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The Diet That Changed Her…and Saved Her Nephew

She was overweight and needed a little self-improvement. Then her nephew needed an organ donor…

Personal growth: Diet was self-improvement and lifesaver for her nephew

Homemade pasta, creamy sauces, rich meats and delicious cheeses…the region of northern Italy where I was born and raised is known for its robust and flavorful cuisine. This is the food I have loved my whole life. It’s the food I learned to cook in my mother’s kitchen back in our village of Bibbiano and brought here to il Bistro Italiano, the restaurant my husband, Ron, and I now run in Grand Junction, Colorado.

Our menu is full of the recipes Mama taught me. But there is also something that might surprise you: lighter fare, like baked chicken with fresh herbs or beet-flavored tagliatelle tossed with scallops, asparagus, roasted tomatoes, shallots and olive oil. It is food I have come to love because I learned it could help save a life—the life of my beloved nephew Rossano, back in Bibbiano.

We’re only 10 years apart. Growing up, he was like my little brother. I helped look after him whenever his mom, my older sister Luana, needed an extra set of hands. Our time together felt especially precious because Rossano was born with Alport syndrome, a disease that causes irreparable damage to the kidneys.

Three years ago, at age 32, he was healthy enough to work, but Luana was worried and finally confided in me, “If he doesn’t get a kidney transplant soon, he will have to go on dialysis…” She didn’t have to say more. I was the one relative who was a perfect match. I flew to Italy, ready to donate a kidney to Rossano. It was what I believed God meant for me to do.

The surgeon refused. “The operation would be too dangerous for you,” he informed me. “You are too heavy.” I knew I was overweight at 5-foot-5 and 258 pounds, but I never thought that would affect someone else’s health! “Lose weight and then we will talk about the transplant,” the surgeon said.

“Exactly how much?” I asked him.

“Seventy pounds,” he said.

“I’ll be back,” I said. That was a promise—to my nephew and to God.

I returned to Colorado determined to exercise those 70 pounds off. Friends told me about a trail nearby, an up-and-down trek through the magnificent red rock canyons of Colorado National Monument. Hot or cold, rain or shine, every day I walked that trail. For me, it was like running a marathon. So many muscles I’d never used! After one mile, my calves hurt. After two miles, my feet ached. After three miles, it was all I could do to pull air into my lungs.

My endurance improved. I added weight-lifting sessions twice a week. Slowly, the pounds dropped off. Spring turned to summer, then fall, then winter. I kept up my routine. My weight was down to 223. Halfway there. Then my sister called. “Rossano is very sick. He’s on dialysis now, seven days a week, nine hours a day.”

I hiked and lifted more, but no matter how hard I worked out, the needle on the scale barely budged. Exercise was not enough. I’d have to change my diet. But how? At the restaurant I was in charge of the kitchen. When I stirred cream into my garlic-tomato sauce, I had to taste it to make sure the flavor was just right. Same with the veal marsala, the chicken Bolognese, the lasagna…

One night one of our regulars came in, a woman who directs the weight-loss program at our local hospital. “I have to talk to you,” I said. The hospital program put me on a strict diet. Finally, the number on the scale got lower. I took a closer look at what I was cooking. What could I change in my recipes to make them healthier? Every time the aromas in our kitchen grew too tempting, I thought of my nephew. And I prayed for the resolve to do whatever it took to help him.

By September 2009 my weight had dropped to 187 pounds. I called Luana. “I’m ready for the surgery,” I told her.

At the airport neither she nor Mama recognized me. The surgeon didn’t either. “I don’t know how you did this,” he said. He scheduled the transplant immediately. Everything went smoothly for me and, best of all, for Rossano.

The first thing I did when I returned to Colorado was change the menu at our restaurant. There were ways I could remake traditional favorites so they were better for our customers. I experimented, removing some ingredients, adding others, until I had created new, lower-fat dishes with plenty of Old World flavor.

Maybe saving Rossano wasn’t all I was put on this earth to do. Maybe God wants me to use the food I love to help others eat healthier, just as he helped me.   

Try Brunella’s Rolled Baked Chicken.

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