By EDMUND MEINHARDT
VIEW ON HEALTH
Being morbidly obese is not easy. It's terribly uncomfortable and sometimes even frightening. At best, it's a series of indignities and inconveniences to be endured. At worst, it's painful and life-threatening.
Keith Ahrens, 48, remembers well what life was like before losing more than 200 pounds.
"I was 414 pounds," Ahrens said. "I was so big, when I went for my stress test, I had to go to a hospital. I was too big for the equipment at my doctor's office."
Weighing more than 400 pounds also meant he couldn't weigh himself accurately unless he went to his doctor's office.
Since May 2007, Ahrens' weight has dropped from 414 to 208. As he watched the pounds melt away, he gained something else -- he found his life's work. Ahrens now follows a regimen of healthy eating and exercise and has devoted himself to helping others achieve similar results.
He has written a book, "Outrunning My Shadow: Surviving Open-Heart Surgery and Battling Obesity," that tells of his transformation and offers encouragement to others who want to lose weight and live a healthier lifestyle. He travels to speak and promote his book and has appeared in numerous news stories, in print and on television. His Web site features personal good wishes and kudos from California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nevada First Lady Dawn Gibbons, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman and U.S. Senator Harry Reid.
He refers to himself as a "lifestyle change expert" and has acquired some credentials to back that up. The American Heart Association presented him with its 2009 Start! Lifestyle Change Award and he was a recipient of the Presidential Champions Physical Fitness Gold Award.
Ahrens is also a fitness trainer certified through the International Sports Science Association.
This provides him a niche in the personal trainer market, he says.
"Lots of people, big people, don't necessarily want to go to a trainer who has never had a weight problem," Ahrens said. "They'd rather go to a guy like me who has been on a similar journey."
Ahrens went for a stress test in May 2007, after his cardiologist found an abnormality in his EKG. Even at 414 pounds, Ahrens had normal blood sugar and blood pressure, but his EKG results suggested further testing was necessary to detect a possible heart problem. His triglycerides were high, the HDL portion ("good" cholesterol) of his lipid panel was low and the LDL ("bad" cholesterol) number was too high. All of these risk factors made it prudent to get more detailed information about the condition of his heart.
This detailed information came through a stress test and angiogram. The images obtained during the stress test indicated some shading that suggested blockage, so Ahrens had an angiogram to get more conclusive information about any possible arterial blockages and their extent.
The result was somewhat shocking: the physician informed Ahrens that the situation was "not good" and that he had three completely blocked arteries. He would need bypass surgery to restore blood flow to his heart.
At the time of this news, Ahrens had reduced his weight to about 380 pounds. Even so, while in the hospital recovering from the angiogram, a surgeon told him he would need to get his weight below 300 pounds before the surgery could safely be performed.
Ahrens found this news extremely depressing, and left the hospital determined to find the best surgeon possible to perform the procedure.
"I thought, if I'm going to have this surgery, I'm going to have it done at the best hospital in the country," Ahrens said.
He spoke with several physicians, receiving a total of eight medical opinions from board-certified cardiologists and surgeons. Seven of them agreed that the risk of delaying the surgery outweighed the risk of having the surgery at his current weight.
Still, Ahrens thought he would need to travel to have his surgery.
"I thought, 'I'm out of here. I'm getting out of Vegas,'" Ahrens said. "I wanted the best of the best."
His cardiologist encouraged him to speak to local surgeons and gave him advice about making his decision.
"He told me that a primary doctor should have a great bedside manner and be nice and friendly," Ahrens said. "But a cardiologist should be straightforward about the heart and about dealing with you. He said I shouldn't care if a surgeon is friendly or not as long as he's a brilliant surgeon, has great credentials and the respect of the medical community."
He eventually decided to have the surgeon V.C. Smith, M.D., perform the procedure at St. Rose Dominican Hospital, Sienna campus. Smith is director of the Heart Surgery Program at St. Rose Dominican Hospital and had recently performed bypass surgery on UNLV head basketball coach Lon Kruger.
Ahrens knew his recovery would be difficult because of his obesity, but he was determined to succeed. As he recovered, he adopted what he calls his "95 percent/5 percent rule."
Self-denial can only take you so far, Ahrens said. He felt it was better to acknowledge his cravings and indulge them in moderation than to simply try to deny they existed until they overpowered him.
"So now, instead of eating 95 percent junk and 5 percent healthy food, I eat 95 percent healthy food and 5 percent junk," Ahrens said.
He made several new commitments, including drinking more water, eliminating drive-through fast food and giving up sodas.
Ahrens said he was drinking several diet sodas a day, and felt that even diet sodas could intensify his cravings for sweets, so he cut them out completely.
He now eats lots of lean meats, fruits and vegetables. He has a protein supplement shake after his strength workouts. Ahrens is happy to talk about what he eats and how he approaches nutrition, but stops short of offering diet plans. "This isn't a diet," he said. "I just try to eat a little bit healthier today than yesterday. Besides, I had been dieting for 23 years and had a 100 percent failure rate. Who wants dieting advice from Keith Ahrens?"
Ahrens alternates cardiovascular training days and strength training days. He works out with weights and his own body weight, rides a bike and walks.
At the time of his open-heart surgery, Ahrens worked as finance director for a car dealership. He had to take time off to recover. As his weight loss progressed and his health improved, he knew he wanted to write a book about his experience and use his experience to encourage others, so he took more time off.
"I was going in on Fridays to help them out. Eventually (my employers) asked me: 'Keith, what do you want to do?' I told them I didn't want to come back."
The plan now, Ahrens says, is to divide his time between improving his own health and fitness and helping others do the same. He spends a lot of time at the gym and on his bicycle, and regularly monitors his cholesterol, triglycerides, weight, pulse and blood pressure. He hopes to run in a 5K race soon.
Ahrens is proud of his transformation, and loves to share what he has learned along the way, such as the joys of treading water. His enthusiasm is contagious.
"Do it for an hour," Ahrens said. "It's great in the summer when it's so hot. It works your legs, your whole body. You should try it."