Friday, July 27, 2012

Rest In Peace, Princess Gargi

If you look at Gargi Pahuja's Facebook page, you'll find a quote from holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl: It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds. 
Sharing a laugh with Gargi

One thing I discovered quickly after meeting Gargi a couple years ago is that she knew how to find the humor in the most dire of circumstances. This was, I suspect, the greatest lesson of living a lifetime with a chronic transfusion-dependent disease. And like Frankl, Gargi was a survivor--with a proven ability to laugh hard and often. 

After connecting through e-mail in 2010, I invited Gargi and her mom to join me at my upcoming book-launch party in San Francisco. Long after most of the party attendees had left, Gargi and I sat laughing and plotting ways to join our respective advocacy efforts. Afterward, my husband asked me who she was because he didn't recognize her but could clearly see that we were old friends. "Just met her," I replied. 

But that's the thing with Gargi. Once she met you, you became an instant "old friend." She didn't waste time slowly building up to a friendship. After all, after being diagnosed with thalassemia as a baby, Gargi wasn't expected to live to see her 12th birthday. The doctors told her parents, "Take her home, enjoy her and don't expect anything from her."

Gargi got the last laugh with her doctors though. Not only did she see her 12th birthday - and two dozen birthdays after that - she also excelled in life: several degrees, non-profit board seats, and some incredible work helping patients around the world. But in my view, Gargi's greatest accomplishment was her solid grasp of priorities. She knew, without hesitation, what was important to her--family, friends, the human connection.

There's another bit of telling detail on Gargi's Facebook page. Her self-description reads: I like to laugh so hard and loud that my insides hurt, twirl until I fall down from being dizzy, have meaningful conversations with 5-year-olds, mix my poisons, and generally do good deeds so that I can come back as a princess in my next life.
With Gargi and Her Family at the FABC Gala Benefit
Though I never witnessed Gargi twirling until she fell, I did witness some of her many good deeds: promoting blood safety for future transfusion-dependent patients, working with her family's charity to help thalassemia patients in India, securing sponsorships for a gala benefit I chaired last November, relocating to Virginia so she could help care for her newborn nephew. Every time I mentioned trying to create a paid position for her with the foundation I was heading up, her response was always the same: "Let's just focus on your needs right now. The rest will work itself out."

Last weekend, Gargi's time on earth came to an end. But I have no doubt that her impact on countless people - myself included - will continue. So let's raise a glass to Princess Gargi, a radiant soul who performed a lifetime of good deeds in a mere 37 years. 

Rest in peace, friend. 

Gargi Pahuja
1975 - 2012

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Cleanse Schmenze

I grew up in South Jersey, exit 3 off the turnpike. Pizza, cheesesteaks, and Pepsi were their own food groups in my world. Candy consumption was an everyday occurrence. Sure, I ate vegetables: corn in the summer, canned green beans in the winter. There was only one kind of lettuce and it was iceberg. Celery was edible only if slathered with cream cheese, a carrot if dunked in onion dip.

Because I was tall and thin, I assumed I could eat whatever the hell I wanted.  Because I became a runner in my 20s, I assumed I could eat as much as I wanted of whatever the hell I wanted. And so I did.

Then, in my 30s, I got sick—really sick—as in not-expected-to-live sick. A few days before I was discharged from a six-week stay in the intensive care unit, one of my nurses suggested that someday, when I was strong enough, I should consider doing a “liver cleanse.” Pictures of a big gooey organ wearing a shower cap and bathing in a tub of bubbles came to mind. A liver cleanse? WTF? I’d never heard of this, but I was willing to try just about anything to help my recovery process.

Months later, my family and I relocated to Boulder, Colorado, home of every type of cleanse imaginable. A year into my recovery I decided it was time. I went to a small natural grocer in town, read through the various books on cleansing (there were many; who knew?), and picked a program that was designed specifically for the liver. I decided I would do this strict program for ten days. I left the store with $300 worth of vegetables (to make “cleansing broth”) and supplements. I made lists and schedules and, yes, the broth (which, frankly, tasted like dirty dish water).

The next morning I arose with determination and took my first round of supplements, along with two tablespoons of olive oil and the juice from half a lemon. An hour later, I choked down a cup of that nasty broth. Another hour later, more supplements. At this point I was starving. And that’s when I broke. It was only 11 a.m. and I ditched the cleanse in favor of tortellini alfredo and a Coke. Cleanse #1: FAIL!

 A few years later, someone convinced me that I should attempt another cleanse, this one fairly intense. Nothing but fruits and vegetables for 28 days. No salt, no olive oil, no nothing. I could make fresh guacamole, but there’d be no corn chip to deliver it to my mouth. My husband decided to do the program with me (he did not know that colonics were part of the regimen when he signed on; silly man). At the time, I was in the middle of a busy speaking tour across the U.S. and I had two trips that had long been scheduled during the same month we chose to do the cleanse. By the conclusion of the first trip, I was lethargic and sick.

Just when I began feeling a bit better, the next trip came around. I packed my juicer and a bag of organic produce, unsure if I’d be able to find what I needed in the city I was visiting. United Airlines “accidentally” rerouted my luggage to their home base in Chicago instead of to my destination in Florida, and I’m certain it was because they believed my juicer was a bomb. Imagine how embarrassed they must’ve been when they opened the bag only to be overwhelmed by the smell of broccoli, cucumbers, celery, and beets.

I spent two days in Florida, adhering to the cleanse protocol while delivering three different keynote addresses. When it was time to pack and leave for the airport, I felt I had not one electrolyte left in my body. Tossing my clothing, toiletries and juicer in the suitcase felt like far too great a task, so instead I lay on the bed and phoned Jeff. He convinced me to stay one more day and to eat some “real” food for energy. Lucky for me I had been booked into the Club Level of the Ritz-Carlton, so I made my way to one of their “culinary offerings”—appetizer spreads—and proceeded to circle the buffet table, grabbing at food and eating as I walked, a sad parody of Patty Duke in “The Miracle Worker.” I returned home the following day to find my husband looking gaunt and exhausted, barely able to lift his head from the couch pillow to greet me. What a pair we were, a couple of emaciated zombies. And it was only Day 19 in our 28-day program.

“Do you want to end this stupid cleanse?” I asked him.

“Yes. Let’s get Chinese food,” he replied. And off we went to stuff our pie holes with fried wontons, egg rolls, and beer. Cleanse #2: FAIL!

After that experience, I swore off any sort of deprivation-based program. It seemed that making my body weak in an attempt to make it strong didn’t make sense. And given all my body had been through with the big illness of years ago (from which I never fully recovered) I had to be extra respectful of my body’s nutritional needs.

Years passed with no mention of the word “cleanse.” Then I came across a documentary by Joe Cross—“Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead.” Not exactly god’s gift to cinematography, but a great little film nonetheless. Watch it. All of it. I promise you there’s a wonderful surprise about mid-way through. And by the end, I suspect Joe Cross will be one of your heroes too. (Spoiler alert: he juices a shitload of fruits and vegetables for two months, which helps him regain health, drop weight, and dump his prescription meds.) Joe inspired me to blow the dust off my juicer and begin cramming dark green things into it again. Then drinking them. But my no-deprivation rule still stood firm, so a 100% juice cleanse—which Joe calls a “reboot”—was not appealing to me. But perhaps with some modifications…

And that’s when my “10-Day Modified Juice and Smoothie Not-Really-A-Cleanse Program” came into being. Here’s the overall gist of it:
  •        Consume organic fruits and vegetables as juice (I use an Omega juicer, which “masticates” the contents), a smoothie (I prefer the Vitamix; if there was ever a blender on steroids, this is it), soup, or as the real thing—a salad, a piece of fruit, whatever. Overall, I lean toward liquids, but do not restrict myself to them. Sometimes, you just need to eat a freakin’ plum, right?
  •        Have a good quality protein shake every 1-2 days so you’re getting more protein than what the veggies can offer. I mix whey protein with almond milk (Almonds have udders? Hello?!).
  •        Continue taking any supplements and medications.
  •        Give yourself about a cup of nuts/day if you need to eat something more substantial than rabbit food—like, say, squirrel food!
  •        Chia seeds: get them, eat them. They look like poppy seeds and apparently they’re good for more than just growing chia pets. Some people like to put them in a glass of water and let them expand before drinking them. I suppose if you like the idea of drinking frog eggs this approach will appeal to you. But me, I just toss them back and chug water, then spend the next half hour picking chia seeds out of my teeth. They expand in my belly and help me feel full—in addition to all the great stuff they’re doing for me nutritionally. I also sprinkle them on salads or add them to smoothies.
  •       Drink a shitload of water. When you’re done, drink more. Word on the street is that you should cut your weight in half and drink at least that many ounces of water each day. So if I weighed 140 (which, trust me, I don’t), I’d be drinking at least 70 ounces or roughly 9 cups of water each day.
  •        Exercise lightly but consistently. With the severe osteoarthritis I’ve developed, I’ve replaced running with “extreme water jogging.” And by extreme I mean my level of embarrassment every time I do it. I used to make fun of those people. Now I’ve become one of them.
  •       Take Epsom salt baths. I’ve heard it said that your skin is your body’s largest detoxification organ. Sweat like you mean it!
  •      If you need help moving the bowels (I'm resisting the urge to use the term "dump" here), I like an herbal product from ReNew Life called Cleanse More, which—truth be told—should really be renamed Poop More. Enough said.
  •       Treat yourself to a massage. Hey, it’s for medical reasons!
  •       And if you cheat, shake it off and get the hell back on the horse—err, program. The fate of the world doesn’t rest on whether you slam dunk your first attempt at a modified cleanse. Just keep moving, more or less, in the right direction.

So there it is. My non-FDA-approved 10-day program to feel better, drop weight (I dropped—and kept off—9 lbs. during my first program), and jumpstart changes in eating habits and lifestyle. For me, it’s no longer about diets. It’s about truly, thoroughly, and permanently making changes that support the quality of life I want to have as I continue in my second half century of life, while also attempting to arrest—or better yet, reverse—the effects of severe osteoarthritis in all my major joints. And I needn’t make all those changes at once. Moderation is a beautiful thing. Imagine that!

My program may or may not work for you. But if you want to give it a try, go for it. If you want to modify it, go for it. If you want to share more information with me, go for it. If you want to tell me why my program sucks and yours is the one true messiah of health and vitality, spare me. Please. Don’t we already have enough of that bullshit in our various religious views? (Oh lord—I may have just opened a can of worms; and worms are definitely NOT a part of this program.)

I’ve had some requests to share my recipes, so here goes. First, I have no set recipes. I prefer to play around with the ingredients, which of course, at times, leads to a whole pitcher of nasty-assed vegetable juice (hint: mustard greens make any juice taste like hell) or overly spicy soup (hint: a little cayenne goes a long way). But here are a few basics:

Vegetable Juice. Let’s be clear: Bloody Mary’s do not count as vegetable juice. And yes, I’m well aware that vodka comes from potatoes. Still—no vodka. Get over it.  

I use cucumbers, carrots, celery, beets, kale and lemons as my basic juice ingredients. Apples can be thrown in too if you want to go sweeter. The fresher the juice the better, but I get tired of hauling out the juicer twice a day, so I make a pitcher and drink it over a two-day period. Lemon cuts the grassy taste of dark greens. Cucumbers soften the bite of any juice. And no matter how much you read that garlic and onion are great for heart disease, they are nasty, nasty, NASTY if juiced without anything else. Trust me—I’ve tried it. Then I spent five minutes standing by the toilet trying to calm my gag reflex while my stomach burned more than Regan when the holy water was splashed on her in “The Exorcist.” There are plenty of decent juicing books in natural grocers that can give you more specifics for recipes. It’s all about trial and error, baby!

Kale Smoothies. Growing up, I didn’t even know kale existed. Ten years ago, I couldn’t identify it in a produce store if my life depended on it. Now, I go through 3-6 bunches of it each week. Go figure.

Let’s be honest: the key to making a decent kale smoothie is drowning out the taste of, well, kale. For my smoothies, I throw an entire bunch of kale in the Vitamix. I add about a cup or two of water (or OJ if you prefer) and blend until it’s liquefied. 

Then I toss in two bananas, roughly two cups of blueberries and strawberries, the juice from one lime (I use a handheld lime juicer, but you can remove the skin and toss the whole lime in if you want), an avocado (remove skin and pit, duh), and any other random fruit I have around (peaches, pineapple, etc.). 

You can throw in protein powder if you want, though it can add a chalky taste. Also, almond butter is a good substitute for avocado. And chia seeds or ground flax seeds could be a good addition as well. You can add more water and/or ice until you get the consistency you prefer. 

And remember to secure the Vitamix lid well before jamming the machine on high speed. It’s no fun cleaning kale smoothie off the ceiling. Trust me, I know.

Simple Ingredients for Soup
Pureed Vegetable Soup. I stole this recipe from my acupuncturist’s wife. She’s French, and if there’s one thing the French know it’s food. (Granted, they’ve got that wine thing down pretty well too.) 

Clean and cut the following vegetables (leaving their skins on) and toss them into a pot: 3 potatoes, 1 leak (split down the middle and rinse well; mud collects in their annoyingly tight layers), 1 onion, 2 carrots, 2 celery stalks (use a carrot peeler to remove some of the stringiness on the back side of the celery), and 4-8 cloves of garlic (I added this little improvement; shhhh, don’t tell Dominique). 
Dominique's Soup

Toss in one whole bay leaf and cover with water—about two inches above the top of the vegetables. Boil for several hours until the vegetables are soft. Remove the bay leaf then puree the soup using a handheld immersion blender (no, you don’t remove any of the water).  Finally, add spices to taste (salt and pepper are fine; I throw in turmeric and cayenne to help with my arthritis). Yes, there are—gasp!—starchy potatoes in this recipe. So what! Don’t be a potato hater. Eat your soup.

Cleansing Broth. This is basically a new twist on “vitamin water.” Not the tastiest or most filling meal you’ll ever have, but hey—it’s chock full of vitamins and minerals. I’d call it a morning coffee substitute, but some rabid coffee addict out there would likely hunt me down and smack me for making such a statement.

Cleansing Broth in the Making
Take the biggest cooking pot you have and toss in chopped clean organic vegetables with the skins on. Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, seaweed, garlic, onions, scallions, carrots, celery, radishes, leaks, parsnips—whatever! Fill the pot with water and boil the crap out of those vegetables. Then, remove all the vegetables, season to taste (again, people: vodka is not a seasoning), and store the broth in glass containers in the fridge until you’re ready to drink it. I reheat small amounts on the stove top (not the evil microwave oven) as needed, a couple cups per day. There’s no such thing as overdosing on this stuff, so if you want more, go for it. Mmmm, mmmmm. 

Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on YouTube. I’m just a 50-year-old woman who has experimented with many healing modalities in an effort to find what works for her. I share this information not as a way to dispense medical advice, but because some Facebook friends wanted to know more about what I was doing. I see several different health care specialists—MDs, naturopaths, physical therapists, acupuncturists, body workers, nutritionists—and I view them all as “consultants” to the entity called My Health. But I’m the CEO. And the final decisions—including the one to do my 10-Day Program every so often—rest solely with me.

I believe that there is no one right path to wellness. I believe that we are each responsible for our own health and wellness (though I wholeheartedly support a government-run healthcare option that prevents those with preexisting conditions from being kicked out of the system by private insurers; see this blog by Roger Ebert to understand why I stand by Obamacare, warts and all). I believe that many of us could be a lot healthier than we are, but that choice would require lifestyle changes that we aren’t yet willing to make. I believe that when the pain (emotional or physical) becomes great enough, we will make those changes. I believe we are capable of changing. Old dogs, new tricks. Woof!

And p.s. Philly Cheesesteaks and pizza are still two of my favorite foods. I just don’t scarf them down as often as I used to.