June 05, 1995 12:00 PM

STRUTTING HIS HOUR ON THE stage in a conference room at the posh Claremont Resort and Spa in Oakland, Dr. Dean Ornish is putting on his best Phil Donahue act. Waving the microphone, cajoling and firing questions at his audience—a crowd of several dozen heart patients and their spouses assembled for a six-day retreat—Ornish entices a couple onto the stage.

“Let’s talk about feelings,” he says to Pascal and Ann Girard of Rehoboth Beach, Del. “Pascal, what do you really want to tell her?” A retired businessman who had bypass surgery eight years ago, Girard, 60, falters several times before he finally asks Ann, 56—whose family has a history of heart problems—to please cut back on fatty foods. With a little encouragement from Ornish, Girard kisses her and says, “Honey, I love you, but I’m worried about your health. I’m afraid of losing you.”

As the couple embrace and the room erupts in applause, Ornish beams. He’s delighted that he got the Girards to share their feelings; such behavior, he explains to the crowd, lowers stress and helps the heart. The 41-year-old research cardiologist then outlines the revolutionary philosophy that has become his mantra: that most heart patients whose conditions are stable can reverse clogged arteries through a virtually fat-free diet, moderate exercise, meditation and group-support sessions. It’s an approach that has turned the soft-spoken Ornish into an unlikely guru. His two books, Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease (1990) and Eat More, Weigh Less (1993), were best-sellers. Dozens of celebrities, including Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen, Bill Moyers and, recently, Marlon Brando, seek his advice, while others (whose identities remain confidential) see him at his nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, Calif. “I follow his diet and yoga stretches, and I couldn’t feel better,” says actress Laura Dern, 28. “He’s certainly affected my life.”

Also among the believers are Bill and Hillary Clinton. Last March the White House confirmed that for the past two years Ornish has served on the team of specialists who conduct the President’s annual physical exam—an honor that came after the First Lady asked him two years ago to work with the White House kitchen staff to create menus lower in fat and cholesterol.

By and large, Ornish has won over the medical community as well. The American Heart Association supports his program, with one reservation: that the meatless, 10-percent fat diet he prescribes, consisting of fruits, grains, vegetables, beans, egg whites and nonfat dairy items, is too strict to stick to. “Wrong,” counters Steven Horowitz, cardiology chief at New York City’s Beth Israel hospital, who became a convert after he attended an Ornish retreat in 1993. “Almost all of the hundreds who started the program at eight hospitals stayed with it and were freed from the usual weight battles, not to mention heart problems.” But Horowitz does caution that it’s an all-or-nothing prescription. “Those who veered,” he says, “didn’t do nearly as well.”

Sitting in his book-cluttered office at his Sausalito institute—clad in his usual blue-suede loafers and Italian-cut suit—Ornish says his goal is simple. “I want to get this information out, especially to the people who can’t afford bypasses and a lifetime of medicines,” he says. “Something like Johnny Appleseed planting those trees.”

Growing up in Dallas, one of four children born to dentist Edwin Ornish and his Texas historian wife, Natalie, Ornish liked learning but loved magic, which he performed at birthday parties from the time he was 8. At 12, he began working for a photographer and two years later started his own business, shooting weddings and bar mitzvahs. After he entered Rice University in 1971 as a National Merit Scholar and a biochemistry major, his photos appeared in magazines including Rolling Stone (a portrait of singer Tom Waits). “It was a great way to make money,” says Ornish, who was also playing guitar at local coffee houses.

Suddenly, in the fall of his sophomore year, Ornish had a crisis of confidence and suffered a severe bout of depression. In a highly competitive academic atmosphere, he found himself consumed by feelings of worthlessness and despair. “I felt I couldn’t keep up,” he says. “The more I worried, the harder it was to study, and the harder it was to study, the more I worried. I couldn’t sleep, and that made me crazy. Finally, I was sitting in organic chemistry and I thought, ‘Of course, I’ll just kill myself.’ ” Ornish shared his anguish with his parents, who encouraged him to withdraw from school in December 1972 and return to Dallas. For the next several months he underwent therapy and was briefly put on sedatives.

Ornish was living at home in January 1973 when his life took an unexpected turn. His parents invited Swami Satchidananda, the Indian-born spiritual teacher and yoga master, to their home to thank him for helping their daughter Laurel, then 22, find relief through yoga for her migraine headaches. Ornish was captivated. “There’s an old saying, ‘When the student is ready, the teacher appears,’ ” Ornish says. “I was very ready. I was miserable, and he was glowing.” After their meeting, Ornish began visiting Satchidananda at his Buckingham, Va., center and practicing his teachings. “His philosophy is that peace and self-worth are there only if we can quiet the mind and body enough to experience them,” says Ornish, who began daily meditation and a strict vegetarian diet.

In the fall of 1973 he enrolled at the University of Texas, where in 1975 he graduated first in his class. Fulfilling a longtime dream, he then entered Baylor College of Medicine, where cardiology captured his interest, along with a belief that diet and meditation—which had contributed to Ornish’s own mental health—might also help reverse heart disease without drugs or surgery. After receiving an M.D. degree in 1980, he did his residency in internal medicine at Harvard Medical School. In 1984, he founded his own institute in Sausalito, where he would continue to test and refine his approach.

Monitoring groups of patients with clogged arteries over the course of a year, Ornish found the results of his regimen positive. His work was recognized by doctors across the country, and in 1990 the American Heart Association reported his findings. Most grateful were Ornish’s immediate beneficiaries, heart patients who had sensed themselves on the razor’s edge of mortality. “Before, I couldn’t walk across the street without getting severe chest pains,” says Vic Karpenko, 73, a retired engineer who had a heart attack in 1988 and chose the Ornish program over bypass surgery. “Now my cholesterol level’s way down, I’m climbing 8,000-foot mountains with a 50-pound pack, and my only medicine is a baby aspirin every other day.”

Ornish’s groundbreaking work, though, came at a price. In the fall of 1993 he separated from his wife of one year, Shirley Brown, a former dancer with the Alvin Ailey dance company with whom he had fallen in love at Baylor, where she was also a medical student. While their romance fluctuated on and off, they collaborated on his heart studies. Now a physician in San Francisco, Brown shuns publicity, but Ornish says he has only himself to blame for the breakup, explaining that he buried himself in his work at the price of intimacy. “I date now,” he says, “but I’m still hurting.”

These days, when he’s not overseeing a full-time research staff of 17 and managing the institute’s $2 million annual budget, Ornish supplements his five-figure salary by hitting the lecture circuit several times a month. What little time is left he spends playing guitar in his two-bedroom apartment overlooking San Francisco Bay or cycling with friends. He is also writing two new books: one a collection of low-fat recipes, the other a personal view, informed by his depression and divorce, on the health benefits of intimacy. “Suffering can be a catalyst for change in ways that go beyond un-clogging arteries and losing weight,” he says. “It certainly changed my life.”

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