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(Credit: Carrie Miller photos)

During his 38-year career in dentistry, Dr. Robert Maddalena, 70, never took a sick day. He’d never been to the hospital and had never felt a need to visit a doctor.

“I thought I was Superman,” Dr. Maddalena said, reveling in years of what he thought was good health. 

He had always tried to stay active, enjoying cycling around his neighborhood, and boating on North Fork waters while visiting during summer days off from his practice in Coram. This, he said, gave him “a false sense of security” that he didn’t have to pay attention to his diet — which was rich in Italian cuisine.

“I ate anything I wanted. I loved ice cream and cheeses and enjoyed the typical American diet,” he said.

Weighing in at 216 pounds, he finally decided to visit a doctor — only to receive what he called “a rude awakening.” He needed to adopt a lifestyle change “or die,” Dr. Maddalena said.

At that time, he was 68 years old and had just retired to Southold with his wife, JoAnne.

“My blood pressure and lab results were all off the charts,” he said, adding that his doctor had wanted him to go directly to an emergency room for further tests.

Instead, the physician wrote out four different prescriptions and instructed him to return in two weeks. “I never had taken pills and never wanted to, but I did because I was frightened.”

When the pills made little difference, Dr. Maddalena was sent for a stress test and was later told to schedule a coronary angiogram, a test of blood flow through the arteries to the heart.

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His doctor went so far as to describe for him the choice of stents, which are used to help restore blood flow and which he might need if an irregularity showed up.

During all this time, he said he had felt fine and had only gone  to the doctor for a checkup at his wife’s urging.

“I went into a state of shock,” Dr. Maddalena said. “It scared the hell out of me. After that checkup  I became really strict. That’s what it took to get me to change — being frightened.”

With his wife’s support, Dr. Maddalena decided that instead of trying to medicate his way back to health, together they could change their diet and incorporate more exercise, going about it a more natural way.

He canceled his angiogram and instead attended a 10-day diet and exercise program in California that taught him how to incorporate a low-fat vegan diet into his life.

The program was taught by Dr. John McDougall, who has been studying, writing and speaking for over 30 years about the effects of nutrition on disease.

Dr. Maddalena said he’d seen Dr. McDougall speak at an American Dental Association Convention in the early 1990s and, after looking into the diet, concluded that he and his wife could benefit from it.

After the trip, his cholesterol, blood pressure and triglycerides had all dropped and he had lost five pounds.

Since then, he has lost over 35 pounds and all his blood levels have returned to normal, healthy limits.

“You can get the protein you need from a vegetarian protein diet,”  Ms. Maddalena said.

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“I mean, where do elephants and giraffes get their protein — from leafy greens and vegetables,” Dr. Maddalena added.

The couple’s diet now consists of lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, which they complement with beans and grains that are high in protein.

Lentils, for example, have just over 40 grams of protein per pound and quinoa, a type of grain, has about 20 grams of protein per pound, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Dr. Maddalena said he also makes a conscious effort to exercise. He takes weight and stretching classes several times a week at the Southold Town Recreation Center — sometimes twice a day. When the weather cooperates, he goes out cycling, riding his bike to collect the mail or pick up a few items at the grocery store.

He also volunteers at Eastern Long Island Hospital, helping in the pharmacy, which he says has given him some time out of the house and a chance to make new friendships.

For the past four years he has also been active in the North Fork Audubon Society’s piping plover program, helping to set up and break down the fences that surround the protected nesting areas.

When asked what advice he would give others in his shoes, he said they need to take it upon themselves to make a real change.

“Talking to people about food is almost like talking about religion or politics. It’s personal,” he said. “We try to avoid it because it’s extremely difficult to convey all the facts in a normal conversation.”

As for his healthy new lifestyle, he said, “I feel wonderful. Life is good.”

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