Nourishing My Body While Living With an Illness

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by Anna Jeter |

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While I cringe a bit at the term, I would definitely consider myself a foodie.

Food Network often plays in the background while I work. I was gifted a pasta-maker for Christmas, which I now use weekly, and I’m currently experimenting with sourdough bread recipes. I’ve loved food and everything about it for as long as I can remember.

This love affair began early, as I worked beside my mom in the kitchen. Her love of food and quality ingredients was infectious to me at a young age. Many of my core memories are tied to the smells that would emanate from the oven as I arrived home from school or was called to the table on Sunday evening.

As I’ve grown older, this love of food has become intertwined with the responsibility to nourish my body — a task that is often multidimensional when living with a chronic illness.

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Food and pulmonary hypertension

Having any illness can complicate a person’s relationship with food. While living with pulmonary hypertension, I was given certain nutritional recommendations. In particular, it was suggested that I eat a low-sodium diet, something I admittedly neglected.

Additionally, weight management was always a concern. It was crucial for me to eat high-calorie items to maximize my caloric intake. While some people would see this as a perk, saying things like, “You’re so lucky you get to eat anything you want,” it was actually stressful and exhausting. Getting enough nutrients can be difficult with a body that is working so hard against itself.

Things became more difficult during my later years of college, as I managed a full nursing course load and lived in a house off campus, meaning I was responsible for all of my own meals. While my sodium intake remained poor, I worked hard to eat enough in those years leading up to my transplant, knowing I had to keep my weight up and keep my body as strong as possible. Through these efforts, I continued to improve my cooking skills, and fell deeper in love with complex recipes and flavors.

Food after transplant

The last thing I ate before my heart-lung transplant was quickly thrown together by my mom. An hour or two before we left for the hospital, she handed me a plate with fresh sourdough bread, purchased during our trip to the Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco, topped with butter and some slices of cheddar cheese.

I never would have guessed that it would be five months before I’d eat again — a result of my tracheostomy and ventilator dependence post-transplant.

At one point, we asked my team if I could lick Dum Dums lollipops just to experience flavor, a request so creative that they couldn’t find a reason to say no. Even after I was able to reintroduce oral intake, it took a long time for foods to taste like they used to and for me to rebuild my appetite. Now, I love food more than ever and work to celebrate its place in my life as often as possible.

However, I must abide by many new dietary regulations due to my transplant. I can no longer eat sushi, something I used to enjoy often. And I’ve cut out my favorite vegetable, Brussels sprouts, which I ate almost every week in college. Similar to my PH diet, it’s still recommended that I stick to a low-sodium regimen, a restriction I try to abide by now.

There are also new procedural concerns in the kitchen. I’m careful to avoid cross-contamination, and I temp all of my meat, something we never thought about in our household growing up. The list goes on and on.

Transplant has undoubtedly added some new food concerns to my checklist. But as my fork digs into a bowl of tender homemade fettuccine topped with a rich ragu Bolognese, I know without a doubt that I can make delicious meals while abiding by the rules that are best for my body.

Cooking through COVID-19

Through the pandemic, I haven’t been comfortable with indoor dining, which prevents me from eating out with friends and trying new restaurants. As someone who loves exploring the culinary offerings of her city, this has been a devastating loss. But in exchange, I’ve leaned into my love of cooking in my own home. The rewards of preparing a nourishing and delicious meal are unlike anything else, and the hobby has helped fill this time of isolation with some delicious memories.


Note: Pulmonary Hypertension News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Pulmonary Hypertension News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to pulmonary hypertension.

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