Restoring Health Through Culinary Nutrition: Meet Nicha Petrakos-Willcox

The simple act of standing, putting one foot in front of the other and walking are unconscious, automatic actions that many of us don’t even think about. Nicha Petrakos-Willcox was in that camp until July 2021, when she awoke from brain tumor surgery to discover she could no longer control her movements. Over the next six months, she spent all her focus on recovery and relearning how to walk – and realized just how culinary nutrition could not only transform her path to healing, but also become her brand-new career.

A startling and unexpected diagnosis

In the spring of 2021, Nicha settled into her living room to work on her laptop when suddenly and uncontrollably, she threw the computer across the room. She began to convulse, and her chest ached as if she was having a heart attack. She went to the emergency room, where staff told her she was having a panic attack and sent her home. If she had additional or continued symptoms, they recommended she visit her doctor.

After consultation with her allergist, Nicha went for a brain scan that showed a brain tumor sitting atop her right frontal lobe – close to the nerves that govern motor control. Further tests and specialist appointments confirmed that the tumor had been slowly growing over the last decade. Doctors wouldn’t know if the mass was cancerous until they took it out, and scheduled her in for a tumor removal in July 2021.

What was supposed to be a simple surgery with a two-week recovery time went awry when Nicha groggily awoke from surgery and discovered she had no control over her body. Her legs and arms jerked around wildly and randomly, her muscle strength was gone and she had no mastery over her movements no matter how hard she tried.

“I had zero control over my legs; it’s like they were separate from my body. Nobody expected I wouldn’t be able to use my legs,” Nicha explained. “I knew it was a big issue because every single nurse and doctor that came in said, ‘This is not normal’.”

Fortunately, the tumor was benign – but instead of radiation or chemotherapy, Nicha went home to undergo months of physical therapy. Doctors had no idea if she would ever walk again, but Nicha maintained stubborn hope.

“To be honest, when I had to do the physical therapy and my exercises it was just tears and frustration,” she says. “I have always been somebody that if you told me I can’t do it, not only am I going to do it, but I’m going to do it so well I’m going to blow everybody away. When I would talk to my physical therapist, they would say ‘some people’ make a full recovery. And I was hellbent to be one of those people.”

Slowly, Nicha began to regain muscle strength and was able to stand, walk and climb stairs, even if only for very short periods. Yet she wanted to do more – and had an extra incentive to be mobile and focused: the start date of the Culinary Nutrition Expert Program in September 2021.

A life and career at a crossroads

Nicha Petrakos-Willcox

Nicha launched her career in the entertainment industry two decades ago; first as a dancer and actor, then as a stage and production manager in live entertainment. She was at the top of her game, organizing massive events for some of the biggest acts in the industry, but she worked grueling 18-hour days with very few breaks. Sitting down to eat was out of the question: staff wolfed down hand-held meals over trash cans before moving on with their duties.

Prior to her brain tumor, Nicha wrestled with several health issues including interstitial cystitis, allergies, asthma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and digestive problems. Her demanding work schedule not only affected Nicha’s health, but also her personal relationships with her teenage daughter and the rest of her family.

It all came to a head when Nicha underwent brain surgery and was appalled by the treatment she received from work, and shocked by the treatment she received from health professionals.

Nicha had several near-death experiences in the hospital and while she understands the health care system is strained, there were several terrifying occasions where she was abandoned for six to eight hours.

As someone who eats a specialized diet for interstitial cystitis, Nicha received a lot of pushback from the hospital over food. They didn’t understand why she was worried about post-surgical meals and couldn’t meet her dietary restrictions; as a result, Nicha successfully petitioned the hospital so her husband Justin could bring her specialized meals.

“I told them I have to focus on what I’m going to eat if I’m going to get better,” she says. “I can’t be scared of getting a flareup while I’m in the hospital trying to heal from this.”

Nicha’s job regarded her brain surgery as if she was taking a two-week vacation: they expected her to be off for a couple of weeks and then be able to leap right back into the fray.

“There was no real concern about my health and wellbeing from an industry I had poured my life into,” she says.

When she was no longer able to walk, Nicha’s entire perspective shifted and she simply couldn’t return to her old life. She’d been looking at the Culinary Nutrition Expert Program for several years, and decided it was time to take the leap – even though she still had a long road to recovery.

“There was no way I was going to be able to go back to work, learn to walk and take the program,” she says. “I knew that I was either going to have to go all in and make this huge life changing move, or I was going to have to continue living my old life – the life that had led to the brain tumor. I had to say goodbye to that and just trust that everything was going to work out.”

Nicha beefed up her physiotherapy regime, adding an extra two sessions a week, so she could meet the physical demands of standing and cooking for recipe assignments. She began meditating in earnest in preparation for the focus, critical thinking and mental load the program would take. At times, her husband questioned whether it was all too much and if the program would impede her recovery.

“I would say it’s not going to hinder me, it’s going to be the thing that heals me and makes everything better in our life,” Nicha says. “I just knew that if I took this chance that everything would fall into place, and that’s exactly what happened.”

“I knew that I was either going to have to go all in and make this huge life changing move, or I was going to have to continue living my old life – the life that had led to the brain tumor. I had to say goodbye to that and just trust that everything was going to work out. I just knew that if I took this chance that everything would fall into place, and that’s exactly what happened.”

Diving into the Culinary Nutrition Expert Program

Nicha Petrakos-Willcox

Completing an intensive 14-week online program while recovering from brain surgery was not without its challenges, though Nicha is quick to point out the benefits outweighed the difficulties.

Spending time in front of screens was hard, as was the focus required to dig into assignments and the stamina to cook her weekly recipe homework. Nicha relied heavily on a walker when the program started and her husband Justin became her sous chef extraordinaire – ordering groceries, helping with vegetable prep, ensuring she remembered to check on recipes and turn off appliances, and doing all the dishes and cleanup.

“Without his support, love, encouragement, patience, and kindness, I would not be where I am today,” she says. “I made it through this program because I had help, support and encouragement from a partner who believes that my success is his success. He is my biggest fan and my greatest cheerleader.”

After years of subsisting on a very limited diet due to her allergies and cystitis, Nicha was quite malnourished and doctors encouraged her to add variety into her diet. Exposure to a wide range of foods in the Culinary Nutrition Expert Program helped Nicha fine tune her nutrition and explore new ingredients she could eat to improve her health.

“This program has given me my life back in so many ways,” she says. “Not only did it push me to really work through the pain and learning to walk again and focus after surgery, but it has also given me this new toolbox of all of these different foods that I can legitimately eat that aren’t going to cause problems for me.”

Students in the Culinary Nutrition Expert Program select a condition to research during the term. Based on her own experience, Nicha chose interstitial cystitis. What she learned was transformative and empowering.

“I know what I need now. Having the luxury for 14 weeks to research my own disease, I learned more in that 14 weeks than any doctor has ever told me,” she points out. “And now I have the tools to go further and learn more and be more present in my own care.”

And it isn’t only Nicha that has experienced the benefits of culinary nutrition – she uses her skills daily to help her family.

“The program has given me all of these new tools that I implement in my life and my husband’s life every single day,” she says. “The Academy changed my life and it gave me my life back.”

“The program has given me all of these new tools that I implement in my life and my husband’s life every single day,” she says. “The Academy changed my life and it gave me my life back.”

Walking (and running) on an exciting new road ahead

Nicha WAlking

Nicha knows she isn’t the only one who has experienced challenges in the health care system and at work, and is compelled to be part of the solution.

“As blessed as I was to have my husband, friends and family there to take care of me, there are people who are really hurting, afraid and alone right now and there is nobody there to advocate for them,” she says. “Maybe I can make one person’s scary experience a little bit better. That is what I want to put out into the world.”

Nicha is in the process of developing a website for people dealing with interstitial cystitis (IC), which she feels is an underserved community. Her site will include recipes, articles, tips and tools that will empower women to advocate for their health. She’s currently coaching clients who have IC, is creating a line of IC-friendly snacks she can sell at local farmers’ markets, and she plans to launch a program where clients with interstitial cystitis can meet outdoors for gentle walks and have the chance to talk with one another.

Still in recovery, Nicha knows there are trials ahead in her health and business but has the skills and tenacity to step into her full potential.

“I am a living example of what this program and what this way of living can do,” she says. “I am healthier now than I’ve ever been in my entire life.”

Find Nicha: @nichasindulgentnutrition

Culinary Nutrition Expert Nicha Petrakos-Willcox


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