Anyone who has had heart disease or survived a heart attack knows the importance of making lifestyle changes to improve their health and prevent a recurrence. That’s where the Penrose-St. Francis Ornish Lifestyle Medicine program can be a game changer. It’s reportedly the first and only program scientifically proven to slow, stop and even reverse the progression of heart disease.

The Penrose-St. Francis Heart and Vascular Center has one of only two such programs in southern Colorado; the other is at South Denver Cardiology Associates, A Centura Health Clinic.

Every week for nine weeks, participants attend two four-hour sessions “focused on bringing about sustainable lifestyle changes in four areas: personal nutrition, exercise, love and support, and stress management,” says nurse Robyn Stein, director of heart and vascular care with Centura Health, which offers the program at Penrose-St. Francis.

The small, consistent groups of participants share the goal of reversing their heart disease and improving their well-being. They’re led by an unchanging team of clinicians – a specially certified heart health team of physicians, nurses, dietitians, stress management specialists, exercise professionals and an executive chef.

The hospital launched its pilot program last July with six patients. It’s had 40 patients since. At least two of them had only rave reviews for the program.

“When I had my first heart attack in 2011, they put a stent in and told me my arteries had a lot of buildup clogging them. The doctor told me to exercise and diet,” said George “Matt” Walker. “When I had the second episode in 2017, the doctor recommended that I attend this new heart health program.”

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Over the nine weeks, the 72-year-old lost 20 pounds and lowered his LDL, the bad artery-clogging cholesterol.

“When I started the program, my LDL cholesterol was 140,” he said. “At the end of the program, it had dropped to 55, which was a shock.”

His plant-based diet was responsible. Jodi Woodruff, the program’s executive chef, fed participants a plant-based meal after each session. Woodruff, classically trained in French cuisine, had to nix the eggs, dairy and heavy fats she typically used and focused on nutritious meals that patients could prepare at home quickly and easily.

Walker, who grew up in South Carolina enjoying fried chicken and bacon, said he has “gotten used to the veggies” and enjoys them.

“I cut out the fat and use just a little bit of canola oil when cooking,” he said. “If I splurge and eat out, I get a salad and small beef fillet. By the time I finish the salad, I’m already full. I end up with enough food to take home for a second meal.”

He also joined a gym to maintain his daily exercise and does the program’s other elements.

“During the nine weeks, they taught us the whole nine yards – managing stress, how to relax, eat better and importance of exercise,” he said. “I’m going to stick with it.”

Diann Tomar sang the same praises. At 74, she had a heart catheterization in 2017 for pulmonary hypertension.

“During the process, they found six blockages and were unable to stent any of them,” she said. “They couldn’t do bypass surgery either.”

The Ornish program was recommended, and after nine weeks, her cholesterol and triglycerides were down.

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“I lost 40 pounds,” she said. “I feel stronger than I ever have and have more energy. I loved the program.”

Stein said Penrose sees about 1,000 cardiac rehabilitation patients a year, and they’ve seen a big difference between this program and the traditional cardiac rehab program that most hospitals provide.

“On our traditional program, a patient might have a2-pound weight loss,” Stein said. “Now we’re seeing an average weight loss of 10 pounds. But the big difference is in waist and hip measurements. This is the problematic area of weight gain and a predictor of heart disease. Also there’s improved lack of depression, which is evidenced by depression score improvement by 50 percent from start to finish of the program.”