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I'm Aware That I'm Rare: the phaware® podcast

A new podcast series devoted to raising global pulmonary hypertension awareness with dynamic stories from PH patients, caregivers and medical professionals from around the world. New Episodes every Monday!

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Sara Cates - phaware® interview 267

Jul 26, 2019

Single Mom, Sara Cates discusses being diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension and how juicing and a whole food plant based diet helped change her weight, lifestyle and mental wellbeing. 

My name is Sara Cates. I am in Kansas City, Missouri and I am a pulmonary hypertension patient.

I actually heard about PH for the first time in an emergency room visit. I had symptoms ongoing for over a year that included a racing heart, a battle with pneumonia that I just couldn't overcome. It got to the point where I would have blue lips and coughing fits and real bad dizzy spells. I was going to a public hospital at the time and they were running all kinds of tests to kind of see what was going on with me. It wasn't until I went into an emergency room visit that one of the doctors told me that I had pulmonary hypertension.

My first reaction was to go to Google, which was a really bad idea. Google scared me, scared me completely. But through that they got me into a pulmonologist there at the public hospital. The pulmonary doctor kind of went over what pulmonary hypertension was and how my body was fighting. They put me on oxygen that day. But at that point they told me that since it was such a rare disease that they actually were not capable of treating me and that I would have to find a specialist that deals with rare diseases.

It was actually about six months before insurance went through and all of that. But I did get in to see a specialist. My son, he was six years old at the time I was diagnosed, which was five years ago, so He's 11 now. At the time of diagnosis, [I was a] single mom, I was going to school, I was working management at a restaurant and just doing everything that I could that I knew how to survive. Then I just got real sick one day. Over the course of the year, year and a half, it got really bad.

After diagnosis, in reading the statistics about pulmonary hypertension, it really just got me in a deep depressive state. I was pretty much convinced that my days were numbered and I was really depressed because as a single mom I wasn't entirely sure what was going to happen to my son. I found a lot of comfort in eating. Without treatment I was just on 24-7 oxygen and I was at home. I had to quit working. My weight got up to nearly 300 pounds just through depression and defeat.

I got diagnosed in October and the weight gain happened over about a five or six month period. I didn't get into see my pulmonary specialist until May of that following year. By the time that I reached my specialist I was a mess and my heart was failing. I was on 24-7 oxygen and I was just really defeated. My weight had gotten out of control. I sat down with that doctor and he closed the door and he said, "All right, we don't have time limits. Tell me your story. Tell me what it took to get you here."

I just poured out my heart to him. He gave me a hug and he was like, "Okay, we're going to tackle this thing." He said, "I'm going to do my part. We're going to put you on dual therapy." He told me, "I can't promise that you'll ever be off oxygen or that things are going to get better, but we're really going to tackle this." He said that you still have to do your part. I just kind of looked at him and he said, "Your part is that you have to lose weight."

The problem was is that my heart was failing and I wasn't allowed to exercise to lose the weight. I was in college at the time I was diagnosed. I actually had to switch to online classes, but I was in the honor society and by God's grace, one of the gentlemen in my honors society reached out to me and he was like, "Hey, I want to meet up. I've got some information for you that I think could be really beneficial."

I hadn't shared a whole lot of my story on social media, but just enough to where people knew I was struggling. I met with him at the library and he actually shared with me a whole lot of information. He shared with me about a whole food plant based diet, about juicing, raw fruits and vegetables, and gave me a book about juicing. He shared with me some documentaries that had not only helped his life, but a lot of other people that were struggling with medical illnesses. He shared with me the documentary “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead,” which is about an Australian gentleman that went on a juice fast for 40 days here in America and cured a skin disorder and lost the whole bunch of weight.

While I never thought that I would cure pulmonary hypertension, I did know that I needed to lose weight and that I had been given this story and now what do I do with it? I wanted to make the best of what I was dealing with and I certainly didn't want to add any more diseases on top of what I was already facing.

I started juicing in May of that year. The same time that I started seeing my specialist, it all happened within the same month, which was really cool. I got a juicer for graduation and I just started juicing as much as I could playing with recipes and doing all of that. I decided that I did want to go on a juice cleanse. I think my first one was about 10 days, which was really hard and was unlike anything I'd ever done before. I didn't even eat vegetables prior to this. I was completely standard American diet, but the documentary had sparked so much hope in my heart that I was like, "I don't have anything to lose." So I did, I started juicing.

My first one was for 10 days and then I noticed that my heart was kind of like, I wasn't feeling too hot with that, so I was like, "Okay, I'm going to just juice as much as possible and eat whole food plant-based meals." I do want to say that it's technically a vegan diet, but it's different from a vegan diet. Vegan diets still contain processed foods and it's more of an ethical choice. But whole foods plant-based eating is basically taking whole ingredients and making meals.

I just started doing that in May of that year. By October, I had lost a significant amount of weight. I went back to my pulmonary specialists and he was so amazed at my results and we tested my oxygen and actually got to go off oxygen that day. Then within a year of doing this switch of being juice and whole food plant-based diet, I had lost a hundred pounds. I had cured sleep apnea and my heart had actually returned to normal size and function.

My doctor has been there every step of this. I do monthly lab work even still to this day. Five years later I'm still doing monthly lab work. I see my specialist every three months, so that if anything were to go awry we would know really quickly. My doctor has been here through the entire process and really just been my biggest cheerleader in all of this.

As soon as I watched the first documentary about juicing and this guy transforming his life, it sparked a little bit of hope in me. I just remember it was like this fire that lit up and the depression almost instantly lifted. As I started feeding my body more with plant foods and then I saw all of this process of everything changing, I switched from being depressed to being filled with hope. Then at one point it just switched over from hope to kind of motivation, because I saw the amazing things that were happening with me and I was like, "Wow, more people need to know about this."

Then it became this passion and this drive for me that even to this day I can't not share the message, because it's changed my life so radically. When I was diagnosed I was put on permanent disability and we all know that with disability you do not get a lot of money to live on. The amount of fruits and vegetables that I was eating was exponential. I was eating more than I could possibly buy on my paycheck. I started growing food in my backyard. In the beginning it was really hard because as a pulmonary hypertension patient, we have good days, we have bad days and there are days where you just can't do anything. I would go out in the mornings when I had the most energy and I would just start cultivating my backyard.

I started planting as much food, as many plants and seeds as I possibly could to kind of offset the cost. Then I kind of became an avid gardener through this. I found ways to set myself up to where in the heat of the summer that I wouldn't have to go out and tend the garden so much. I could just go harvest what I needed. That's been a really huge asset to me is that I have access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

During diagnosis, I was finishing up my first degree. It was a degree in psychology. Then when I saw the power that was in this whole food plant-based diet and I started really just digging into my own research, it prompted me to go back to school. I went back to school focusing on a degree in biology because I just wanted to know as much as I could about this. I am happy to say that I just graduated last month with a degree in biology and chemistry and I'm excited to see where my education takes me with that. I'm just excited to see where this road leads from here.

My name is Sara Cates and I'm aware that I'm rare.

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