Downsized: Fishtown Native Tells His Interesting Odyssey with Gastric Sleeve Surgery (Part 1)
Big fella, big man, big Step: genial introductions that preceded handshakes, hugs and reunions. That was me, the big guy, for as long as I can remember. To be honest, I was damn proud of that. Until it almost killed me.
Growing up a nerdy, private kid on the tough streets of Fishtown, I was a chunky but hardly intimidating kid that got his clothes from the husky section at Sears. I had to fight a lot, won a few, lost a few, but the fact that I was somehow inadequate hurt worse than any of their punches. Going to St. Joseph’s Prep (where I thought I might escape the old neighborhood), I was an intense, husky street kid surrounded by cool, affluent, good-looking boys who looked down on me. A fat Henry Rollins surrounded by a bunch of Matthew McConaugheys. Safe to say that I endured my share of what some people would call bullying. Combine that with issues on the home front, and I was a walking time bomb. So I played football. I wanted to be a linebacker so I could hurt people with autonomy, but the coaches took one look at my big ass and – poof – I was an offensive lineman, relegated to the realm of the “large” kids who protected the “real athletes,” many of whom still hated my blue-collar guts.
With my large-but-not-so-in-charge background, is it any surprise that I grew up angry and obsessed with being able to hide my personal inadequacies behind a wall of size and seriousness? I started eating, training and lifting like a madman because I wanted to hurt the world that hurt me. Looking back on it, this is painfully embarrassing to admit, but my private intellectual pursuits took a temporary back seat to the pursuit of getting big, strong and intimidating. Thankfully, I pursued martial arts and when the Master asked me why I wanted to learn karate, I replied, “Because I want to hurt people more efficiently.” He told me to come back when I grew up. Duly chastised, I considered my immaturity, and – like Kung Fu Panda – I crawled back for a second chance. After more than 20 years of martial arts, I’m proud to say I learned to balance my inner nerd impulses with my outer defense mechanisms. In the words of General James Mattis, I learned how to “be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.” Clearly, I still had a lot to learn, but my wife and I were just starting our journey into parenthood, so that would have to wait. My first son, Cain, died from a congenital heart condition. Shortly thereafter, we were blessed with a healthy daughter, Samantha. That combination of heartbreaking helplessness and the knowledge that I had a little girl to protect now only made me more relentless in my pursuit of size. I ate like an elephant, lifted like a silverback gorilla, taught school like an overcaffeinated honey badger, and played with my kids like a mother grizzly.
Meanwhile, my joints were breaking down.
I didn’t care. I had three kids now, Samantha, Mason and Frankie, and I was going to teach them that you could balance the intellectual with the physical. They would grow up admiring their big strong dad! And they did. I was the “jacked” dad with the tattoos who my sons’ friends looked up to, and who my nieces and nephews admired. My wife’s friends knew that she was safe next to her own personal silverback gorilla.
Meanwhile, my heart was devolving into a dangerously inefficient muscle.
I didn’t care. I was now in my 40s, running Spartan races with my sons, 5Ks with my daughter, setting personal powerlifting records in the gym. I was 6’3” 290 lbs. of “don’t f**k with me” and my students knew it, embraced it, and joked about it. I wrote a few books so I was doing newspaper and radio interviews and every interviewer/host wanted to talk about the mountain with a brain. I was a teacher and a writer. My kids adopted a healthy lifestyle from me, and I was big, strong and secure. I was in Heaven.
Meanwhile, I almost died.
I was on the side of a mountain in Palmerton, PA with about a mile to go in my fifth Spartan race, and something was wrong, very wrong. After having finished the race I was fully aware, for about an hour, that I was on the verge of blacking out. Opinions vary on whether I had a heart attack on that mountain in 2015 but it’s pretty certain I had some kind of “cardiac incident.” Two questions plagued me for months following that race:
How could this happen to me?
What was I doing wrong?
In Part 2, Step talks about his sudden health realizations, his decision to undergo gastric sleeve surgery, the anxieties leading up to the big day, and his life “post-op.” •