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Vol. LXIII, No. 4
February 18, 2011

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Determination, Willpower Crucial
Employee Nearing Goal in Weight-Loss Battle

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Pretty soon, Ronald M. Thomas will be less than half the man he used to be and he’s thrilled about it.

A government employee who works as a housekeeper in the 5 East laboratories of the Clinical Research Center, he is on a mission to lose 220 pounds. He’s about 40 pounds away and continues to chip away, bit by bit. Looking at him now, it’s hard to believe Thomas, who stands 6’1”, weighed 420 pounds at his peak and once wore size 6X clothing.

“I had high cholesterol, high blood pressure, I felt tired all the time, I sweat all the time, I didn’t feel like doing anything,” he said.

His feet and ankles were strained by the pressure on them. He wore a brace to keep one ankle from buckling. His eyes always looked bloodshot and his doctor warned him that he was pre-diabetic. In his late 40s, Thomas’s body was giving out on him.


  On a visit to NIH, playwright Anna Deavere Smith performs excerpts from her latest play.


On a visit to NIH, playwright Anna Deavere Smith performs excerpts from her latest play.

Ronald M. Thomas shows how his old clothes no longer fit now that he has lost so much weight.

He now swims inside shirts that used to fit.

He didn’t always struggle with weight. Though he’d been active and fit in his childhood, after finishing school he no longer had a regular routine that included playing ball or running around with his friends. The weight packed on, sometimes 30 or 40 pounds a year. His doctor suggested he consider bariatric surgery. He refused.

One day, he forced himself to look in the mirror and face the facts.

“I really looked at myself, and I said, ‘Nah, this is not me,’” he said. “I knew I was going to have to get the weight off or I was going to be dead.”

So he started to lose weight in December 2009. The first things to go were sweets—no more candy, sodas and nightly helpings of butter pecan ice cream with a slice of pound cake. In place of soft drinks, Thomas now drinks at least 120 ounces of water a day. Instead of eating junk food, he carefully reads food labels for calories and carbohydrates. He will not eat anything that has been fried and peels the skin off his baked chicken and turkey. He weighs everything he eats and allows himself only one small piece of red meat a month. A snack now means a teaspoon of peanuts.

He’s also incorporated exercise into his routine. At a gym near his Maryland home, he rides a stationary bike and spends time on an elliptical machine while listening to jazz on his iPod. He also does 200 sit-ups every night.

For Thomas, the first week was the hardest, but as he moved into his second week and got accustomed to his new habits, he started to see the first effects of his diet plan.

“I felt it first in my feet,” he said. “I woke up in the morning and my feet weren’t swollen.”

Though he hadn’t told anyone about his plan to drop weight, others began noticing a change in him, including Dr. Gregory Kato, a pulmonary hypertension specialist with NHLBI who works on sickle cell disease in the 5 East labs.

“In the first couple months of him dieting and losing weight, he started to fill me in on the factors that made him want to do this,” Kato remembers. “He just had one of those watershed moments and decided, ‘From this point on, that isn’t what I want my life to be,’ and there’s never been a consideration of going back in his mind. It’s the domination of willpower. He’s an inspiration.”

Another milestone came when Thomas was out running errands. While at Walmart, he decided to pick up a shirt and tried one on. It fit.

“It was unbelievable,” he said. “I realized I could go to a regular store to buy clothes. Before, I always had to go to a big and tall store.”

He now has a closet full of clothes to get rid of, as well as most of his shoes. In addition to shrinking out of his size 58 pants and 6X tops, he’s also lost two shoe sizes. Recently, he tried on a pair of his old sweatpants and fit both legs into one pant leg. It’s even hard for him to believe those old clothes once fit him.

Thomas has been losing an average of 4 pounds a week and has set his sights on reaching 200 pounds by the end of March. But even with a little way to go, his work has paid enormous dividends. His cholesterol is way down, his blood pressure is a solid 110/80 and every trip to the doctor is a good one.

“I feel a thousand times better, there’s really no comparison,” he said. “I have more energy, I don’t sweat, I don’t breathe as hard, I can do things I couldn’t do before. It’s not a picnic, but it’s completely worth it. I did it for myself.”

As satisfying as it will be for Thomas to reach his goal, he’s not completely at ease. He wants to help others struggling with obesity, to tell them they can also make a change. He said he remembers all too well what it felt like to be the biggest guy around.

“When you’re big, you know that other people are noticing, like when you get on the subway and everything gets quiet, you draw a lot of attention, it’s a very uncomfortable feeling,” he said. Though people might not say anything, “all eyes are on you, and you know they’re thinking, ‘Hey this guy is really big.’ I can understand how someone else feels who’s going through that. I want to tell them you don’t have to be that way if you don’t want to. I’ve been on both sides.”

He wants to do other things, too. “I’d like to run a marathon,” he said. NIHRecord Icon

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