A physician lifestyle transformation story—a domino effect impacting his health, his medical practice, and the establishment of his wellbeing enterprise in La Fortuna, Costa Rica, which will host the inaugural ACLM member-only “Physician Heal Thyself” CME Retreat in January 2017.

By ACLM Member Henry A Villegas, MD

Mine is a story of personal lifestyle transformation that led to a sustainable change in my personal health—reversal of my type 2 diabetes—with this transformation also impacting my medical practice.  My passion for lifestyle medicine also led to my establishing a corporate wellbeing enterprise in the country of my birth, Costa Rica, with it having a positive impact on the environment and surrounding community. 

I spend approximately three weeks each month in Southwest Florida, where I practice as a pediatric emergency medicine physician with Lee Memorial Health System and as a lifestyle medicine practitioner. The balance of my time is spent in my original hometown of La Fortuna, Costa Rica where I wear the hat as president and founder of GreenLagoon Wellbeing Enterprise.

I graduated from the University of Costa Rica Medical School and hold a post-graduate degree from the Mayo Clinic of Rochester, MN, a fellowship diploma from Georgia and Central Florida in Pediatric Emergency Medicine, and a Wilderness Medicine Academy Fellowship diploma.

It was in 2001 that I was diagnosed with type II diabetes.  Since the early 1990’s, in addition to serving as a pediatric emergency practitioner, I had also been a cattle ranch-farming entrepreneur. With no family history of DM, and having lived what I thought was a healthy lifestyle during my first three decades—triathlons included—I would never have thought that I—a healer—would end up with type II DM. My lifestyle had progressively changed since moving to the U.S. in 1981: more stress, often a lack of sleep, no time for sports, adoption of the Standard American Diet—all leading to a weight increase from 140 to over 175 pounds, followed by DM and symptoms of metabolic syndrome.

I became helpless after 10 years with diabetes: My endocrinologist was offering, as the only option for treatment, the current favorite medication at the time, metformin, and this was only to maintain my metrics at decent levels. While I learned on my own how to control my sugar levels with diet and water, I was still unaware of what I came to know—that the Standard American Diet was the main cause of my insulin resistance—a fact that, even today, is not known by most physicians.

Around 2010, I was frustrated with the conventional and status quo medical treatment for DM and its side effects, so I became determined to find better options. I began my research within the medical communities for better options to treat my DM and eliminate all of the unbearable side effects of the medications. I refused to accept that I would have this illness for the rest of my life—reducing years from my life and life from my years.

During my eager and aggressive internet search for answers, I found a treasure—a treasure that no one, to my knowledge, knew about in our entire health system in Ft. Myers of over 10,000 employees. The treasure was the American College of Lifestyle Medicine and ACLM’s conference that was to be hosted in Denver in 2012. I eagerly read about the speakers, their scientific work, including research and publications. Like a sponge, I absorbed and digested everything I found, and my life began to turn around. Hope, gratefulness, inspiration and determination was what I felt in my heart. It was nothing short of a new beginning and, quite literally, changed the course of my health and my professional life. I was fired up to not only start applying lifestyle medicine to my life, but also teaching my co-workers, other doctors and patients about lifestyle medicine and whole food, plant-based nutrition as medicine.

I learned that the road that leads to healthful lifestyle behavior is not easy. It is serious business, especially when one is addicted to the SAD (Standard American Diet), as I was. It requires a tremendous commitment, determination, and passion, because we face our culture, barriers within society, media and other potential obstacles within our own homes and families. For me, the first step was to have great passion—knowing in my heart that what was best for my health was also in the best interest of others—my family, the community and beyond.  

I found that it was important to have role-models—those from whom I could seek inspiration and knowledge—a network of likeminded people to keep spirits and motivation high, always reinforcing the evidence-based and science-based knowledge. ACLM became a network for me.

In working with my patients, I emphasize that passion ignites our desire to think about, give to and serve others, a catalyst for a domino-like effect on all aspects of life. Psychoanalytic testing to understand the patient better and for the patient to understand what his or her barriers are to healthy lifestyles within themselves, their family, community, culture and environment may be beneficial.  I encourage all to identify likeminded groups and communities of people that will share their experiences, creating a healthy lifestyle support structure. During this process, a wellness coach, therapist or psychologist with expertise in lifestyle behavior modification may be helpful to guide patients through the stages of behavior change. When patients begin speaking the language of health and acquire knowledge and passion, they’re on the road to success.

I’m delighted to be associated with Lee Memorial Health System in Ft. Myers, in particular with its Food as Medicine initiative. Day after day for the past five years, I have learned more and more, on a personal level, about lifestyle medicine interventions for chronic diseases and prevention. I’ve continued to share with patients, co-workers, and even the food services personnel at Lee Memorial about the lifestyle medicine principles that transform lives. Along with my example and personal sharing, the CHIP program was implemented at Lee Memorial, with Vice-President of Health and Wellness Sal Lacagnina, DO serving as a lifestyle medicine champion for the entire institution. Our employees have begun to change gears, moving in the direction of sustainable healthy lifestyles. As part of Lee Memorial’s initiative, lifestyle medicine expert speakers are showcased for Grand Rounds and then through events for the public. As a result, we now have many health providers, administrators, and the community at large that are more open and supportive of lifestyle medicine. Our hospital cafeteria “salad bar” is now a rich whole food, plant-based foods display, providing optimal selections for employees and visitors. This is one of the reasons that I love my work at the Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida within Lee Memorial. They feed me well. More and more employees are now using the “Plant-Based Bar,” as I call it, understanding that food truly is medicine. Now, the in-house patients and visitors alike have more options for plant-based meals while in the hospital. I cannot predict the future, but there is one thing I know: Lifestyle Medicine is the True North in our Fort Myers area.

My vision is that lifestyle medicine will be established as the gold standard in healthcare—where everyone in the community will be part of the solution. This starts with transformation of the doctors, nurses, nutritionists, clinics, hospitals, with small farmers, supermarkets, fitness facilities or recreational parks, restaurants, hotels and others that serve the needs of the community playing an active role.

I’m delighted that GreenLagoon Wellbeing Resort that I established in my hometown of La Fortuna, Costa Rica will be hosting the inaugural ACLM member-only CME accredited retreat in January of next year.  The beautiful property, the highly trained staff, and all it represents are a reflection of my personal life and medical practice transformation journey, allowing me to share it with others. Who is being impacted? My GreenLagoon team members, customers, guests, family and friends, visitor, other physicians and patients alike.

In establishing a Wellbeing Enterprise, I focused on ‘core principles’ with the goal of maximizing the influence of the lifestyle medicine movement in the community and beyond. These same core principles apply to our community’s lifestyle medicine movement:

  1. Core Principle: All Team Members are formed by a leader and entrepreneur, one by one. All guests, visitors, friends and patients are informed, taught and invite to see different aspects of LM in practice, one by one and with passion (deeply caring for them). They are the Center of our programs
  2. Core Principle: All team members are leaders and entrepreneurs. Each team member is part of the body of the enterprise and therefore, each one is responsible in growing and developing the assigned responsibilities.
  3. Core Principle: Each team member in charge of departments or divisions will train other members of its department’s team to become leaders and entrepreneurs.
  4. Core principle: All team members at any level within the enterprise are taught to have a great attitude and a great passion or care deeply about others.
  5. Core Principle: All team members are always required to continue their education in their assigned field  via internet and in topics regarding the company’s mission, vision and goals (Wellbeing is our mission) or through local teaching opportunities
  6. Core Principle: GreenLagoon Wellbeing Enterprise has defined Goals of Activities and the Team Members Carry them out : 50% relates to Wellbeing, 20% relates to Sustainability, 20% relates to Nature Activities for Fitness, LM Culture and Mindfulness, 10% relates to fine hospitality, a retreat for all, team members, guests, patients and visitors alike.
  7. Core Principle: Every team member is encouraged to learn how to be an influential person, a leader and an entrepreneur, regarding the Mission and Wellbeing Culture of the enterprise within his family, friends, community and everywhere.

These core principles are the results of nearly three decades of trials, successful moments and learning from mistakes made while in the trenches, working for my dreams, visions and goals.

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions: HenryVillegasMD@GreenLagoon.net. If you’re interested in registering for the upcoming January 24-28, 2017 CME Retreat in Costa Rica, exclusive to ACLM members, please reserve your hotel and retreat package here.