'Being told I had MS was devastating, but my new raw food diet has liberated me... vegan is the way to go'
Diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, solicitor Greg Hendron decided to take a novel approach to his own treatment, which ended up with he and his partner opening a vegan cafe. They tell Una Brankin that a plant-based diet is a massive boost for healthy living
When solicitor Greg Hendron told his girlfriend he had Multiple Sclerosis, he expected her to walk away. Instead, Caroline researched the auto-immune disease, married Greg and went into business with him.
Last August, the devoted couple opened the vegan cafe Raw Food Rebellion on Belfast's Lisburn Road, serving the type of 'clean food' Greg (42) credits with staving off his MS.
A second cousin of former SDLP MP for West Belfast, Joe Hendron, Greg was diagnosed with MS at 36, much to the shock of his mother Anne (75), from Portadown, and his three sisters and two brothers.
"I was always totally healthy, then - bang," he recalls. "Illness never entered my head and there's no family history, although I later found out a distant cousin has MS.
"The cause of MS is thought to be partly environmental (17%) and I used to smoke 20 a day. I always thought, 'I must give up'. It must have had an impact."
I met Greg and Caroline, a former law lecturer, at their bright, friendly cafe for almond milk cappuccinos and raw cacao-with-orange-zest dessert: both delicious and syn-free. Caroline now runs Raw Food Rebellion full-time - customers include Game of Thrones star Lena Headey, who tweeted from the cafe - while Greg continues to work for the Belfast Chambers prosecutions department.
In the spring of 2008, Greg developed optic neuritis and became temporarily blind in one eye and was unsteady on his feet. An MRI scan showed up 12 lesions in his central nervous system, but MS was not diagnosed at that point.
"Of course, you think the worst. I thought it was a brain tumour. I couldn't see at all out of one eye and I had balance issues. I'd wobble when I was out walking and felt self-conscious in front of the neighbours.
"But I got my sight back and the 'speed wobbles', as I call them, decreased. That remission-relapse pattern is typical of MS, unfortunately."
Two years later, in 2010, Greg suffered a further relapse. His balance went and his speech was slurred. People with auto-immune illnesses, including MS, can appear drunk, but no-one in Greg's legal circles voiced such suspicions to him. As his symptoms persisted, he made an appointment for private tests at the Ulster Independent Clinic in Belfast.
"I had a heaviness in my head and in court I could hear the slurring in my speech," he recalls. "My mother Anne (75), who's a former nurse, came with me to the clinic to get my results.
"I was told straight that it was MS. It was devastating. I was in shock for days, in pieces. It was devastating for my mother, too.
"There's a whole stigma with MS - it's seen as not good, as incurable, and associated with wheelchairs and all that. I thought, 'Oh my God, that's my future'."
The consultant put the shaken Greg on a course of steroids immediately.
"The effect was amazing - I was still devastated, but steroids are very potent and they stabilised me. They have to be administered with caution, though, as they can impact on the bones.
"The next step was to go on a disease modification drug, which I'd be on for the rest of my life. I met an MS nurse with a big bundle of injectables. My sister Marie-Therese came with me.
The nurse said 'choose a drug'. Well, I'm afraid of needles, so I chose one which you only had to inject three times a week and could be used to auto-inject."
Greg began the treatment with serious reservations. Online, he had come across the Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis (OMS) website, which promotes a programme of diet and lifestyle management that has been shown to improve the health and lives of people with the condition.
Melbourne-based Professor George Jelinek, who was diagnosed with MS in 1999, developed the rigorously researched OMS recovery programme more than 15 years ago, basing it on a plant-based diet, exercise, vitamin D and daily meditation. "Professor Jelinek's story of recovery gave me hope and I put my faith in him," says Greg. "Before then, I'd felt very isolated. My GP was dispiriting; he asked me if I'd consider anti-depressants.
"I opted for meditation and mindfulness, which is recommended by OMS, and when it came to my next appointment with the neurologist at Craigavon Hospital to discuss my progress, I turned down the interferon drug he recommended.
"With it, there was a 30% relapse rate, at best, and in some cases, the drug has no impact at all. I decided to take a risk and not go on it.
"I got a lot of flak - a lot of people said I was crazy. I said I was happy to try it this way and if I relapsed, so be it. I wasn't going to inject myself with something I didn't believe in."
Instead of the medication, Greg went on the OMS programme and became a strict vegan.
"As Hippocrates himself said, 'Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food'.
"Professor Jelinek proved that a diet low in saturated fats reduced MS relapse by 80%. I became a great smoothie man - I had one with spinach, pineapple, ginger and berries with a cup of tea for my breakfast this morning, for example.
"I know it's easy to dismiss this type of approach as quackery, but not when your life depends on it. I think in 10 to 15 years it will be mainstream. St Bartholomew's Hospital has already approved Professsor Jelinick's research."
Caroline, a former law lecturer, wasn't surprised Greg took this route. Casual acquaintances in the past, the couple began dating after a wedding they both attended in May 2010, a few months after Greg was diagnosed.
"Greg's very determined and has great strength of character - he knew the risks and was prepared to deal with it," says Caroline. "I didn't know about his diagnosis when we first started dating. I did notice he was walking a step behind and didn't carry all the bags at times.
"He told me a couple of months into our relationship, with a view to giving me the option to walk away (which his family had prepared him for). But I understand that life has challenges, which can turn out to be a blessing.
"I didn't know anything about MS, so I set about learning all I could, and went on this journey with Greg."
Six years on, Greg is feeling well. He has a slight hesitancy in his speech and is a little clumsy serving our treats when we meet, but has had no relapse since he began the OMS programme.
"I'm bucking the trend, but I still meet my MS nurse once a year for blood tests, and she says I'm doing very well. I've decided to make people aware of how OMS works and raise funds for them through the Belfast Marathon and so on.
"The cafe has become a real community - our clientele includes people with all sorts of conditions, from coeliacs to chemo patients. I grew up on the traditional country meat-and-two-veg and milk diet. I ate lots of chocolate bars and pots of yoghurt - all of which is contrary to the health findings of the China Study (White House advisor Dr. T. Colin Campbell's famous research into the connection between nutrition and heart disease, diabetes and cancer).
"Now my diet is completely plant-based. I've lost a stone and I feel great - as does Professor Jelineck. I met him at a conference recently. He is truly inspirational."
Greg and Caroline refer to themselves, with humour, as 'raw food rebels', promoting clean eating, plant-based, dairy-free, gluten-free and refined sugar-free food.
"I'm an a-la-carte vegan; Greg is stricter," Caroline explains. "The more I read about a plant-based diet, the more interested and excited I became.
"Greg was always fond of treats and dairy, so I thought I'd try and make him a nutritious chocolate bar.
"I made it with dates, almonds, raw cacao and Himalayan salt - and you never saw anyone enjoy a treat so much! That was the start of it.
"I decided to go part-time with the lecturing and take a risk with this cafe - yes, we're both risk-takers.
"It has been more stressful for both of us than the MS, but we love it. We're a little family here; the staff are great and people can come and eat here without having concern over what they're putting into their bodies."
The couple keep fit by flow-yoga, a gentle, stretching form of the eastern exercise discipline, with the emphasis on mind-body harmony.
Happy to concentrate on their one premises, they're in no hurry to expand. Caroline is planning to study for a degree in nutrition, the same one the famous vegan and former Miss World, Rosanna Davison, has under her belt.
Meanwhile, Greg is continuing with his legal career and spreading the word on OMS.
"A raw plant-based diet works - as far as I'm concerned, high protein diets are get-sick-quick diets.
"In the past, I was paranoid about what people would think and what they would say about the path I'm on.
"Now, I feel liberated and I want everyone to know, this is the way to go."
Follow Raw Food Rebellion on Facebook and their Just Giving page for Overcoming MS. The cafe's on 336 Lisburn Road, Belfast. Tel: 077 3006 7704.