written by becca nelson sankey | photos by curtis routh and provided by marcy madrid
Young, blonde and fit, Marcy Madrid appeared to be the picture of health when she and her husband, Carlos, welcomed twins – their fourth and fifth children – in 2014. But when the numbness in Madrid’s C-section incision didn’t dissipate with time, and then spread into her lower extremities, Madrid knew something was wrong. “I called the OB and asked them about it and they said, ‘You need to see a neurologist,’” Madrid recalled. “They got me in fairly fast and did an MRI and a spinal tap and diagnosed me with MS.” MS, or multiple sclerosis, is a degenerative, chronic autoimmune disease that attacks the central nervous system.
Dr. Okuda, my neurologist from UT Southwestern who was willing to take my case and watch my progress from a researcher’s perspective, since I decided to not take the traditional treatment approach. Now his practice supports and promotes this as a treatment philosophy.
“I worked at GNC all through college so I was into protein supplements and meal replacement shakes and eating lots of lean meats, vegetables and fruits,” said Madrid, 38. “I wasn’t overweight. I’d never had issues with glucose or cholesterol or high blood pressure. I barely took Advil. So to think there was this health issue attacking my body from the inside out, it was a shock. And then it was depressing because I’m young, I’ve got a young family, I’ve got a lot of ambition and passion and lots of things I’d been called to do. This stops all of that in its tracks.
“It’s a largely unknown disease; they’re not sure what causes it. There’s no cure, no stopping it; you can only slow the progression. Maybe you won’t end up in a wheelchair immediately, but you’re still headed toward potentially being in a wheelchair. Maybe you won’t end up blind as fast, but you’re still heading toward potential blindness. You never know what part of your spinal column or brain it’s going to attack.”
Per her usual modus operandi, Madrid was stoic in her resolve to do whatever needed to be done to get a grip on the disease, including starting a medication regimen that made her feel worse and caused her hair to fall out. Privately, she said, she grieved. “I would be in the bathroom, by myself, or in the car, and I would sob uncontrollably,” Madrid said. “I could only hold it in so long. Unfortunately, doctors just try to tell you what to expect, but it drums up a lot of fear and unknowns about what could happen to you.”
The very month of her diagnosis, leadership at Madrid’s employer, Midland Health, welcomed information from two physicians about the impact diet and lifestyle changes can have on chronic disease. “The research has been around for decades, but there was no funding behind supporting the messages,” Madrid said. “We weren’t really talking about it until we had a physician who went to a conference and heard you could reverse heart disease and diabetes, proving it can be even more impactful than medication.”
Madrid and her husband, Carlos, had been praying for direction; the new information felt like a God send. “The two worlds started to align, and I started asking more questions,” she said. “They didn’t know a lot about MS specifically, but pointed me to different articles, and we started doing our own research. We felt like it was divine intervention that we were learning about this. We both got confirmation that I was supposed to stop all medication and go plant based and see what happens. I figured I couldn’t feel any worse.”
Madrid’s new diet was daunting: No processed sugars, limited oil and salt, and no dairy or meat. With a laugh, Madrid said she decided to take the leap shortly before Thanksgiving dinner with her family. “I cried on the inside the whole time I was at Thanksgiving,” she said. “I felt very isolated. Not only was I not enjoying it, but I felt different among my own family.”
On the way home, bits and pieces from Romans 12:2 popped into her head. Madrid looked up the Bible verse in the car and was stunned at how it resonated: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.” “That was confirmation to me that God is with me and it’s going to be okay,” Madrid said.
Carlos & Marcy Madrid
Throughout the next month, Madrid, a self-described “carnivore” – struggled as her taste buds re-acclimated to plant-based foods not soaked in oil, butter, salt or cheese. “Food is very addictive; that’s why we find ourselves craving things when we’re depressed or stressed,” she said. “When you start realizing what’s happening with food and your relationship with it, it helps make the changes a little more palatable, because you don’t want to be a drug addict of food. That gave me a new perspective. “Now I love the food I eat. It just shows your taste buds crave whatever you continually feed them.”
In the spring of 2016, Madrid saw Dr. Darin Okuda, an MS researcher at UT Southwestern, for a referral appointment. “He said, ‘Your MRIs looked really bad, but I’ve done a full workup and I can’t find anything wrong with you,’” Madrid said. “We did another MRI and he put them both up on the screen. He pointed to a large lesion in my brain that had all but disappeared.”
“It’s not a question of whether it will work; it’s whether you’re willing to make those lifestyle choices. It’s an emotional and spiritual decision an individual has to make.” ~Marcy Madrid
Okuda was just as shocked as the Madrids. “When we first told him what I was doing, he said, ‘Food is important, but I don’t think that’s enough.’ He had a complete change of heart because he’d never seen this before,” Madrid said. “From a researcher’s perspective, this was a breakthrough. Now they provide this as a treatment option at UT Southwestern.”
Madrid emphasized that, while food is the real killer of chronic disease, lifestyle changes also must include spirituality, exercise and stress management – the latter of which used to be one of her biggest personal struggles. “I’ve always been very focused on the end goal and feeling like I don’t have time to stop and smell the roses,” she said. “Thankfully, my husband is not that way and has been working on me for years, but it didn’t really click until I was faced with this disease. “All the important stuff can be so fleeting, and if you don’t take the time to appreciate it, then you miss it, and for what? Where does that get you?”
Now, Madrid said, she takes time to notice the little things – like the beauty of hanging out in the back yard with her children, or watching a pear tree she planted begin to bloom – because, ultimately, those are the big things.
“I was already a spiritual person, but (the diagnosis) deepened my purpose and helped me realize God’s created me for something bigger, and challenges can be used for a greater purpose,” she said. “My life is richer and more purposeful lived with this perspective. When your perspective changes and you find more value and purpose in the little things, it creates a deeper and more meaningful life.”
Dr. Awtrey and his wife Blythe are the ones who brought the plant based nutrition message and research back to west Texas after attending a national conference.
Since MS is incurable, Marcy technically still has the disease, but it’s considered inactive. “I’ll get a little tingling when I get hot, but nothing debilitating,” she said, adding, “I actually feel healthier today than before the diagnosis.”
Dr. Padmaja Patel was an early adopter of this philosophy and now is the Medical Director of our Lifestyle Medicine Center.
Madrid, who is vice president of community health at Midland Health, now speaks at international conferences about the paradigm shift happening in Midland.
“There are decades and decades of research and evidence proving the link between our food and the diseases we face,” she said. “It’s not a question of whether it will work; it’s whether you’re willing to make those lifestyle choices. It’s an emotional and spiritual decision an individual has to make.” †
The community garden project and Lifestyle Medicine Center are both results of this movement.