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Jim Blackburn: Staying Active and Giving Back After Roux-en-Y Gastric Bypass

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Like so many others, Jim was morbidly obese and faced the health problems and daily struggles that are so familiar to overweight people. He got the roux-en-y gastric bypass surgery, and lost over 200 pounds. That is already quite an accomplishment in itself, but Jim did not stop there. He continually gives back to the weight loss surgery community by volunteering and sharing his story with thousands of people.

Jim was generous enough to share his story with BariatricPal. Following are his story and interview answers.

From a Husky Child to a Seriously Overweight Man

Like so many weight loss surgery patients, Jim remembers himself as being “husky” as a child in Georgia. His peers picked on him, the “fat kid,” as he grew up on generous and fattening Southern cooking. As a high school football player, his body became more athletic and the teasing stopped. When he went into IT in 1984, though, Jim was not only starting a new life that grew to include a successful career and wonderful family. He was setting off on a path to morbid obesity.

These are Jim’s weights and life events through the years.

  • 17 to 19 years old: 275-280 pounds as an offensive lineman in high school.
  • 20 to 21 years old: 205 pounds: in college.
  • 23 to 24 years old: 250-260 pounds during his first marriage.
  • Late 20’s through 40 years old: weight cycling, with each cycle adding more weight, as he worked hard, enjoyed his new marriage, and raised his children.

By age 35, Jim hit 300 pounds, and it didn’t stop there. The yo-yo dieting continued for years, and he topped out at 420 pounds.

BariatricPal (BP): Why do you think you became obese? Are others in your family overweight? Did you learn poor habits as a child? Did you gain weight later in life as the result of some life event?

Jim Blackburn (JB): At a very early age I was tagged with the label "husky" and from that point I endured a lot of bullying in elementary and high school because I was the fat kid that everyone seemed to enjoy picking on. My father was tall and slim and my mother was short and considerably overweight.

My family – sister, brother-in-law, cousins, aunts, uncles – were for the most part big and the one common thread among everyone was the joy of eating - and eating in massive quantities. I was part of the clean-your-plate generation and butter, Crisco, grease, and fat all went into making the food taste delicious - delicious to the point where you just could not eat enough. A typical southern breakfast for me was eggs, biscuits, sausage, gravy, streak-o-lean, and milk. I can remember eating four to six biscuits and gravy in one sitting as a child - keeping up with my parents and meeting their demands to clean my plate and eat good - because eating made everyone feel good.

As I grew older I became more active. My mother owned a southern cooking restaurant that she used as a means to pay for my private school. She worked hard and fed me well. Since I was a lot bigger and a lot stronger the bullying stopped and I became a football player where the activity helped me to slim down but the eating - and push to eat a lot - was even more prevalent. Through high school and into college I ate huge amounts of food, but fortunately the activity - football - helped me to maintain. And then football ended and my life started. I began to work in a field that required a lot of chair time (and screen time) and little did I know that in 1984 I was getting ready to ride, for the next 30 years, the information technology revolution. This, along with marriage, raising a family, and the ups and downs of relationships and finances all contributed to my lack of activity and binge type eating habits.

The Decision to Get Weight Loss Surgery

Jim’s wake-up call came when he had to go to the doctor for an ECG. Ironically, doctors were concerned about his heart because of the diet pills he had been taking. He also had hypertension, sleep apnea, a fatty liver, the beginning stages of diabetes, and chronic joint pain. He carefully researched weight loss surgery and thought about whether he would be able to use it as an effective tool for weight loss. Then, he settled on the Roux-en-Y gastric bypass at Emory Bariatric Center.

BP: Did you consider other types of surgery? Why did you choose the roux-en-Y?

JB: I was the last of four family members to have gastric bypass over the course of two years - same bariatric center, same doctor and surgical team. Collectively we did our research and after seeing the results from those who went before me and close consultation with my surgeon and primary care physician, I decided the roux-en-Y was the best option for me. There was some consideration for Lap-Band but again, seeing the results from my other family members made me want to go with roux-en-Y. I felt I was going to only get one shot at success so I took it.

The First Year Post-Surgery

Jim stayed focused and lost an admirable 174 pounds in the first year after his surgery on April 5, 2010. He did it by following his weight loss surgery diet very carefully. He also used the support of his wife and two children to stay on track.

BP: You have named your wife and children as being supportive during your weight loss journey. What were their roles?

JB: My wife was my toughest supporter. She took no crap from me and had studied, over and over, the pre-op and post-op program and knew exactly when, what, and how much I was supposed to be putting in my mouth. If I regressed or lost focus she was there to correct me and together we did it.

Along with my loss, she lost amost 80 pounds which was weight she had gained since we were married by adopting my eating habits. My wife was is Brazilian and the eating culture there during her childhood was much different. She recalls coming to the U.S. to live and being amazed at how we ate and how much we ate. Along with my wife, my son and daughter were with me every step of the way and as a family we endured good and bad times during my first year post-op but in the end we all have become a lot closer and my family has been with me at every major milestone (and finish line) showing their love and support. I consider myself very fortunate to have had this support and my success is directly attributed to my wife, son, and daughter’s love and support.

BP: Did you face people who thought your surgery was the wrong decision or who tried to sabotage you? How did you (and do you) handle it?

JB: Yes. Yes. Yes. The proverbial "eye-roll" from people who wanted to pre-judge my decision to have weight loss surgery. Fortunately I made my decision to have the surgery privately and once committed I was very open with everyone many months before - I did not try to hide the fact I was having surgery and was quick to politely "shutdown" the naysayers and critics many of which instantly became experts on the topic of weight loss and my history, co-morbidities, and my level of will power to be able to lose weight without such drastic intervention. I put my trust in my medical team, my Lord & Savior Jesus Christ, and my deep-rooted desire to live a healthier and longer life.

Transformation to an Athlete

Jim began lifting light weights and walking on the treadmill towards the end of his first year after surgery. He eventually began to run, and a new world opened up to him. Running helped him relieve stress and control his eating. Now, he describes himself as a passionate runner, and he has lost over 200 pounds.

Jim’s list of completed road races is growing. He has run the prestigious Atlantic Journal Constitution Peachtree 10K (6.2 miles) three years in a row. This year, he finished in 53 minutes and 50 seconds over the 10K (6.2-mile) course. That’s less than 9 minutes for each mile, or nearly 7 mph if you’re a treadmill runner.

He participated in his first marathon this February, completing the 26.2-mile course in 5 hours 7 minutes. Jim is now planning to run the 2014 Marine Corps marathon as part of the Push America challenge this autumn in Washington DC to raise money for athletes with disabilities.

BP: You have become a respected athlete in some circles and are now training for another marathon. How do you keep yourself motivated to get out the door and work out each day?

JB: The accountability that comes with setting goals and staying on track with my fitness is the motivation I need to get me out the door. Some days are harder than others and I have not been perfect, especially when factoring in injury, soreness, or the day-to-day stresses that come with life. I remain focused and use my success to be an example to others and to try an help others to find their way on this very complex journey. We are all entitled to freedom of speech, but whoever said that weight loss surgery is the easy way out needs to really take the time to become educated with the hundreds of thousands of people who struggle with their weight daily and who are at the end of their life, at a young age, because they have tried every possible avenue to lose weight and failed for one reason or another. Obesity is a disease and surgical intervention is a viable solution that works if the recipient is willing to make the necessary changes and take personal responsibility.

Surgery as a Tool for Weight Loss

From the start, Jim looked at weight loss surgery as a tool, not as a cure. The surgery, and maybe his new eating habits, helped him lose his taste for fattening foods, and gain a taste for vegetables. Still, it is up to him to eat right and plan his time. He makes exercise a priority, getting up for 5:00 a.m. workouts and checking out the hotel gyms as soon as he arrives.

BP: You have said that you lost your taste for some of the high-calorie junk foods that you used to eat before surgery, but are you ever tempted to go off of your diet? How do you handle cravings and other temptations? If you give in sometimes, how do you get back on track?

JB: Honestly, at this point in my post-op life I do not diet and yes, I do eat the occasional donut or candy bar. I am limited in quantity of intake but I am blessed with being able to tolerate 95% of all foods. My tastes do continue to change so some things are totally off the table. I believe the tool given to me with the roux-en-Y and my commitment to daily exercise has paved a path for me to maintain my weight while staying within the quantity limits of my stomach pouch. Currently I am training for a marathon and my training week consisted of 30 miles of running, 80 miles of biking, and 7,600 yards of swimming. The calories burned during these daily workouts put me off the charts when it comes to maintaining a 1,200 to 1,500 daily calorie diet and my intake far exceeds this in order for me to keep my energy levels up.

Helping Others

Among the most admirable parts of Jim’s story is his desire to give back to the weight loss surgery community. He gives public speeches, maintains a podcast, and is happy to answer questions via email or Twitter. He is a board member of the non-profit organization WLSFA (Weight Loss Surgery Foundation of America). WLSFA advocates for weight loss surgery and helps provide funds to those who cannot afford it. Jim was named the Bariathlete of the Year at the 2014 WLSFA Meet and Greet in Tampa, FL.

Jim is a class act, and BariatricPal is very grateful for the interview and for all that he does for the weight loss surgery community.

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