Texas Chef's Culinary Mission Comes From the Heart

If anyone knows healthy food has a reputation for being bland, it's Amanda DeJesus. After having a heart transplant at age 15, she had to radically change the way she ate to stave off heart disease. She made it her mission to make healthy foods delicious.

The 28-year-old is now a chef in Houston. Amanda's culinary journey began after receiving a new heart as a high school sophomore. While her friends munched on chips and french fries, Amanda was learning to eat broccoli and carrots, and flavoring her food with spices instead of salt.

But the hardest part was giving up the not-so-healthy Puerto Rican foods that were a staple in her home. Her relatives in New Jersey were offended when she turned down their meals because "you don't go to your aunt's house and not eat the fried pork chop," she said.

"It's a very interesting dynamic to go back home," said Amanda, a national spokeswoman for the American Heart Association's Go Red For Women initiative. "I'm like, 'I can't eat this anymore. I wish I could, trust me.' "

Her passion for cooking and healthy eating intensified several years later when her body started to reject the new heart. She had to give up working. Her doctors soon suggested she write up the healthy recipes she'd been cooking and turn them into a book.

Before long, she had started Chef with a Heart, a business teaching people with heart disease how to cook healthy, flavorful meals. She has worked with chefs at local restaurants to help them develop dishes that heart disease patients can eat, and she teaches patients how to read nutrition labels and make their favorite dishes healthier.

Amanda, who is also a member of AHA's Latina Leadership Circle, will post new recipes on her site Wednesday for National Eating Healthy Day. The awareness day comes on the heels of the organization's September launch of +color, a new initiative to help Americans add more color to their plates. Subway is sponsoring the campaign, which is supported by Fresh Avocados - Love One Today.

Sonia DeJesus, Amanda's mother, said her daughter's dedication to keeping herself and others healthy is an inspiration. Amanda, her youngest child, was born with a congenital heart defect that required surgery at 2 weeks old. At 13, she was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy and received a pacemaker. A heart failure diagnosis followed two years later.

"From the first day she took her breath of air, she was determined to overcome whatever it was," said Sonia, a 53-year-old healthcare executive.

Sonia, who suffers from lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, said her daughter has been a source of strength in dealing with her own health problems.

Amanda's older sister, Melody Soto Clark, said she can't believe the teenager who couldn't boil water is now a chef. Melody had her own surgery as a toddler to fix a hole in her heart. She calls her sister brave.

"She's not a victim," she said.

Friend Alicia Pace said Amanda's transformation has been more evident since her friend started volunteering for the AHA last year. Helping others, she said, has "really brought her to life and to light."

The memories of how her life changed are still vivid for Amanda. One day she was an active teenager playing basketball, running track and riding her bike, and the next she was forced to give it all up and manage a host of medications to keep her alive.

It was hard to make new friends in high school because they couldn't relate, Amanda said. So she spent time with teachers and coaches. Her closest friends were fellow transplant recipients.

Her prom date was a transplant recipient. He died about a year and a half later.

Yet in the face of loss, Amanda has pressed on. She pushes herself, she said, to honor her donor.

Told at 13 that she couldn't play sports, she signed up for the Transplant Games of America two years ago because "I don't really believe in never."

She played on the co-ed basketball team, walked the 5K with family and friends and received medals in the shot put and discus competitions.

Amanda is making up for lost time -- the childhood years when she wasn't able to just be a kid, her mother and sister said. She relishes every chance to play with her young nieces and nephew and is a big fan of Marvel comics. Her room is plastered with superhero memorabilia. Her favorite is Iron Man -- her nickname after getting the pacemaker.

In her volunteer work, Amanda encourages heart disease survivors to take care of themselves and reminds parents to make sure they and their children get regular physicals, especially if the family has a history of heart disease.

"[Heart disease] really doesn't have a face or a certain type. It really can get anybody."

Story by American Heart Association News.