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St. Luke's, community help Riggins woman change her diet — and her life

Michelle Simpson and her mother, Karen Browning, snap peas in July 2020. The two canned the peas, which were enjoyed at a family reunion over the recent Easter weekend.
By Chris Langrill, News and Community
April 8, 2021

In the most trying of times, under unusual circumstances, Karen Browning drastically improved her health.

Teaming up with a St. Luke’s nutritionist and a personal commitment to a better diet has made all the difference, but It wasn’t too long ago that Browning’s well-being was a concern.

“She had Type 2 diabetes, chronic kidney disease and she was on insulin,” said SeAnne Safaii-Waite, PhD, RDN, LD, a registered dietitian nutritionist who works for St. Luke’s Health System. “Her diabetes had progressed so much that she went into kidney failure.”

Browning’s daughter, Michelle Simpson, realized that Browning needed to make some drastic changes, so she set out to overhaul Browning’s diet completely. The two were referred to Safaii-Waite, who helped create a diet that focused more on plant-based foods.

Karen Browning, right, is visited in early 2020 by her best friend, Jodi Bridgewater, when Browning was in intensive care.

“I just took it upon myself to educate myself about nutrition and some of the things that could help my mom,” Simpson said. “SeAnne was a great resource.”

But the relationship was unique: Safaii-Waite is based out of McCall, and Simpson and Browning live in Riggins, and with COVID-19 protocols, Safaii-Waite still has not met them in person.

Instead, she provided dietary advice from afar.

“We did food logs and blood-sugar logs,” Safaii-Waite said. “I’ve sent them any number of dietary instructions through secure emails.”

There were also several phone calls, and Simpson stayed in touch with Safaii-Waite and Browning’s other doctors through her myChart account, which “has been super helpful,” Simpson said.

Said Safaii-Waite: “It was kind of crazy, but it worked. Karen had to make major dietary changes. We had to make a complete overhaul of her diet.”

Over time, Safaii-Waite and Simpson dialed in a diet that specifically addressed Browning’s needs, focusing primarily on plant-based options.

“With kidney disease you have to be strict about your sodium levels, phosphorous and potassium levels,” Safaii-White said. “And then on the other hand we were trying to keep her blood sugar down. It’s been really challenging … and we were checking her numbers, her blood sugar constantly. She was really under the microscope with me – and her daughter.”

Simpson quickly realized that she didn’t have immediate access in Riggins to some of the foods that are available in larger communities.

“We have a really great market here, the Riggins Whitewater Market, and they actually started bringing in some vegan options into the store,” Simpson said. “They had never done that before, and they kind of laughed at me when I asked them to, but it’s really taken the whole community to get Karen where she’s at now.”

Along the way, Simpson incorporated elements of Browning’s diet into her own.

On a recent trip to the Oregon Coast, Karen Browning was a little apprehensive about eating clam chowder after being on a strict diet. Browning and her daughter, Michelle Simpson reached out to St. Luke's dietitian SeAnne Safaii-Waite for some dietary advice. Safaii-Waite's response? "Eat the chowder, and enjoy it!" she said.

“If I wasn’t with a meat-and-potatoes guy I would probably be eating some of those vegan options every night,” Simpson said. “But you don’t live with a cattle rancher and go completely vegan. … Still, I’ve learned how to fuel my own body with the right things. So, it’s definitely helped us both improve.”

Browning’s improvement has been especially noticeable.

“I would say she’s 100% better,” Simpson said. “It’s insane how her quality of life has improved. Her kidney functions have gotten better, she’s completely reversed her Type2 diabetes to the point where she now takes zero insulin, zero medications. … Every time she checks, her blood sugar is right around 90. It’s on point.”

Safaii-White said it’s been a satisfying experience helping Browning – even though she has learned about her improvements from afar.

“I just think it’s a great success story,” she said.

And Browning appreciates the benefits.

“I have a lot to be thankful for, because I’ve come a long way,” she said.

Not that her journey was an easy one.

“I’ve lost a lot of weight,” Browning said. “I’ve accepted (the new diet) because it has given me a chance to have a longer life.

“I want other people to know they can do it, too, and give them some hope.”

  • If you or someone you know is looking to make health improvements through diet, exercise and more, consider joining our Complete Health Improvement Plan (CHIP). Click here for more information.

About The Author

Chris Langrill is a writer and copy editor for the St. Luke’s Communications and Marketing department.

Related Program

The Pivio Program

Related Specialty

Nutrition Services

Our registered dietitians can help you make gradual, long-term changes in your eating habits and lifestyle while providing support and advice.