When I was 23 years old, during my second year of medical school at Duke University, I suffered a massive, spontaneous brainstem stroke that spared my mind, but viciously destroyed every single muscle in my body. I was left fully paralyzed from head to toe, unable to breathe or talk, as I spent months lying motionless in a hospital bed watching my inactive muscles wasting away. I had "locked-in" syndrome, a very real (and cruelly self-explanatory) condition that not stole any connection I had to the world around me. My silent sobs and incarcerated fears were my only companions in this nightmare of a life I was forced to wake up to every single day.
By some miracle, after three painfully empty months, my muscles and my voice began to wake up, but only barely. I was immediately put on a rigorous physical, occupational and speech therapy regimen in order to increase the strength and function of my atrophied muscles. Through various rehabilitation exercises, such as electrical stimulation and weight-bearing activities, my muscles improved steadily over the next year. But slowly, my once promising progress began to decelerate, leaving me still wheelchair-bound and barely able to use my arms, legs or voice.
I tried every prescribed and experimental treatment I could in hopes of reigniting my recovery beyond the slow progress I was seeing in therapy. Acupuncture, hyperbaric oxygen treatment, Botox injections, neuromuscular massage—anything I could to restore my muscles to their normal strength. Thousands of dollars and thousands of hours later, hopeless and heartbroken, I was no better than I was before.
But there was one thing I hadn't tried, and it weighed heavily on my conscience: Was my vegetarian diet holding me back from getting the proper nutrients I needed to rebuild my muscles? "Eating adequate protein is necessary for building muscle, particularly when participating in physical therapy, occupational therapy, and muscle building activities," says Hannah Swartz, clinical dietitian at Montefiore Medical Center. "Animal proteins are complete proteins, meaning they have all of the essential amino acids—the building blocks of protein that our body needs, but cannot make," whereas plant-based proteins lack some of the necessary micronutrients for our body's proteins.
I had taken the plunge into vegetarianism back in middle school for a myriad of vague reasons: the sanctity of animals in my religion, my general apathy towards the taste of meat, and a bit of crazed mob mentality since several friends were attempting to join what was a trend at the time. But over the years, being vegetarian had taken on a strong pacifistic and moral undertone—it had become a point of pride.
Now, though, pride was no longer a luxury I could afford. I had lost my entire world because of my stroke. My academic life, romantic life, social life, and physical life were in pieces, and all but forgotten. Now, all I wanted was to be normal again. I knew I had to try everything I could to get my life and my muscles back—even if I had to make a deal with the devil disguised as a slab of meat.
When I used to eat meat as a child, I loved the rich spices and flavors of some good ol' chicken tikka masala. So for my first foray back into carnivorism, I went to the best Indian restaurant in Charlotte and ordered it up, with a side of piping hot garlic naan. I stared at the dish, the pungent red sauce smothering the chicken, disguising perfectly the abnormalities in shape and texture indicative of meat. Just pretend it's tofu, I told myself, as I took the first bite of chicken. I could get past the fact it was harder and chewier than I expected, but I couldn't stomach how gamey it tasted. I thoroughly enjoyed the sauce and the naans, but that putrid taste of death refused to leave my mouth or my conscience.
Disheartened, and frankly a little disgusted, I looked down at my hideous wheelchair and knew I owed it to myself to try again. So try I did. Chinese chicken and broccoli, ham and cheese sandwiches, baked salmon, rotisserie chicken, Thanksgiving stuffed turkey—different items, same result. Ew. But in this journey towards carnivorous enlightenment, my palate discovered a divine specialty I actually liked: Fried freakin' chicken.
Granted, I mainly enjoyed the grease-encrusted, battered, and deep fried outer layer, and merely tolerated the actual meat, but hey, it was progress. I began indulging in chicken tenders here and there, but really hit my comfort zone with McDonald's chicken nuggets. I actually liked the taste of meat in these little bundles of animal protein. So basically, the one actual meat dish I enjoyed (once rumored to not have actual chicken in it at all) has a questionable amount of nutrition. I was the worst meat-eater ever.
I figured "liking" the food I ate was a luxury I couldn't afford at this time. I spent almost a year forcing chicken and fish down my throat while exercising my muscles fiercely in therapy every day. I focused on strength training with the leg and chest press while also incorporating functional activities like sitting and standing. But to my disappointment, despite my addition of animal protein, I didn't notice any significant change in my muscle strength or function. My recovery didn't seem to be enhanced by my change in nutrition. So was this borderline painful exercise in forced meat eating even worth it for me?
Research "has consistently reflected that vegetarians and vegans who consume a broad variety of plant-based protein can more than adequately meet their protein store requirement," says Vu Nguyen, physical medicine and rehabilitation physician at Carolinas Medical Center. Adam Gaske, neuro-fitness specialist at Race to Walk, a North Carolina rehabilitation facility for individuals living with paralysis adds, "You get more value per calorie with well-sourced animal proteins," but vegetarians can get all necessary nutrients by consuming a wide range of sources.
Nguyen goes on to say, "Maintaining muscle bulk is important [after a stroke]. But, it is the lack of neuronal input/stimulation that causes the muscle to atrophy." So stroke recovery is about strengthening the neuronal input to muscles instead of simply bulking up the muscle itself. Recovery also relies on neuroplasticity, the brain's unique ability to repair itself after damage, which requires intense physical therapy, and not a magic pill, magic treatment or magic protein source that would make my body and life normal again. I had to accept that hard work and time would be the sole keys to recovery. My progress would be full of peaks, valleys and plateaus, but I just had to be patient and persistent with my therapy.
Over the past few years, I've refocused my energy on getting my body as much therapy as I can at various rehabilitation hospitals and even at home. By continuously challenging my body with the newest techniques, latest technologies, and different activities including yoga and pilates, my progress has been slow, but thankfully steady. I've reached a point where I can speak slowly but intelligibly, use my right hand for some functional activities, and even walk with assistance in the water, on the treadmill, and around the house.
As far as my nutrition, I've been able to creep back into my palatable world of quinoa and carrots. By eating eggs, dairy, nuts, lentils and a variety of protein-rich foods, I developed a well balanced vegetarian diet to sustain me as I continue to retrain my brain and my muscles. And since extra support is crucial, I joined a few young stroke survivor Facebook groups and an additional group called "Vegetarian is spelled P-I-M-P." I'm still working on getting my body back, but for now, I'll settle for regaining this little piece of my pride.