I can feel my breasts bouncing around wildly under my thin, cloth gown. I glance over to the two men in lab coats standing with their arms folded to my left. I want to place one of my arms under my breasts to keep them from flailing about, but they've told me to keep my arms in "L-shape" fast-walking motion.
They do this all day long. They're not worried about your boobs.
"Turn it up a little," said Dr. Kivowitz, without a hint of a smile.
The ultrasound technician walks over and adjusts my treadmill. Suddenly the air is filled with a loud, urgent-sounding whirring noise. I take in a big gulp of air and try to fill my lungs down to my stomach like they'd instructed me to do earlier. My legs are going so fast that I'm not sure that I'll be able to keep it up. I picture the opening montage of the Six Million Dollar Man where Steve Austin runs on the treadmill from zero to sixty in under 2 seconds, causing TVs across America to blur and wave in the wake of his superhuman speed.
"BETTER, FASTER, STRONGER, THAN BEFORE...."
Both men move closer to the monitor next to me, nodding their heads along with my heart beat-display on the screen. Suddenly it feels like my lungs are filled with ice. I don't know if I can take in a full breath.
No wonder they call this a "stress test!" I'm SOOOO out of shape! I'm going to have to jump off!
"Now!"Dr. Kivowitz's voiced booms out over the whine of the treadmill.
Dr Kivowitz moves dramatically aside as the technician turns the treadmill off and gently holds my left arm while he guides me down. I am led quickly to an exam table in the next room where my gown is thrown aside so the he can get right up to my chest with his ultra sound wand. EKG wires attached to adhesive buttons now surround both of my boobs (which are now completely exposed, but neither of them seem to care). I can see my heart trying to leap out of my chest. I want to avoid their stern faces so I look up towards the ceiling and try to look unfazed.
The technician is silent for what seems an eternity. My doctor stands back and watches a screen that's just out my line of sight. The technician calls out a few numbers. I hold my breath and try to hear the tone and inflection in my doctor's response. Their voices are clinical, neither alarming nor encouraging. I remain on tipped on my side (not the best position for my bare boobs) and wait for a verdict.
"Get dressed," he says finally, planting his feet in front of me while he reads the printout that the technician handed him. His face conveys zero emotion.
Why do those two words kind of make me feel like some floozy street-walker from one of those old, black and white movies?
"Get dressed, Toots! Go on -- get your clothes on. My wife will be here any minute!"
"I'll meet you in my office," he says.
This time there's a gentleness to his voice. I'm left alone to clumsily re-tie my open-back gown.
* * *
"Your heart looks great," he says, once I've sat in the big, leather armchair opposite his desk. "I don't see any cause for concern."
I am surprised to find tears springing into my eyes.
I guess somewhere inside I was worried that I would get different news...
"Oh good," I say gratefully. "So, I'm all clear?"
"Well," he says picking up my chart, "not quite. You do have some tiny specks of plaque in your carotid artery."
"Oh?" I feel the skin on my chest getting tight. I take in a deep breath. Suddenly, I can actually hear the blood drumming through the large vein on the right side of my neck. I clasp my hands together in front of me and try not to look so petrified.
"It's not much now," he says waving his hand dismissively. "But in 20, 30 years, this could cause you some problems."
In 20 years I'll be 70. I don't want to have stroke when I'm 70. I don't EVER want to have a stroke!
"Okay," I croak. I clear my throat. "So, what do I do?"
"Well," he says decidedly. "I want you to take some preventative action NOW."
Preventative action?? Sh%$! He wants to put me on medication! I REALLY do NOT want to go on medication.
"I'd like for you to start eating less animal products," he says calmly. "Stay away from red meat, egg yolks and cheese made from cow's milk. Try to eat more vegetables than anything. In fact, as much as possible, try to eat a plant-based diet."
No medication?! YES!!! And I can TOTALLY do less animal products. This will be a cinch!!
"And that's all?" I ask. I can hear the smile in my voice. He smiles too.
"For now," he says cautiously. "Let's see you back again in six months and see how your cholesterol and blood pressure are -- we'll also do another echocardiogram in the spring. Then we'll see if we need to put you on any medication. But for now, like I said — really try to eat more of a plant-based diet."
* * *
"I've always said I should be a vegetarian," I say to Scott excitedly as I'm driving home. "I could never kill anything. In fact, I can't even eat any meat unless its disguised — like a cutlet. I can't eat anything with moving parts."
"I know, Hon." He says patiently. "I'm the one who cuts the chicken off the bone for you while you look away from the plate, remember?"
"I know, aren't you the sweetest? But I think this won't be a big deal for me. There are so many vegan restaurants, food products, even vegan ice cream parlors. This is the golden age of vegan! I mean, I couldn't have picked a better time to do this, you know?"
"So," he says flatly. "That's it? You're going vegan?"
"I mean, yeah. Maybe not today, but my goal is to get animal-product free within this year."
"Wow," He says. "Are you on your way home now?"
"I'm going to straight to Whole Foods!" I hear my voice scaling up. "They have a whole vegan foods section! I can buy all of my groceries for the rest of the week!"
"Okay," he says again. I am curious about the lack of enthusiasm in his voice.
He doesn't really understand why this is so great!
"Okay, I'll see you soon, Hon!"
My small shopping cart is full by the time I go to check-out. I have 6-different kinds of vegan cheese, vegan sausage, vegan mayonnaise, vegan chorizo, vegan hot dogs, tofu and seitan (a vegan protein substitute made from wheat gluten — not the guy with horns from the underworld). I have quinoa, couscous and farro. I have zucchini, kale, olives and avocados.
I have vegan, sprouted wheat bread that has to stay refrigerated because its ALIVE.
I burst into the kitchen from the garage with two full grocery bags. Immediately I know something is wrong. I smell it even before I see him.
Scottie is making chicken meatballs with red sauce!
The smell awakens an unfamiliar panic in my stomach. I force a smile on to my face as I unpack basically every item from the vegan section onto our kitchen counter.
"I got hungry so I made some dinner," says Scott as he sprinkles parmesan cheese on the salad he's just finished chopping. "I've made enough for you if you want."
"No, I'm really excited to eat some of this vegan food," I say with a flash of irritation.
I put my groceries away and then slice open two vegan hot dogs, stuffing them with vegan "pepper jack" cheese and put them in my toaster oven. I then toast two pieces of pieces of vegan sprouted bread and slather them both with vegan mayonnaise. When the toaster oven "dings," I pull out the hot dogs and wrap them up in the mayonnaise-bread.
"Those look good," says Scott, dragging a fork-speared meatball through the red sauce on the bottom of his pasta bowl. "Hot dogs, huh?"
I shrug, not wanting to meet his curious gaze.
I take a big bite of the "hot dog" as soon as I sit down at the table. I freeze mid-chew -- all at once, I become very conscious of the look on my face.
This "cheese" doesn't taste at all like cheese and the hot dog is rubbery and its still cold in the middle.
"How is it?" asks Scott innocently, stuffing a forkful of salad into his mouth.
I hate him
"Pretty good," say. Taking great effort to swallow normally. "I think I'm going to try and make a tofu scramble for breakfast."
"Sounds good Hon," he says with a wink.
* * *
"How can you tell if someone's a vegan?"
I'm sitting with my friend, Victoria at the vegan, Mexican restaurant, Gracias Madre. Victoria is the picture perfect California vegan. Her blond hair is pulled back into a ponytail. She wears a white, ribbed tank top, loose fitting pants and mala beads around her neck. Her make-up-free face is dewy with a healthy, vibrant glow. She and her husband, Tamal, have one of the most successful yoga studios in the country and she's created her own brand called, Nourishment Now. You can you look up Nourishment Now on Youtube and Instagram and see how she makes all of these amazing vegan recipes for her family. Victoria and I have been friends since my kids were little, since before their son was born. I love and admire how she's chosen to live her life. Victoria always makes me presents of yummy vegan desserts that I would swear are full of lard and white sugar. And although she's never once pushed me to embrace her lifestyle for myself, she's always left the door open for me to explore.
"I don't know," she smiles. "How can you tell if someone is a vegan?"
"Don't worry — they're going to FU@#in' tell you!" I laugh.
She waits a beat then laughs with me, revealing a two perfect rows of white teeth.
"It's so true," she laughs. "Vegans will totally tell you everything about the way they eat the moment you meet them!"
"I'm not going to be like that," I say putting a piece of cauliflower dripping with cashew "cheese" into my mouth. "I'll never wear it like a badge."
Victoria puts her fork down and looks at me with big eyes.
"Are you -- are you going vegan?!"
I look back at her with a look that says, "Duh!" as I extend my arms, indicating the restaurant around us.
"Uhh, yeah! Look at this yumminess," I say. "I could eat this every day!"
"Well, this is huge," she says raising her sparkling clear water glass like she's toasting me.
"Yeah," I say. "Well, it was either this or risk going on medication. And I don't want to go on medication, so my doctor said I should try to eat less animal products."
"Less or none?" she asked.
"Well, he said less — but I'm really heading toward eating none."
"That's really great! How long have you been, um, eating LESS?"
I look toward the ceiling so that I can calculate.
I saw Dr. Kivowitz in August, so what's that? Four, five months?
"Almost six months!" I say (rounding up) proudly.
"Wow!" she said. "And I'm just hearing about this now?"
"I wanted to try it on first. See what it was like."
I open my mouth to regale her with more tales of how much I love vegan food and how I'm totally animal-product-free now, but I close my mouth again and take a breath.
I think about the containers of unopened vegan cheese and sausage that I had to throw out because I'd put off eating them for so long that they'd expired. I think about the seitan that was too salty and the tofu that was too bland. I think about the rubbery, tasteless hot dogs. I think about the five-pounds that I'd gained as a result of eating copious amounts of cashews, quinoa, farro and couscous. I think about how many chicken and sage Applegate sausages and egg whites I'd had for breakfast in the last few months because Scottie made "extra." I think of how many of Miles's "snout to tail" meals I've eaten because he'd cooked yet another irresistible, Sunday, family dinner (How can I possibly say no to my carnivore son?).
Wait a second! That's it!! I can totally be a vegan. I just need someone to cook for me! Maybe Victoria can cook for me!! Or maybe I just need to find a vegan restaurant that I absolutely LOVE and get all of my meals from there. Does Veggie Grill deliver?
"Honestly, its harder than I thought," I say, pulling myself out of my revery. "I thought the vegan hot dogs I bought from Whole Foods would taste, well more -- like hot dogs. I thought being a vegan would make me LOSE WEIGHT but I've gained five pounds from all those nuts and grains I've been eating. And I hate having to cook for myself every day because no one else in my house eats the way I've been eating."
I look up sheepishly, expecting to see her face clouded with judgment. Instead she is smiling kindly.
"It's a journey," she says, "you'll get there. And I know what you mean about those hot dogs. I don't buy too much pre-prepared vegan food. I mostly make my own and it tastes SO good! I can give you some yummy, easy recipes."
Recipes?! Can those come with a private chef?
"And I've brought you something too!" She continues.
She pulls out a rectangular, brown, recycled-material to-go box, tied with a pretty, white ribbon.
"Vegan chocolate mini-muffins -- your favorite!" She beams.
My stomach growls at the thought of the sweet, moist, dark chocolate muffins. Last time she gave them to me, I devoured seven of them in the car on the way home.
"Yay!! Thank you!" I say, meaning it. My eyes dancing with anticipation.
"I'll give you this recipe too," she says accepting my impulsive, grateful hug and kiss on the cheek.
"These are super easy to make. It's a quick bake."
Ugh - baking
* * *
That night I dream that Scottie and I are eating dinner at Mastro's Steak House. I can actually smell the savory, butteriness of the ribeye steak that comes to the table in the sizzling cast-iron pan. I can feel the creamy, unctuous texture of the lobster macaroni and cheese against my tongue. And before I can get a forkful of their signature, warm, butter cake into my mouth, I am rudely jolted awake by the sound of my iPhone alarm.
I walk into the kitchen, saying nothing as I observe Scottie cutting up fruit and heating up chicken breakfast sausages in coconut oil on the stove.
"Good morning!" he says looking at my expression. "Everything ok?"
"Fine," I say, almost under my breath. "You're making sausages again? I was going to make one of those vegan smoothies that Victoria sent me the recipe for." I sound like a petulant five-year-old.
"Oh good!" he smiles, ignoring my obvious attempt to gain some sympathy. "I'll take some smoothie too, Hon -- if you have extra."
Sure, what does he care? Of course he'll take some too. He's eating sausages and I'll bet he's having eggs with cheese as well.
"I don't know about this vegan thing," I say finally, setting my elbows on the counter and cupping my face with my hands. "It seems so restrictive."
Scott laughs out loud. "Well, it is. You're giving up a lot of the foods that you love. But, Honey, I admire how hard you work at taking care of yourself, your workouts, tennis, how careful you are about what you eat. You're doing amazing. Maybe you don't want to try and just eliminate everything at once. Maybe you ease into it."
"I didn't know it would be this hard, Hon. But I really don't want to have to go on medication."
My voice is almost a whisper. It's the second time I've uttered that sentence in 24-hours.
"Hey," he says gently chucking me under the chin. "Maybe you should talk to your dad and see what he thinks."
"Yeah, maybe," I chew the side of my finger tip and look off into space. "But I think I already know what he's going to say."
* * *
For the first time in a long time, I'm reluctant to be honest with my dad. As a doctor himself, he had already peppered me with a bunch of questions when I told him about Dr. Kivowitz's echocardiogram findings.
"What was the systolic number? What was your total cholesterol reading? Your LDL? Your HDL?"
Having been a vegetarian all of my adult life and now a vegan for the past decade or so, my dad rejoiced in the news that I was finally going to have to "go vegan" (per the suggestion of my doctor/cardiologist). But I hadn't yet had the heart to tell him that I wasn't EXACTLY, totally on board with complete and total veganism - YET.
"So, Daddy," I say finally. "You know I'm trying not to eat meat..."
"Good!" he says interrupting me. "Meat is poison."
"Yes, well," I continue. "I was thinking about maybe doing no red meat, but still eating SOME chicken and turkey for a while."
"Chicken and Turkey are the WORST things you can eat!" His voice is deep with the seriousness of the message he is trying to convey.
"The worst?" My tone is one of disbelief. "Really, worse than red meat?"
"THE WORST," he says emphatically.
"What about fish? I eat only wild caught salmon and tuna..."
"FISH?!?" He says FISH as though I've suggested shooting heroin.
"Fish is MEAT, Laura. Fish is the worst of all of them!"
I smile wryly and look at my phone.
"The worst, eh? So no red meat, no poultry and definitely no fish."
"No POISON," he says dramatically.
"What about egg whites?"
"I take it back," he says. "Eggs may be the worst thing that you can eat -- eggs and cheese."
"Not even feta or goat cheese? My anti-aging OBGYN says those are the only cheeses I should eat."
"Look," he says, softening his voice. "Do you want to be free of disease? Free of illness, less susceptible to injury? Live, healthier, longer? Then the answer is stop POISONING yourself with meat. Meat eaters get diseases and have heart attacks and strokes. Those little specks of plaque that your doctor saw? That can all be reversed if you cut out ALL animal products and start eating a plant-based diet. You will not need to go on medication."
"Okay, thank you, Daddy. I hear you."
* * *
It's now been almost two-years since that fateful stress test and I've greatly eliminated the amount of animal products I eat on a daily basis. My last echocardiogram was much better, showing a significant reduction in the "specks" and a completely clean heart scan.
When eating out, I LOVE a vegan restaurant (RFD, Sage, Gracias Madre, Cafe Gratitude, Crossroads, Stuff i Eat, Sun Cafe, even Veggie Grill) but I'll still eat the occasional spaghetti bolognese at Jon and Vinnys or carnitas taco from Guisados.
I do make small changes toward veganism wherever possible. For instance: Scottie and I use a non-dairy coconut creamer in our coffee each morning; I use an olive oil spread on my sprouted wheat toast (instead of butter) and I ALWAYS get my Matcha green tea with almond or coconut milk. Scottie makes Victoria's zucchini "pasta" recipe for me (he spins zucchini on a special "spiralizor," making long, thin "pasta"). I eat bowls of this with vegan pesto or just garlic, olive oil and vegan "parmesan cheese" (so, so good!!)
I have a freezer full of vegan ice cream and "Beyond Burgers" (which I saw on TV and found at Whole Foods). I eat these vegan burgers smothered in mushrooms, onions and melted Chai vegan cheese (Triple YUM!). And of course, I make Victoria's famous smoothies almost every morning for breakfast (which is now a favorite of all of my friends).
I'm steady working toward a healthier, hopefully disease-free life. I know my dad is right. I know my doctor spoke the truth. I'm just giving myself a little more time to get there.
Please leave me your own"going vegan" story in the comments. I'm really curious to hear how you did it (or how you attempted to do it). Thank you!