Program aims to reverse heart disease by changes in lifestyle

Lifespan is the only place in New England to offer the Dean Ornish Intensive Cardiac Rehab Program. (WJAR)

What if you could reverse heart disease by changing your lifestyle? There is a program that claims to do that, and it's available in Rhode Island.

Lifespan is the only place in New England to offer the Dean Ornish Intensive Cardiac Rehab Program.

Sharon Stevenson, 69, of Cranston, is one of the first patients to take advantage of this comprehensive program.

"Two years ago, I realized I had clogged arteries," said Stevenson.

A triple bypass was only partially successful. So, six months ago, she had two stents placed to open up two of the arteries that had become clogged again. That's when she heard that Lifespan was opening a Dean Ornish Intensive Cardiac Rehab Program.

"For years I had heard about it," she said.

She was completely on board right away for this very intense nine-week program.

"It is a big commitment. Two days a week, four hours," said Stevenson.

It has four components. One hour of exercise, and there's stress management.

"It's not optional,” said Katherine Conte, the stress management specialist at this new center. “In other words, the participants have to take it as part of their whole prescription."

There's an hour of group therapy.

"So you have other people who've gone through similar things that you're going through that you get to talk to about that," said Stevenson.

And perhaps the hardest component is the diet. It's strict: a plant-based, very low-fat diet. And during each four-hour session, a meal is prepared utilizing foods they need to get used to eating for the long haul.

"I have seen a difference,” said Stevenson. “I've lost weight and I actually am eating more than I ever ate before."

Motivation and adherence are key if patients want to reverse their heart disease. Dr. Wen-Chih Wu is the medical director of the local program. He said he and his staff went through the intense training to bring this program to Rhode Island. He points to the studies as proof that it works.

"They were able to show that people who underwent the program had increased blood flow to the heart without actually going through any type of intervention per se," said Wu.

What's equally impressive?

"This is one of the few programs that I've seen that, after a year, they're still up to 90 percent adherence," said Wu.

"Our hope for each person is to really create a lifestyle for them so they can have a beautiful, long and a life full of joy," said Conte.

"Who knows how long it's going to take to reverse completely,” said Stevenson. “But I'm on this train to the end."

Those who qualify for cardiac rehab qualify for this intense program. Medicare covers it, but not all private insurers do.

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