As a freshman in high school, I played football. Amidst a rigorous season, one week in November, my grim reaper, my looming plague, my ghastly nightmare struck my body, and I was out with asthma for two entire weeks. The treatment involved a 10-day cocktail of two drugs: an antibiotic coupled with prednisone. During this time I was required to stay in bed because, for whatever reason, if the treatment did not work, the consequences were apparently really bad although I don’t recall exactly what they were. (They probably involved a lot of prednisone, though.)
This wasn’t uncommon for me. Such bouts of asthma occurred throughout my childhood twice per year during the winter months, and the treatments were equally devastating each time. This all changed during my senior year of high school when I was dating this girl who told me about this really cool health food café. It wasn’t just any ordinary café; they didn’t cook anything. One afternoon, we were hanging out at her parents’ house, and I suggested that we go! She was apathetic at best and was more content to kill time (we were probably up to no good), but with enough of my insistence, we went. Upon arriving, we met the enthusiastic and energized owner, who greeted us. I remember having to wrap my head around the idea that bread was cooked and, therefore, the wraps were wrapped in seaweed, and the burgers and pizza were made with dehydrated flax crackers. More importantly, the owner gave me the first glimmer of hope in my 18-year-life afflicted with asthma: “If you get rid of the animal and cooked foods, your asthma will heal.” The restaurant was Arnold’s Way in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, and the owner was none other than Arnold Kauffman.
From that moment forward, I dedicated myself to a vegan diet and found improvement in my asthma but not without challenges. Meat was pretty easy to give up. Months after abstaining from meat, my consciousness changed. On Christmas Day during my senior year of high school, I remember watching an infomercial on the flavor injector in which a tasty-looking salad was displayed on my TV screen. This savory image was interrupted when pieces of flavor-injected meat were dumped on the salad. It looked like the advertisers threw a dead corpse on the bed of lettuce, and, for the first time, I saw meat for what it is: a dead, decomposing animal. Dairy was equally as easy to give up with one exception: ice cream. Ice cream is cold, sweet and creamy, and now that I had significantly reduced my animal food intake (just about everything except the occasional ice cream binge), ice cream tasted better than ever. My friends could tell you about all the Ben & Jerry’s I ate when we hung out for long nights playing Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering. Chunky Monkey, Triple Chocolate Deluxe—I loved it all! I remember going on a run and feeling horrible the day after a long night that involved friends, Magic and Chunky Monkey. I felt sluggish and slothish, like the Juggernaut staggering aimlessly. Fortunately, my experience with ice cream changed, and as my taste buds became further and further removed from dairy, ice cream began to taste more and more like Cheez Whiz (maybe Joey Vento was tampering with the recipe).
Upon graduating from high school, I attended Temple University as a music major to pursue my dreams of becoming a concert guitarist, and, while there, I maintained and built upon my vegan diet. During the spring semester, I heard a knocking on my dorm room door, and when I went to answer it, I realized that an unwelcome guest had returned: asthma. My sickness had come at the perfect time—one week before the Temple University combined choir (of which I was a part) and the TU Symphony was scheduled to perform at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. The week was filled with rehearsals, and my participation was mandatory. I responded to my condition differently than I had before. I fasted on a minimal volume of juices and rested. Although I was bedridden for most of the time, I made all the rehearsals and the performance but, more miraculously, the asthma retreated without pharmaceuticals!
The next year, I upgraded from the cafeteria meal plan and a dorm room to my own kitchen in a college apartment. It wasn’t long before I made the jump to a fully raw diet. I embraced the raw food menu: fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. I explored cool recipes on websites I found and ventured out to raw food restaurants and potlucks. I was so enthusiastic about raw foods that I shared this energizing lifestyle with all my friends. During this time, my mom also adopted a raw food lifestyle and lost roughly 100 pounds. Most miraculously of all, my asthma vanished. For the first time in my life, I sustained a winter without getting asthma, and it wasn’t a fluke because I was asthma-free for the following five years while on a raw food diet!
In addition to my mom, I saw other people close to me adopt a raw or high-raw lifestyle. In 2008, I made the single most important decision of my life and committed my life to Jesus Christ, joining the Greater Philadelphia Church of Christ (GPCC, part of the International Churches of Christ). Shortly after my baptism, I became good friends with one of my new brothers, Jon, who adopted a raw food diet and experienced enhanced athletic performance in running a 10-mile race and increased energy levels. I also had a girlfriend in 2007 who cured her acid reflux on a high-raw diet.
But these years were not without their challenges. In addition to having ups and downs in my career and a fluctuating work ethic, I found that I had an obsessive focus on food. I could easily consume three avocados, a pound of dates or an entire 16-ounce bag of almonds. This was the beginning of my journey sifting through contrasting sources on raw food nutrition. As the years passed as a raw vegan, I experimented with many philosophies of raw food and the test subject: my body. I remember the allure of gourmet raw food, the pizza, the burgers, the lasagna, the cheesecake! I know all too well the sensation of polishing off a gourmet meal at a raw food restaurant and feeling just as empty as I did before eating it. I could have eaten 10 of those meals! Hmmm, zucchini noodles just don’t satiate the appetite like wheat noodles no matter how much cashew alfredo sauce you pour on top. The same applied to those bags of nuts from Trader Joe’s—yum! The cashews, the almonds, the pecans! A handful, a bowlful or an entire bag—no quantity was ever enough!
After a year or so of exploring the world of high-fat foods and poor food combining, I restricted my diet to fruits, vegetables and avocados, but despite my efforts to keep my raw vegan diet in control, I found my next fix: fresh dates. I could pound dates, and now that I discovered that I could purchase them by the 10- or 12-pound box at a time I inhaled them. Mejdool, deglet noor, honey, barhi, khadrawy, halawy—it didn’t matter. I loved them all! I could polish off such a box in days and even stole and ate my roommate Jon’s (what a good friend I was!) stash of the coveted fruit! To try to keep my date binges at bay, I took on what I would now consider to be dietary habits compromising to my health and fitness: calorie restriction. Jon was reading some books on bi-daily eating (two meals a day) and the benefits of this and so we tried it. (Thanks, Jon. I guess that’s what I got for stealing your dates.)
2009 brought in a lot of changes: I graduated from college and moved to Hartford, Connecticut, for graduate studies at the University of Hartford’s Hartt School of Music. For the first time in my life, I was hours away from my family, friends, close relationships at church and was completely financially independent. My life became quickly filled with schoolwork, ensemble rehearsals, job searching and long practice hours. I started attending GPCC’s sister church, the Greater Hartford Church of Christ. It was difficult with all my academic responsibilities to be as present at all the events that I attended while in Philadelphia, and, perhaps more importantly, to build the deep relationships that I needed to stay faithful. Considering that it was this difficult to maintain an area of my life that was so important to me, the habits of attending potlucks and raw food events that I cultivated in Philadelphia dwindled down to nothing.
Despite this, I maintained a raw food lifestyle and even shared my knowledge with a lady from church who ended up curing her fibromyalgia. While Jon abandoned his calorie-restrictive ways shortly after I moved to Hartford, surrendering to the fact that it was too unmanageable, I stubbornly held to it for years. The effects were not noticeable right away, but looking back, I did notice I had tremendous difficulty concentrating on schoolwork and other tasks and was also emotionally unstable at times. Also, as the years passed, I noticed that my face began to get puffy and my stomach slightly bloated. But it was so weird—if I was gaining weight, why was my athletic performance rising? I was running faster times now than I did in high school on the track team. I e-mailed this relatively new YouTuber who Jon told me about, a vulgar and brash yet genuine guy from Australia who called himself Durianrider. He quickly answered my e-mail with a brief reply: “Send me some before and after pics and your 10K time.” So I complied and sent him four pictures as well as my best 10K time, which, at that time, was slightly below 40 minutes. To my surprise, this brash and critical Aussie’s response was compassionate and encouraging. He complemented my time and correctly identified my calorie-restrictive lifestyle and explained that what I was experiencing was not weight gain but rather edema or water retention within body tissue. For me, that was my face and stomach. It was at this time I abandoned a calorie-restrictive diet and discovered that with sufficient carbohydrates, I wasn’t always thinking about food, and my concentration was improved. I learned that fruit as well as other carbohydrates satiated my appetite more efficiently than any fatty gourmet raw dish or nut that I consumed in the past and that the binges on these foods were in fact my body’s justified cries for sufficient calories. Looking back, I don’t think I had been eating enough since my raw food journey began in 2006.
Around the same time, in early 2012, I took Dave Ramsey’s financial peace course at church and was convinced that I needed to make some hard financial decisions. It was (and still is) difficult to find affordable high-quality food in Hartford and, therefore, my food budget was out of control. After six years of being raw vegan, I decided to return to a cooked vegan diet and begin relying on cheaper staples, including rice and potatoes. (I mean, Durianrider was promoting this diet, so it must be good. Right?) It worked, my budget was cut in half, and I was saving roughly $150 per month on food alone! Additionally, my edema went away, and my athletic performance increased because I was eating more calories. For the first time, I began to track my eating habits using a food diary. I felt so strong and explosive that I sometimes felt that I could even lift a car. (I never tried it though.) 🙂
My fortune changed when a certain specter I thought I defeated in Philadelphia paid a visit to my residence in Hartford: asthma. I went on a short run on a Monday and felt famished and out of breath. This was unusual for me. The next day, I was short of breath and felt my chest tighten and, by Wednesday, the asthma has its full clutch around my throat. I took a day to fast and used all the time I was not working or teaching to rest, but by Friday, my condition was only worsening to the point where I wasn’t able to sleep.
After a week of compromised breathing, energy and sleep without healing in sight, I drove myself to a hospital. My car drudged like a funeral carriage to the parking lot. I remember staggering to the front desk with movements that were as tight and restricted as my airways. I was administered two nebulizer treatments that, in part, alleviated my suffocation. The nurse told me that my airways were constricted 75 percent and that I needed to be seen by a doctor for further treatment. That night was a whirlwind of chaos. I remember being given yet another nebulizer treatment before the doctor entered. She was a tall, slender and authoritative middle-aged woman, and from our conversation, I could tell that she was like most other doctors I had encountered: puffed up with an education, vast pharmaceutical knowledge and pride but devoid of all understanding of healing. Because she asked me specific questions (like why I hadn’t been to a doctor in five years), I reluctantly divulged my raw vegan ways and the healing I received. I next remember that she handed me a form to sign basically stating that I would do whatever they told me. I reluctantly but decisively signed my name in blood unaware of how the remainder of the evening would commence!
At that moment, I entered the innermost chambers of this medical ER hell! When the doctor left, I could hear her disapprovingly talking about a raw vegan lifestyle. She then re-entered and prescribed my favorite but updated cocktail as a kid and ordered the nurse to administer it. She handed me the pills, and, before taking them, I thought about the form I signed and the reluctant commitment I made. I swallowed the pills and then was directed to a radiologist who was to take X-rays of my chest. She was a young woman who was uncomfortably flirtatious from the moment I entered the room and the nurse left. She directed me to put on the customary apron, and I asked her why she was so concerned about radiation poisoning for my body but not my head. She explained that the radiation would be less of a concern for my head because my skull was supposedly going to provide protection (wow, that’s really reassuring). As she was taking X-ray pictures, she asked me to turn around, at which time the most disturbing part of the evening took place. While making adjustments to the machine in front of me, she took this opportunity to press herself against me in a suggestive way.
I was too drugged and my airways were still too constricted for me to do anything about it, although the incident strongly opposed my Christian faith. This moment was like a microcosm of the medical-industrial complex, a selfish gang of corporations that disempowers patients. The conglomerate masquerades as a humanitarian bastion of healing but rather holds selfish motives to generate profit and satiate its lust for power and authority at the expense of a helpless and dependent populace. That was me in this very moment: drugged, harassed and screwed by the medical-industrial complex. I already knew a better way and needed to make some major lifestyle changes fast!
I don’t know how I got home that night (in fact, I don’t even remember driving), but I did make it safely and then crashed. The strangest thing happened: I got out of bed asleep (but still somehow partially conscious) and unassumingly undressed before going back to bed. When I woke up that morning I was shocked to see that my clothes, sheets and bed linens were soaked—I mean drenched in water! I had no idea it was humanly possible to perspire so much liquid. I also felt like trash. It almost felt better to be suffocated than it did to be on drugs. I dragged myself to a rehearsal that morning, and my singer insisted that we cancel the moment she saw me.
Watch Arnold Kauffman Interview Francesco at Arnold’s Way about His Asthma Recovery
That afternoon, I went to Wal-Mart to fill the prescription the doctor gave me. I remember calling Arnold in the parking lot and asking him what to do. He suggested that I fast for three days to get rid of the asthma and not to take the medicine. Before we ended our call, Arnold told me, “You know what you need to do.” Yes, I did, I thought to myself. I needed to return to a raw food lifestyle. I did go into Wal-Mart and get the meds. They handed them to me in a white paper bag like they were giving me a McDonald’s Happy Meal through a shady, back-ally drive-thru. It made me think about the juxtaposition between the holistic lifestyle and the “normal” medical lifestyle. On a raw food diet, my asthma was healed without medication or dependence on a medical authority. The people and community who helped me become and stay raw were not in it to make big profits but rather were caring advisers such as Arnold who believed that with the right nutrition and removal of toxic obstruction, my own body had the capacity to heal itself. Contrastingly, the medicine I consumed as a child and during my recent trip to a hospital never cured my illness but rather treated the symptoms. The doctors, pharmacists, corporations and other entities that make up the medical-industrial complex are not advisers but rather authoritative figures who are either miseducated or greedy and have motives of only making patients dependent on them to generate profits and ensure job security. The latter is predicated on control, fear and greed while the former on free will, truth and love.
I had a choice to make. I could either take that Happy Meal or Arnold’s free-will advice, the blue pill that would lead to the treatment of affliction but leaving me always coming back with my hands out for more or the red pill that I knew would restore me to recovery once again. I went home, fasted and slept, committing to Arnold’s advice. Considering that I had already fasted one day, I had another two days before reaching three days. I still felt horrible and, for the first time in my life, didn’t know if I was going to wake up when I shut my eyes. On Monday morning, I woke up with renewed airways and health. I also had to play 20 minutes in a concert for which I wasn’t prepared (because I hadn’t practiced for the week that I was sick). So I got up and did whatever practicing I could before the event. The performance, I must say, was not my best work, but I managed to get through it (and thankfully have been invited back to the venue annually since). I remember that I was still so weak that I had to move my hand in front to the sound hole to pluck the strings effectively.
I decided from that moment forward I would eat a wholly raw diet but occasionally (monthly or so) enjoy some of my favorite cooked foods. As for my budget, the $2,000 bill I received from that trip to the hospital negated all the money I saved so I realized that compromising my health was not a long-term solution to save. I remember just a few weeks later, one of the sisters from church asked me if I had started eating raw again. I told her I had, and she replied, “I can tell.”
Watch Francesco Perform Allegro Moderato by Joaquin Rodrigo
The following fall, in 2013, I began my doctorate at the Hartt School of Music, and my asthma was back (what a great way to kick off my new program). Fortunately, with Arnold’s advice and (just being honest here) an inhaler that one of my students gave me, I was quickly able to recover without invasive medication. This year, I restricted my cooked food intake even more and completely gave up rice and potatoes. The only thing I ate once in a while were beans and cooked vegetables. The next year, 2014, (you guessed it) my asthma was back. Interestingly, it came this time after I had fasted for three days for preventative measures. I also noticed a label on a box of wine grapes that I had purchased (and loved for their flavor). It indicated that the sulfites used to preserve the grapes could cause asthma in animals. Actually, now that I think about it, every year my asthma came back, I had purchased these grapes! So I responded the way I had before and fasted for another three days to get rid of the asthma.
This year, I was completely raw with the exception of a few slips that included rice and cooked veggies. I also reluctantly stopped purchasing and consuming wine grapes. Additionally, the singles ministry at my church was challenged to fast every month for three days for the entire year and, therefore, I fasted for 36 days that year. This past fall, 2015, my asthma did not reappear and, for the first time since 2011, it has not returned!
What I learned from all this is that if we introduce toxicity to our bodies by consuming cooked food or otherwise (sulfites), it will rear its head at some point. For me, this rearing is asthma. I also learned from Durianrider that eating calorie-rich foods and journaling the value of eating a calorie-rich and low-fat diet. In all my years and experiences eating raw, I feel the best when I eat a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet. I also discovered the value of fasting, especially for cleansing and combating degenerative disease. I was always active, even before going raw. In middle and high school, I ran track, cross country and played football. I still enjoy running as well as CrossFit, calisthenics and, most recently, kettlebells. My current athletic focus is improving my 5K time, which I would like to drop to 18 minutes this summer and eventually 16:45. I’m so thankful that I made my first trip to Arnold’s Way that day. I wonder where my life and health would be if I had chosen differently!