A vegan can have a heart attack? Yep.

February 10, 2018

Just over a week ago, I had a heart attack. It doesn’t make sense, but it happened.

Oh, you must be eating nothing but french fries and processed veggie burgers.


You’re a smoker.


You’re obese.


You drink a lot of alcohol.


You’re downing loads of sugary sodas.


Let’s back up to the day this happened.

Chest Pains While Driving 75mph Down I-10

Friday, January 26th we finally got our RV out of the shop (another story entirely.) We stayed that night at a KOA between Tucson and Phoenix.

Saturday we headed towards Phoenix to stock up on supplies and then planned to try to catch the tail end of the Quartzite festivities.

Our first stop was to fill up with gas and propane. After filling up with gas, we found out that station didn’t have propane but the other one at that exit did. So we decided to split up. Kevin went to fill the propane, and I took the car towards Phoenix to get groceries.

And So It Begins

So, I’m hurtling up I-10 at 75mph, and I start to feel a little weird. I start feeling this tightness in the middle of my chest. Then there was a pain in my left side under my arm level with my boob. And both arms felt tingly and like I couldn’t grip my hands very well.

I had no idea what was happening but knew I needed to get off of the road. So I took the next exit, 198. It turned out to be a weird one with nothing there. But I found a good space to pull off the road where there was room for the RV.

I called Kevin and left a message telling him what happened and where I pulled off. I started to feel clammy, and the pain in my side got more painful. Kevin called back, and I asked him to describe a panic attack. Because that’s the only thing, I could think it was. It couldn’t possibly have been a heart attack.

I crawled into the backseat of the car and waited for Kevin to get there. I honestly have no idea how long that took. Maybe 15-20 minutes?

Right before Kevin arrived, the pressure lets up. I didn’t realize how much was going on until it stopped. I sat up and when Kevin got there said I felt better, let’s continue.

We hooked up the car and got back on the interstate. After a few minutes, it all started again. So we made a beeline for the nearest hospital.

Emergency Room

We arrive at Banner Casa Grande Medical Center and find a place for the RV. It’s a pretty small hospital surrounded by doctors’ office. We walk into the emergency room and get in line. They took a little information, gave me an armband and sent me back to wait.

“Oh, that’s  not good”

They call my name after maybe 15 minutes. I answer a few more questions, and then a nurse hooks me up to an EKG machine. The test finished she printed it out and ran out of the room. Then another nurse walked in, looked at it and said: “oh, that’s not good.”

At this point, things started going crazy. They put me in a wheelchair and rushed me back to the ER. They start pulling off my clothes and tell me that a cardiologist had already been called for another case and was on the way. I had to chew up a bunch of baby aspirin and swallow them dry. My chart says I got nitroglycerin too, but I don’t remember that.

The cardiologist arrives and tells me that they’re prepping me for the cath (Cardiac Catheterization) lab. He said they would first inject dye to locate the problem. After that, they would fix the problem if they could or put me on the medivac helicopter if they couldn’t. That is if they had to crack my chest open.

In the Cath Lab

They wheeled me into the cath lab and prepped me for the procedure. They inserted the catheter through my right wrist. If I remember correctly, and that’s debatable since one of the drugs they put me on was fentanyl, the dye went in first. Then they took a chest x-ray. After that, they sucked out the blood clots. Then put in a stent.

I was awake for the whole procedure. At one point I could feel the cath team poking around in my chest. That’s a weird feeling.

Right after the procedure, the doctor told Kevin and me what he found and what he did.

Most of my heart is squeaky clean and in great shape. But the left anterior descending coronary artery had a small plaque deposit causing a 30% obstruction. And that plaque threw a blood clot that closed off that artery, hence the heart attack. And then further down the artery from that blockage, there was more blood clot hanging out.

graphic of a heart showing where my plaque, stent, and clots are or were.

The doctor left the plaque because he didn’t want to cause further damage to the artery wall. He sucked out all of the blood clots he could. And then he pumped blood thinners directly to the site to help break up and remaining clot. Then he placed a stent at the location of the primary clot.

Recovering in ICU

So now, it’s about 3 pm or so, and they get me settled in the ICU. The nurse makes sure my chart specifies vegan meals. And by the time they brought dinner I was ready to eat a bit.

Vegan Hospital Food

Props to Banner Casa Grande Medical Center for the vegan food. Each meal was well rounded, filling, reasonably tasty and also followed a cardiac diet pretty strictly. Every day I got at least one plate or bowl of fresh fruit. They gave me hummus a few times, a veggie burger, and a bean and potato burrito. I can’t remember everything, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Confined to the Bed

The first six or so hours my cath arm was in a brace, and I had meds, fluids, and monitors going to each arm. So I was confined to the bed on my back for about 12-18 hours. I can’t even tell you how happy I was when they finally unhooked me and let me go to the bathroom on my own.

Out of ICU!

Around noon Sunday, I was officially off of ICU status, but they kept me in that same room until about 2 am. No, they didn’t wake me up to move me. I was up anyway if a bit groggy. Both rooms were private, so that was awesome.

Monday I got clearance to leave the hospital. And a parade of people started visiting the room. The cardiologist, the finance department, and a nurse from the cath lab with a bunch of literature about heart disease and my cath card.

It’s funny; the dietary recommendations assume that you have been eating the standard American diet. So most of the changes they suggested were things I already do. But I already figured that would be the case, and I’d need to research on my own to make further changes. And thankfully we have a friend that’s a registered dietician that generously offered to check my work and make some suggestions.

dietary recommendations for cardiac patient.

food substitutions for cardiac patient.

Finally Released!

The nurse on duty came by with my discharge paperwork and prescription, took out the catheters in each arm. Relief! Other than the guy that came by trying to sign me up for Arizona Medicare/Medicaid, which, of course, I don’t qualify for not being a resident, no one made mention of a bill or payment. I’m sure a never-ending stream of paperwork will start arriving in our mailbox in no time. Meanwhile, I found all of the assistance applications on their website. So we’re getting that ball rolling.

We wanted to set up at a cozy campground with full hookups while we I recovered but there weren’t any spaces. So, our first night away from the hospital was in Cabela’s parking lot with The Motorhome Experiment. But it was quiet and awesome to be sleeping in my bed again.

roadrunner in the parking lot at the hospital.

So, I think I’ll end this post here. There’s so much more to say. But this is getting long. Next up, is a post about the changes I’ve made to my diet. That’s a long one! And there will be other aspects of this whole thing to talk about like how I’m going to manage follow-up care while traveling (I have no idea at this point) and how the financial aspect of my hospital stay shakes out.

Update: lab tests after 6 months

Laura Nunemaker

About the Author

Laura Nunemaker

vegan. full-time traveler. rv dweller. food lover. cow petter.

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  • Joan Hazelgrove says:

    Laura, So glad to hear you are ok. What a frightening experience! I found you guys site through The Motorhome Experiment. I will be waiting to read how you changed your diet as I am a vegetarian and don’t eat fries, don’t smoke, don’t drink alcohol, no red meat, etc. But I am 68 and just this past year got Afib (irregular heat beat). I had a heart cath ablation in August, but it made be worse (seriousy) and so they did it again in December. I still have the Afib but it is getting less. My heart is supposed to be healing for up to 3 months and I am at the 1-1/2 month point. I even gave up coffee so no caffine. All the info I get from you on healthy eating will help me adjust my diet even more. I am new to RVing and am planning a 4 month trip from Tampa, FL to Quartzsite next year. Hope to see you there. Best to you.
    Joan Hazelgrove

    • Hi Joan, Looks like we’re cath lab buddies. Yay?

      I’m not a doctor or dietician, but here’s where I started for advice. I’d already been reading Dr. Michael Greger’s How Not to Die. After the heart attack, I bought the cookbook that goes with it. He combs through nutrition studies and breaks them down to help you decide what you need to do for your health. The book further breaks it down into body systems.

      Another book I want to read but haven’t yet is Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease by Dr. Esselstyn. I think he might be a little extreme on the “no fat” recommendation (no nuts or avocado) but still want to see what he has to say.

      Mostly what I’m doing is avoiding salt, oil, and sugar and eating loads of whole plant foods. I’ll get more specific in a post soon. But I’ve already lost weight and am almost never hungry beyond mealtime. It’s pretty awesome so far unless I’m trying to eat at a restaurant.

      Good luck! And please ask questions if you’d like. I’m happy to answer. 🙂

      • Carol Poole says:

        Yes! to both of those excellent sources. Nice changes on your diet and I wish you well! And “no added oil” is the recommendation for most people, but, as you state above, those with heart disease is where it changes to cutting out even high-fat plant-based foods such as nuts and avocado. Cooking in oil and adding oil to foods are bad because we already get enough fat in our diets from whole foods, so oil is just nutritionally-weak, high-calorie waste. It’s also quite bad for our endothelium that is trying to do its job protecting our hearts. It’s not easy to eat healthy food in restaurants, I agree! I have a hard time finding vegan food that isn’t cooked in oil or made from a recipe where oil is thrown in there or where salad dressings have oil in them or kale leaves in a salad are pre-rubbed in oil. But I can always make requests as to how it’s prepared, and I usually bring homemade salad dressing.

        • It’s true, restaurants are usually adding way more oil, salt, and sugar than you ever would at home even before making dietary changes. It does make eating out challenging. I try to keep it to a minimum then do the best I can.

  • Rick Sousa says:

    Hey Laura,
    So GLAD that you are doing BETTER now !! I know it was a SCARY time for you, (and I’m sure Kevin as well …. ), But you GOT THE MEDICAL ATTENTION QUICKLY 🙂 🙂 🙂 That matters most !!
    I too am a survivor of a “widow maker” when I was 43 … (I am now 57), and life IS GOOD !!!
    So it is “natural” to go through a period (length of it depends on your own personallity ..), of being “frieghtend” every time you feel ANYTHING in your chest area … MORE time it is just “skelital” flexing…. or muscle, tendon, etc…. There are MILLIONS of nerves in the chest area, so best advise I can give you is to RELAX …. and follow the instructions of your cardiologist !!!
    YOU WILL BE FINE, girl …. Best wishes on your total recovery… and MANY years ahead of You !!!
    Rick Sousa (Massachusetts)

    • Hey, thanks for the pep talk! Thankfully I haven’t felt any chest pain since the cath procedure. My biggest concern is getting off these meds. They’re making me feel a little spacey.

  • J.R. says:

    I chuckle every time I hear the word “extreme” or “drastic” when applied to Dr. Esselstyn (or McDougall, or Campbell).

    “Extreme” is having your chest split wide open while the plumbers do some emergency pipefitting! That’s what happened to me, 3 years ago. A quintuple bypass and a mitral valve rebuild.

    The first thing I did when I got out of the hospital was to ask myself 2 questions: “why did this happen” and “there must be a better answer than a handful of pills, right?”.

    I got those answers from Drs. Esselstyn, McDougall, Campbell, Greger and many others. They have my never ending gratitude and admiration.

    3 years on and I follow a whole food plant based diet, which I love, and I take *no* medications anymore. None whatsoever. I have never felt better. I have amazing energy and I enjoy life more than ever. The drugs’ side effects are finally gone and my heart disease is actually reversing (as confirmed by my rarely seen cardiologist).

    So how is that for “drastic”?

    All joking aside — the evidence is there. Countless studies and research papers have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Standard American Diet (SAD) got us into this mess, and a Whole Foods Plant Based Diet (WFPBD) gets us out. Not to mention the scores of people like me, and hopefully you, that are living breathing witnesses to the power of simple nutrition. We truly are what we eat. What a simple, common sense concept. It such a shame that we ignore that in favour of listening to the food industry.

    BTW — we share you choice of lifestyle — we live in a converted greyhound bus 😉

    • Hi J.R.,

      Thanks for weighing in! I’m so glad you gave WFPB a shot. So many people aren’t told/don’t realize that they do have some control over their heart disease.

      So, here’s the thing. I wasn’t eating the SAD. I was eating a moderately healthy vegan diet for over 15 years. And it still happened to me. Dr. Esselstyn says over and over in Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease (I have read it now) that if you have a cholesterol level less than 150 you will not have heart disease. *cough* Mine was 134 when I had my heart attack. It makes me call into question all other claims he makes.

      Don’t worry, I’m not ignoring what he’s saying. Because in order to clean up my diet further from how I’ve been eating, I pretty much have to follow his advice. What I’m doing is WFPB, no added oils or sugars and I’m keeping my sodium intake in the 1200-1500mg range. I do occasionally eat nuts, seeds, and avocado. Mid May I’m due for more blood work so I guess we’ll find out how it’s going then.

      I just started The End of Heart Disease by Dr. Joel Fuhrman. I’m trying to fill myself with as much info as possible since the cardiologist’s answer is to throw drugs at the problem. The goal is to get off as many meds as I can as fast as I can. 🙂

      Love that you’re a fellow traveler! My next challenge will be finding a cardiologist for my next appointment when I don’t know where we’ll be yet. #RVlife

  • […] out after a heart attack is challenging. Restaurants pile on sugar, fat, and salt because people expect a decadent […]

  • […] As a vegan, you don’t consider heart disease as something that will affect you, especially not in your 40s. So I didn’t believe that as a possibility when I felt tightness in my chest, and my arms felt weak. […]

  • […] recap, since the heart attack, I no longer cook with oil of any type, have cut out refined sugars, and focus on whole plant […]

  • Devin says:

    I noticed that you are a former bakery owner. That is why I am including the following relevant article:


    • It’s possible that an uptick in sugar/refined grains during that 2-year period could have and an effect. But that ended 4 years before the heart attack. Since then those items decreased quite a bit in my diet.

      This study doesn’t include vegans. So it’s hard to say if the issue here was animal products combined with the sugar and refined grains was the issue or the sugar and refined grains alone. That said, I avoid both of those things now.

  • I am aware of some research that shows that fatty plaques (not calcium types) have a bio film which is from various ingested bacteria that require iron to survive and when iron goes missing in the diet the bio film breaks off to induce iron for their needs. this break off of plaque can clog the artery and the LAD (referred to as the widow maker). You are very lucky in how timely you were treated. For what its worth I use nicotinic acid (niacin) to keep my cholesterol under control. people with gum disease, psoriasis and asthma are at higher risk of coronary artery disease. good dietary fats and the reduction of sugar is of the utmost importance. Nicotinic acid increases the production of NAD (one of the sirtuin sisters) and increases cell energy in the mitochondria offering protection for age related diseases, while not eliminating them it delays the onset of such. do your own research and take your doctors advice.
    best wishes

  • […] but as with anything in the RV, it’s an ever-evolving list. We made significant changes after my health scare and now just about everything we carry is whole food […]

  • Michelle Aston says:

    Hello I was wondering i know this is an older post but were you taking b12 when this happened?

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