Published on 8/26/2021 by Jackie Olmstead —My earliest memory is when I was riding with my mom in our 1968 Volkswagen bus. I asked her, “How long have I been alive?” My mother was surprised and answered, “Three years.” I said, “That’s not very long, is it?” “No, it isn’t!” she replied. We lived in Denver, Colorado at the time, where my brother was born. I was always asking questions about why things were the way they were and that continues to today. When I was four, I asked my preschool teacher, “Why am I here?” (She didn’t have an answer.)
As I have grown from the 1970s through the 2020s, I can see now how offering my story and experiences with my health journey can help others. I never expected to heal my asthma and other health issues by changing the way I ate.
While we lived in Denver, I remember being up late at night playing in the living room with my younger brother. It was probably because I was not feeling well, having an asthma episode and was bored. Taking asthma medicine had side effects of speeding up my heart rate, among others, like feeling manic and too wide awake. The medicine or sickness I had sometimes made me have vertigo too, so I had to stay in bed often.
There were fun times too. I played with my brother on the backyard swing set and with other kids in the neighborhood. We flew kites, went camping at times with our parents and enjoyed Colorado’s beauty. I loved the outdoors! I had to be careful, though, with too much strenuous activity or cold air as that brought on the dreaded wheezing or worse.
I remember having pneumonia several times and being confined to an oxygen tent at home. Not being able to breathe with my full lungs or even barely at all was scary. I think that’s when I learned to talk to myself and God, asking for help to get me through the hour or the day. I cried a lot. That moment when I had to have the doctor listen to my lungs to give me the go ahead to reduce my medicines was crucial. “Please let them be working better!” I thought. I’ll never forget that plastic smell that reminded me of what was helping me breathe better. The nebulizer treatments, antibiotics and asthma pills (Theodur) all worked together to eventually get me on my feet again.
Longer hospital stays didn’t start until I was in elementary school that I can remember. Out of school meant homework sent home from my teachers. It felt lonely and sometimes overwhelming to do my work in bed at home or in the hospital, but I wanted to do well in school. I was determined to get good grades and I excelled in every subject.
I was depressed at this early age because of my health problems and also because we moved so often. On the average, I calculated we moved every 9-10 months because my parents changed jobs, went back to school, left school or simply needed a better place to live. I often would wake up in the middle of the night having that panic feeling, “Where am I? What state am I in? Who’s here?” I went to 8 different schools before graduating from high school in 1985. When I moved to the south, the kids called me “Yankee!” and bullied me often in the playground.
While we lived in North Carolina, I began doing gymnastics when I was nine with my inhaler never far away. I loved how it felt to be in great physical shape, finally in control of my body! I could express myself, be creative and excel at a sport that was all my own. Asthma always returned and the predictable episodes started when I got a cold or flu bug. I remember asking my parents, “Can’t I get a lung transplant?” with tears in my eyes. At 9 or 10, I was so frustrated with it, the pain, the fears of feeling like I might die today. My dad just said, “No, pumpkin, you can’t.” and hugged me. I can only imagine what fears my mom and dad had every time I got sick, sometimes getting up several times at night to check on me, visiting me in the hospitals, doing as much as they could. As a parent today, I have a tremendous amount of compassion for them.
When we moved to the north in seventh grade, my accent gave away my last place I lived and they called me the “Southern Belle.” They kept asking me to say the words, “North Carolina” but they embraced me that time and threw me a going away party when we had to move again. It moved me to tears.
Into my teens, nothing got better with my asthma and then I was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome. Who knows? Perhaps what contributed to my digestive system being this way was from all the medicines I took my whole life and with my knowledge now, what foods contributed?
By this time we were living in Pennsylvania. Depression in high school led to therapists who could offer some emotional support. I continued exercising with aerobics after having quit competitive gymnastics when I was twelve. Grades were beginning to suffer some, but I was successful in getting into college at Pennsylvania State University.
When I got there, I immediately began drinking excessively and tried smoking. UGH! I don’t like to think of these days. They were dark and I often thought to myself I didn’t want to be here on this earth anymore. I gained a bunch of weight fast, looked puffy and swollen all the time. I leaned on schooling to power me through the days so that I could feel like I mattered. But showing up hungover in some classes, often late and sitting in the back row so I could not be seen doing those dreaded “head bobs” were humiliating.
I had started out in engineering because I excelled in the sciences and math, but after some major soul-searching, I changed my major to art and graphic design during the second semester. After the fourth year, I decided to add a study abroad experience to my curriculum. For an additional two semesters, I studied art, Italian literature and the Italian language in central Italy. I packed plenty of my steroids and inhalers with me on my journey. This was one of the best decisions I made in my own life education. Seeing how the Italians cherish their families and learning about other cultures was priceless. And yes, my asthma made its appearance again. At one point, I had to go to a clinic there and soon discovered they don’t have the same medicines that I had in the States. But I survived well enough, returning back home to finally graduate.
Armed with a degree in graphic design, I got my first official job in New York City in 1990. This was a milestone year: All the drinking I did in college to cope with depression came to a grinding halt. I felt like I didn’t want to live any more. I drank in my apartment alone. You would think that I would be over-the-moon proud of myself, having “made it” with such an excellent graphics job at one of the major national magazines in New York City and finding my own apartment. I didn’t want to do it by myself anymore and found support with therapists and other sufferers. I had an amazing support system and my life improved. Later when my health would tumble again, my passion for exploring the truth reappeared.
I became restless and desired a more healthy place to live. I moved to Phoenix, Arizona in 1995 and have been there since. I met my future husband in 1999 and we married in 2006. Having troubles getting and then staying pregnant, the doctors discovered my hormones were not balanced or conducive to having a baby. First, it was too much prolactin and I took medicines to balance that out. Then after suffering four miscarriages, the doctors discovered I had Hashimoto’s disease and I began taking Synthroid in 2007. Hypoglycemia also was revealed.
I had a perfectly healthy, beautiful baby girl in 2008, which is another amazing story. I had researched how to have the healthiest pregnancy and birth experience. My mother passed away in 2011 and things weren’t going well with my marriage. Again, depression set in deeply and I sought out help again. I started taking antidepressants. Unfortunately, the marriage didn’t work out and we divorced in 2013.
The relationship I dove into after I left my husband turned very negative during the divorce proceedings and I wished that my daughter had a better mother and perhaps I didn’t need to be here anymore. The negative banter in my head wouldn’t stop. I changed antidepressants but it didn’t help.
Depression persisted until one of my nurse friends noticed that I was eating cupfuls of ice daily one after another. She said, “That’s a symptom of anemia. You should get that checked out, Jackie!” It took my father helping me learn how to do my own patient advocacy by asking many doctors, ordering tests and hiring new doctors when some didn’t continue with searching out what was wrong with me. My bloodwork and biopsy from my small intestine confirmed: Celiac disease and severe anemia. I was relieved to finally know what was wrong with me. But then, I was in shock and panic about what to do now. How on Earth do I cut out 100% of all the gluten from my life overnight? The hematologist ordered urgent intravenous iron transfusions and prescription strength vitamin D and folic acid. Once a week for five weeks, I would sit for an hour in the same room cancer patients received their chemotherapy treatments. It was bizarre because I didn’t feel like I belonged there, but knew it would help me heal.
Once again, my ability to research as fast and efficiently as possible came into play. I dug deep into the internet about gluten and celiac disease. Meanwhile, my guts were healing, I was eating non-gluten foods and by the end of the year, I eliminated the antidepressants and the prescription strength vitamins entirely. I felt so much better and wanted to thrive being alive. During this time, I was also noticing that all my research pointed to the fact that gluten lived in almost all the foods that I ate (except vegetables and fruits). At this time, I had a major lightbulb moment: The safest food for me to eat was whole foods plant based (WFPB)! The fears of eating out, buying food at the stores, eating at other people’s houses would be majorly reduced when I had decided that I would change to WFPB living.
But how? How could I do this by myself? I would cry in the aisles at the grocery store because I couldn’t figure out what to buy and how to decipher the labels. I turned to amazing whole foods plant based groups on social media and I read books and realized that I could totally do this! After going plant based after being already gluten free made a huge difference. I felt so much healthier and had more energy. The emotional change alone was key: No more fears about getting cross-contaminated with gluten because I knew exactly what to eat and how to prepare foods. I am still learning how much there is in the plant based world.
But, guess what? I found that I no longer suffered from hypoglycemia. And then, I noticed that all my inhalers and steroids in my cabinet had expired! What? Then I realized that I hadn’t even used them this whole time after cutting out gluten and animal based foods. I rarely wheeze and when it comes up, I’ll put some peppermint oil on my chest or under my nose and breathe deeply. That’s it! I never knew this would happen. Only once in 2020 did I have to take steroids and my nebulizer during a bout of a bad cold. I feel very blessed to have had the celiac diagnosis, to be honest. How would I have dug so deep and have been forced to learn about the truth of our foods, than to have this disease? I am asymptomatic with my hashimotos, my hypoglycemia and my asthma. Because of the Synthroid medicine being a life-commitment (doctors have told me), I continue to take it even though I don’t have symptoms.
Today I consciously choose to not harm my body in any way by the foods that I eat. Sometimes when I do my deep breathing exercises I think, “Is it true? My lungs are working 100%!” I feel and am truly blessed.