In 1943, Stamatis Moraitis, a Greek war veteran from Ikaria, Greece came to the USA for a combat-related injury to his arm. He wound up falling in love, marrying a Greek-American woman, and having three lovely children. He bought his very own Leave it to Beaver three-bedroom house with his 1951 Chevrolet parked in the driveway.
Stamatis was living the American Dream. It all seemed Hollywood perfect until 1976. That’s when Stamatis began experiencing shortness of breath upon exertion – for example, when working or climbing stairs. Eventually, he consulted a doctor who diagnosed him with terminal lung cancer and gave him only months to live. Predictably the doctor urged him to start chemotherapy immediately as it was his only hope.
Still not convinced he was a dead man walking Stamatis consulted with nine other doctors. They all told him the exact same thing. He had lung cancer and roughly nine months to live. They all recommended that he start aggressive chemotherapy ASAP. Ten doctors later Stamatis was finally convinced that he was going to die and soon.
He still refused chemo. Instead, he reasoned since his inevitable funeral would cost a lot less back home, only $200 total, he would return to his birthplace Ikaria, Greece to die peacefully. There he could spend his final days with family and old friends. That’s when his story gets really interesting –remarkably so in fact.
“Ikaria is named after Ikaros, who according to Greek mythology was the son of master craftsman Daedalus, and who was escaping imprisonment from King Minos in Crete by flying with wings his father had made. But ignoring his father’s advice, Ikarus flew too close to the sun and landed to his death on the island.” 
“Moraitis and Elpiniki [his wife] moved in with his elderly parents, into a tiny, whitewashed house on two acres of stepped vineyards near Evdilos, on the north side of Ikaria.” 
Of course, upon his return to his homeland, although he was very happy to be with loved ones, he was also very depressed and felt hopeless about his condition. He slept most of the time while his wife and mother acted as his primary caregivers. As time passed his hopelessness waned and a strong desire to live took its place. He began spending whatever precious time he might have left with friends.
“He reconnected with his faith. On Sunday mornings, he hobbled up the hill to a tiny Greek Orthodox chapel where his grandfather once served as a priest. When his childhood friends discovered that he had moved back, they started showing up every afternoon. They’d talk for hours, an activity that invariably involved a bottle or two of locally produced wine. I might as well die happy, he thought.” 
Then something miraculous happened. Stamatis started feeling like his old self again and noticed that his strength and stamina were returning. As if out of the blue, Stamatis suddenly had an idea to plant a garden even though he still believed he would never live to reap its bounty.
The gardening was very therapeutic and brought him into steady productive contact with the sun, fresh air and the sea breeze. The garden project was his new life purpose. Each morning he woke up early eager to spend time in his new garden. In fact he would spend most of the day gardening. His wife and mother would prepare his meals with fresh plants and herbs from the garden. Six months had come and gone yet he was still alive.
“… He reaped his garden and, feeling emboldened, cleaned up the family vineyard as well. Easing himself into the island routine, he woke up when he felt like it, worked in the vineyards until mid-afternoon, made himself lunch and then took a long nap. In the evenings, he often walked to the local tavern, where he played dominoes past midnight.
The years passed. His health continued to improve. He added a couple of rooms to his parents’ home so his children could visit. He built up the vineyard until it produced 400 gallons of wine a year.” 
As the years rolled by Stamatis’ health continued to improve. Thirty years after his diagnosis he realized that he wasn’t going to die from cancer after all. At the ripe age of 97, Stamatis summoned the courage to submit to a medical exam to confirm his belief that he was cancer free. He wanted to know what had happened to him and why he didn’t die.
His doctors thoroughly examined him and reviewed his medical records. Not only did they give him a clean bill of health, he also learned at the same time that all the doctors who had predicted he would die in nine months if he didn’t submit to chemo had died – all of them were dead! Meanwhile, Stamatis lived on until the age of 102, and when he did die it wasn’t from cancer!
Stamatis Moraitis tending his vineyard and olive grove on Ikaria.Andrea Frazzetta/LUZphoto for The New York Times
“Herbs have a fascinating place in the local culture, as both food and folk medicine. Sage tea with honey was “our childhood antibiotic,” as my friend Yiorgos Stenos, 84, told me. Ikarians still drink this when they feel a cold coming on, as they do oregano for stomach aches, chamomile for insomnia, and more. Most of these infusions are mild diuretics, helping relieve hypertension, perhaps one reason locals have relatively little heart disease.” (2)
The lesson here is simple yet profound: Wholesome, seasonal food prepared with love is potent medicine, spending time connecting with mother nature’s life force can help rekindle an individual’s will to live, having a reason or purpose to continue living is essential for healing, and last but far from least sharing quality time with loved ones when sick and recuperating, can transform the depressed mind back to a state of innocence, gratitude and awe of the mystery called life. In the end, real healing is the soul’s domain.
It should be mentioned that the Greek island of Ikaria has a well deserved reputation as a Mecca for longevity. The island is renowned for its abundant, locally grown food, which is traditionally prepared according to season, its slow pace and pristine, vibrant beauty, and its long lived, mostly healthy inhabitants, many of whom are centenarians. In fact, Ikarians rarely fall prey to today’s most common killer lifestyle diseases like heart disease and cancer.
“Ikaria’s isolation helped create a living testament to the Mediterranean Diet in its most holistic sense, one in which fresh, seasonal, home-cooked food and community are interwoven in ways that sustain physical and emotional health, human relationships, and the environment.
Many Ikarians live long and well, with less cancer and heart disease than Americans, and virtually no dementia, or depression, drinking wine, enjoying sex, walking, gardening, and socializing into their sunset years. They are 10 times more likely to live to 90 or even 100 than Americans, a statistic that embraces men and women almost equally.” (2)
Recent reports indicate that as of 2014 life in Ikaria is still idyllic and its reputation as the “place where people forget to die” is as relevant as ever.
According to a recent Huff Post article titled: Ikaria: The Mindful Mediterranean Diet on the Greek Island Where People Forget to Die: by Diane Kochilas a Greek-American chef, cookbook author, and TV cooking show host:
“Life on Ikaria, even in 2014, is still a paradigm for healthy living, sound of body and mind. The island has taught me to cherish relationships that span generations and continents, to enjoy and appreciate the gifts of nature, to eat real food in its season, and, perhaps, most important of all, to do so with an open heart and an open table, welcoming others to it.” (2)