Q&A;: Ellsworth Wareham

Ellsworth Wareham is 95 and all too familiar with heart surgery, although not as a patient.

The nonagenarian regularly assists with operations at Glendale Adventist Medical Center and is considering retirement. Just considering though, he says.

Wareham says he feels great and enjoys his more than 60-mile commute from Loma Linda whenever he participates in operations.

His longevity and good health have been the topic of discussion in a book, "The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest," and a feature film, "How to Live Forever."

Although his parents and grandparents did not live past their 80s, Wareham has been able to live on largely because of his vegetarian diet and exercise, he says.

He finished medical school in 1942, then joined the Navy to be a doctor on a destroyer in World War II. After returning, he reentered the civilian medical workforce and has been practicing ever since.

ZAIN SHAUK: I hear you're thinking about retiring this year. What took you so long?

ELLSWORTH WAREHAM: I don't know that I'll retire this year. I've given thought to it.

Q: Why not?

A: I enjoy getting out of the house and going to the hospital. I enjoy the atmosphere of the operating room. They're wonderful people that work in operating rooms, the staffs there. And it's a social occasion, you know? You get out and see these people in the various hospitals where you go, and it's just entertaining. The work doesn't amount to anything. If you've been doing cardiac surgery your whole life, that's all pretty automatic. And since, as an assistant, you don't carry the responsibility of the patient, that puts it back into the role where it's almost like knitting and crocheting, you know? The head surgeon has the responsibility of the patient, so it's a very relaxed situation.

I know people think that that's quite a feat or quite an accomplishment to do the work, say at 95. But it really doesn't amount to anything. It's not the easiest thing I do, though there's not any stress of any kind in it. I would be reluctant to do it, except the surgeon passes on one's ability. If one isn't doing top-quality work, well he shouldn't be in the operating room. A life is at stake.

Q: You still operate on patients then?

A: I assist the surgeon. When you do a heart operation, you have to have somebody of equal competence with you working at the table. And usually there are two. There's a first and second assistant, and I'm either the first or second assistant. And one does minor parts of the operation, like bypass grafts on a heart.

Q: I'm sure, with your experience, that your advice during operations is useful.

A: There isn't much of that. I'll tell you, these modern surgeons, you know that's like saying a fella who was a pilot in World War II is going to give some advice to a fella these days, you know what I mean? These fellas that are doing cardiac surgery these days have come out of a program and they're just as sharp as they can be. People often tell me, like you suggested, do you give them some counsel? Well, very rarely. That's a rare occasion. They're just so sharp.

Q: How has health-care practice and training changed over the time you've been operating?

A: These days, if a fella says he wants to be a cardiac surgeon, he'll have to take medical school and his internship, and he'll have to take about seven years beyond that in training. Now during this training period, he has to be exposed to various operations and has to have done a certain number himself. This is controlled by qualifying bodies. In my day, we took residency training and so forth, but it wasn't so carefully monitored. A fella could get through his training and only do maybe two or three operations in any certain time, but that no longer holds true. As an example, at Loma Linda University Medical Center, where I was chief of cardiac surgery for 22 years, a fella going out into practice will have done 500 heart operations himself, as the surgeon. So you see it's closely monitored, and that's why these fellas are so good.

Q: What have you noticed about our approach to treating medical problems that you think should be changed?

A: Well, let's take heart disease, which is the leading killer in this country. Coronary artery disease should be prevented by lifestyle. So we should address that more than we do. The medical profession has done a great job of treating a disease, but I think we need to do a much better job of preventing a disease. There are two doctors who have proved scientifically that they can reverse coronary artery disease . . . They put the people on a low-fat, plant-based, vegetarian diet and reversed coronary disease. So here you have a disease that is a major killer in America . . . and it is largely preventable. That's where we get into this business of longevity and so forth. There's no great mystery about this.

The Congress, the president and everybody are carrying on about the cost of health care, but what we ought to be doing is getting at the prevention of these diseases.

Q: How have you been able to stay healthy and active for so long?

A: You can't take any one individual and prove too much from one individual, but it's generally available in the scientific literature and even in the lay press of what a healthy lifestyle consists of. And a healthy lifestyle consists of a largely plant-based diet.

Now I happen to be a vegetarian. In fact, as much as possible I'm a vegan — that is to use no animal products at all.

And vegetarianism is proven to be a much healthier lifestyle . . . I follow just what everybody I think would know would be a healthy lifestyle.

I exercise. I do that by working in my yard. I take care of the landscaping myself, maybe I'll get a man in once a month to help me, but I try to get a couple hours of exercise at least three or four times a week. And fairly heavy exercise. And then eat a largely plant-based diet, which is healthy.

You see, there isn't any mystery about where heart disease comes from. It largely comes from inactivity and eating a lot of saturated fat and cholesterol.

And as you know, one-third of Americans are overweight.

Q: So you think a large part of what has made you healthy is your diet?

A: Well, let us say I do that, and that's what the literature says will make you healthy. But there are studies that involve thousands of people. A Loma Linda University public health researcher by the name of Ian Fraser did a study of Seventh Day Adventists in California, 34,000 of them. And did you know that an Adventist vegetarian male will outlive a male in the general population of California by 10 years.

Now that's a study of 34,000. That's pretty significant. In a woman it's less. In a woman it's about six years, but that's a considerable extension of time.

Q: So do you think being Adventist has helped you and your neighbors live longer?

A: I think it's a total lifestyle. All you can do is look at the figures and try and interpret them, but the figures are there and they're real, and people take them seriously . . . So I think there's a lot of evidence. I don't think you have to be an Adventist, I just think you have to adopt their lifestyle.

Q: You've been involved in health care for nearly seven decades, but you're now witnessing a national debate on health-care reform. What do you think needs to change with the way we approach health care in this country?

A: There are a lot of people that realize that our health problems can be largely prevented. In a letter in the Wall Street Journal on June 12, Stephen Bird, who happens to be the chief executive officer of Safeway Inc., says that 70% of all health-care costs are the direct results of behavior. In other words, there's something you can do about it . . . At the Safeway company, of the nonunion members, they offer them financial incentives if they do not use tobacco, they have a healthy weight, their blood pressure and cholesterol levels are normal . . . They've done this for four years and they estimate they've cut their health-care bill by 40%.

So prevention is the name of the game, you see? Unfortunately we have been concentrating on treating the things after it's occurred. And I've been involved in that, but we've got to deal with prevention. That means behavior, which is another way of saying lifestyle.

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