A disciplined lifestyle leads heart patient to rediscover joy in life


At 56, Karen DeWitt knew she needed help to regain joy in her life after a silent heart attack and a stent procedure for her blocked arteries. Instead of feeling better, her heart medications left Karen with no energy – or interest – in life.

"Physically, I could not hold my head up throughout much of the day," said Karen, who lives in Indianapolis. "Emotionally, I was hopeless."

Karen and her family searched for solutions to restore Karen's hope that she could regain quality of life and return to her usual self. That's when Karen's sister discovered Ornish Lifestyle Medicine™, an intensive cardiac rehabilitation program that often reduces patients’ dependence on medications. The 9-week program includes a plant-based diet, exercise, group support and stress management. Karen enrolled in the program at Goshen Heart & Vascular Center in early 2019.

"I am a completely different person," Karen said. "I lost 70 pounds. My mental attitude has changed drastically. My energy has increased, and I know the importance of self-care."

A move toward hope and healing

Although Karen and her husband Barry live in Indianapolis, they decided to rent a home near Goshen Heart & Vascular Center, since it offers the only Ornish program in Indiana. The temporary move allowed the couple to focus on Karen's cardiovascular rehabilitation. It also gave Barry a chance to join her for most of the exercise and education sessions, a practice the Ornish program encourages.

Together, the couple learned how to adjust to the no-oil, vegetarian way of eating on the Ornish program. It was the opposite of the high-protein, low-carb diet Karen's doctors had recommended for over 20 years.

"That was a real brain change – an unlearning – for me," said Karen. "The craze of high-protein, keto, paleo way of eating did not serve me well. It produced my health state."

Ornish-style cooking classes and nutrition education helped the DeWitts master the art of eating plant-based foods, even when they travel.

"If you had asked me in February if I could give up meat, I would say 'you are crazy,'" said Barry, who lost over 100 pounds. "But I don't miss meat at all. This is so doable!"

Stress management key to Karen's success

During the Ornish program, Karen realized she did not manage stress well. "That's what resulted in my heart disease," she said.

The stress management segment became Karen's favorite part of the Ornish program. Now she practices breathing, meditates and does yoga every day. The self-care routine gives Karen the tools she needs to handle stress in a healthy way. She also is building a stronger support system among friends, family and newfound Ornish graduates.

Lifestyle changes make a lasting difference

Back home in Indianapolis, Karen and Barry continue to practice what they learned in the Ornish program. Exercise is a daily priority for both of them. Their plant-based diet is easy to maintain. And they feel better.

In addition to Karen's weight loss, her blood pressure and cholesterol have dramatically dropped. Plus, she has reduced most of her medications. Now she hopes her physician will approve of eliminating all of them in the future.

Karen also takes every opportunity to say, "The Ornish program works! The proof is in my numbers."

For more information about the Ornish program, call Karen Sommers, Clinical Coordinator, Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation at (574) 364-2587.