wife, and a community that cherished him. I knew at that time that something was seriously wrong with modern medicine, but I didn't know what the answer was.
Now I do
Fortunately four years ago, at the age of thirty-eight, worried deeply about my personal and professional future, I discovered the incredible power of food as medicine. I was blown away by what I was learning. I was amazed to learn that there existed a way of eating, namely a whole food, plant-based diet, in which a person could eat until full, without counting calories or measuring / restricting portion size (no portion control!), yet lose significant amounts of weight, regardless of the amount of exercise as well. This same way of eating, I learned, also REVERSES our most common chronic diseases, including our number one killer, heart disease, and our most costly and complicated disease, diabetes. I was very skeptical learning all of this, especially as it was not part of my years of training. Yet, soon I began to realize how much solid scientific evidence existed that more than substantiated these incredible benefits.
Before long I challenged myself to eat and live this way. Within eight months I lost 75 pounds, and my BMI went from an obese 33 down to a normal 23. My pre-diabetes, fatty liver, acid reflux, and symptoms of sleep apnea went away. My blood pressure dropped twenty points. I felt amazing. Most importantly, I felt as if the huge monkey on my back was gone. I was no longer depressed or worried about my health and my future.
Implementing the knowledge with my patients
It was obvious my next step was to implement this in my practice with my patients. Doing so has brought me from burnout to now feeling a true sense of joy and deep satisfaction in my career. Before I felt as if I wasn't really helping people. I rarely if ever saw a patient's health turn around completely from a prescription I wrote. Yet now I was seeing patients have such dramatic and meaningful improvements in their lives and health. I have become so passionate about plant-based nutrition that I discuss it with nearly every patient at almost every visit. I realize not all patients are ready for change, but some change is better than none, and some patients may not be ready for change now but will be someday in the future.
I soon realized that office visits, being so short and intermittent, are not best suited to fully educate patients about this lifestyle change or to coach them through the process. For this reason, I decided to supplement my practice by creating and teaching a two hour plant-based diet introduction class called "Plants for Life" and for those who needed more support, I also co-created and help run (with a colleague) a 14 week group-based plant-based diet/lifestyle medicine program called "Life 180" that combines education with a support group. We also created private Facebook pages for our patients in these programs for further long-term support. These new additions to my practice have given me such pleasure and joy; there is nothing more satisfying for me than to see what this can do for my patients and for the practice of medicine.
Reversing chronic diseases
With this new class and group program, I have been so fortunate to see many patients lose dramatic amounts of weight, in some cases as much weight as what we see with bariatric surgery (e.g. gastric bypass). So many patients have reversed their chronic diseases such as diabetes; including diabetic neuropathy and erectile dysfunction, which we are taught are non-reversible! One patient in particular was able to discontinue a total of 160 units of daily insulin in just two weeks after starting a whole-foods, plant-based diet! Another patient was facing a below the knee amputation like my father and was able to heal his diabetic foot ulcer and avoid amputation by changing to a plant-based diet! This patient also had painful neuropathy and erectile dysfunction and these too were reversed! I have seen numerous patients discontinue the majority and in some cases all of their medications within a matter of just days to weeks.
Needless to say, this "discovery" of plant-based nutrition has allowed me to retake my own health and it has allowed me to regain the joy of medicine and practice. My hope and vision is that within my lifetime we will see that the standard American diet will evolve to a much more healthy plant-based diet, and that as such we will reverse the epidemics of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer that are causing so much suffering and costing our country so greatly. I now have a new mission in my life and career and it is a mission I will continue to pursue with great passion and enthusiasm for as long as I can!
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