By Jay Shenai
In a fancy, spacious kitchen, Chelsea Lenge lines out her ingredients: white button and cremini mushrooms, vegetable broth, cooking wine, flour, parsley, dill and lemon.
The registered dietician is planning a lean, nutritious Hungarian mushroom soup. She finishes up a bowl of chocolate pudding, made with caffeine-free cocoa.
As light jazz music plays in the background, a delicious aroma wafts from the kitchen. This is not the traditional feel of a medical center, in fact, it’s like nothing else in the Pacific Northwest. It is the innovative heart disease prevention program based in Woodburn’s Wellspring Medical Center.
Welcome to WellspringHeart.
The brainchild of Dr. Frank Lord, emergency physician at Silverton Hospital and now medical director of the program, WellspringHeart is an instructional program devoted to the reduction of cardiovascular disease by changing lifestyles. Launched in November 2007, the program has had roughly 200 patients so far.
Based in large part on the writings and experience of Dr. Dean Ornish, the program focuses on preventative care. Patients are screened for warning signs of heart disease, including high blood pressure and a family history of heart attacks and strokes. Those who enter the program begin with a CT scan that shows potential plaque build-up in their arteries. For 12 weeks afterward, two times a week, they receive a personalized physical exercise regimen, nurse consultations and coaching on stress management, heart health and nutrition.
Patients are taught healthy lifestyle changes, like daily aerobic activity and coping mechanisms to lower stress. They are also taught how to remove fats, sugars, and processed foods from their diets and eat foods higher in antioxidants.
Like Bhutanese red rice, which Lenge warms in a pot. With the rice, “you’re not having the blood sugar high that you often get from eating refined sugar or complex carbohydrates,” Lenge said.
In the world of medical care, what makes WellspringHeart unique is that medical professionals are able to give a great deal of individualized attention to their patients. They can discuss eating and exercise habits at length, and they can intervene with patients, something that traditional medicine is not equipped to accommodate.
The standard of care now allows a doctor to spend 10 minutes or less with the average patient, said Lord, and you can’t make any meaningful connection with your patients in 10 minutes.
“Doctors are plenty capable, it’s the system that’s not capable of it,” he said. “I view [WellspringHeart] as another system that fulfils a need that physicians in their office have a heck of a time doing.”
Another important component of the program is its emphasis on group support. The program is structured around groups of patients, learning and working together to achieve a healthy lifestyle.
“We make a huge effort to do that, to foster the [camaraderie] of the project, that people go through this instruction in cohorts, so that they become quite connected to other people in the group,” Lord said.
Patients are able to share their stories and lessons with each other, Lenge said, which helps reinforce the motivation behind getting healthier, and the bond they share in their common cause, especially around the dinner table.
“That’s where I find there are some really great connections around the table, while we’re trying new foods,” Lenge said.
A key part of group support is follow-up. Patients who graduate from the program are actively monitored for months afterward and encouraged to maintain their healthy changes.
“We kick in a real regimented program of contact with the nurse case manager and with the other modality specialists to communicate with people,” Lord said.
In Wellspring’s Harvest Kitchen, the program’s hands-on approach resonates the most among its patients.
As six of them mull around the kitchen’s island stove, they divide up the chores; one heats the soup, another slices the bread, a third chops vegetables.
There’s a huge difference between a nutrition class and the cooking class at WellspringHeart, said Vicki Lynn, a hairdresser in Salem.
A family history of heart disease, and a referral from one of her own clients, spurred her to check out the program.
“I’m coming into that time in [my] life where those issues come in,” Lynn said.
In addition to her improved health, Lynn has learned how good food can be when it’s not processed. “This is
such a fresh, clean taste for food,” she said.
“I don’t tend to crave processed foods,” said Debora Kucera of Salem, retired. It’s been 12 weeks since she’s touched a diet soda, once part of her daily routine. A former nurse, Kucera says the program has given her all the tools to build a healthy new life.
Nobody else puts it all together like WellspringHeart, she says.
The program has given Terry Stephens a new lease on life. The Woodburn resident was in dire condition, he said. “I could hardly walk. I was feeling about ready to die.”
Since joining the program he has lost roughly 40 pounds, he says, and has gained a whole new outlook.
“I think this is the most amazing experience, because you get to see all the little changes in individuals,” Lenge said. A former track athlete in college, she says no personal victory can match what she’s witnessed at WellspringHeart.
“When I see the wins and the successes in this program, it’s better than any gigantic win that you can possibly imagine,” she said.