TRAVERSE CITY — Jack Pickard was a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy: heavy on the meat and potatoes and light on energy, stamina and fitness.
At 5-feet 10-inches and 360 pounds, he was dangerously overweight, with a host of health problems including high blood pressure, Type II diabetes and degenerative disc and joint disease.
But in August, after he was told he had to increase his insulin medication to five shots a day, Pickard decided enough was enough. When he was offered a reprieve if he would volunteer for a new Veterans Administration weight management program, he jumped.
He signed himself in to the Aleda E. Lutz VA Medical Center's Community Living Center in Saginaw for a 12-day residential program called Move! Intensive. Just like it sounds, the program is a more intense level of the VA's standard Move! program for veterans. It includes everything from weight loss and setting activity goals, to learning about foods and planning healthy meals, to understanding eating cues and behaviors related to overeating.
"They had 13 hours a day scheduled for us," said Pickard, 63, a disabled Vietnam veteran who is active in local and state veterans issues. "We would start walking the halls at 6 (a.m.). We had two hours of physical fitness with a trainer and walking through the day. We had nutrition, diet and psych educational classes."
By the time the 12 days was up, Pickard had lost 16 pounds and gained determination to change his life. He returned home to Kingsley and the support of his wife, Cecilia.
"My biggest success was coming home and having my wife support me and walk with me," said Pickard, who starts most days by walking at the local mall. "We ride bikes side-by-side in the living room."
In addition to exercising, he watches what he eats by reading labels, controlling portions — a piece of steak the size of a card deck, thinly sliced, occasionally is allowed — eating more fish and lean meats and vegetables, and keeping daily logs of meals and calorie intakes. That goes for eating out, too.
"With our involvement in veterans activities we eat out a lot," he said. "We eat out a lot more than we eat at home. We've learned to share. We order one and figure out the calories and share it.
"Some area restaurants are just terrible. I can get two days of calories in one restaurant just by ordering the main entree. You learn what meals are OK and what ones aren't."
So far Pickard has gone from 360 pounds to 248, from a size 4X shirt to a L or XL, and from a 48-inch waist to a 38 or 40. He'll lose another 10 or 15 pounds after May surgery to remove excess skin. He's completely off insulin and eight other medications and takes lower doses of medications for blood pressure and diabetes.
Being off insulin means he can volunteer to drive other vets to appointments at the Lutz VA Medical Center, he said. Better yet is his newfound energy.
"It's a life-changer," he said, adding that it's not as painful to exercise now that there's less weight on his artificial knees and degenerative disc. "Now I don't nap at all. I'm more active. I just feel great.
"I feel more at ease, I'm not conscious about the overweight, I feel more relaxed around everybody."
"He's completely different," said wife Cecilia, who lost 27 pounds of her own and and is off three of her medications as a result of supporting her mate. "Different attitude, he’s willing to do things, he doesn’t sit around, nap. He’s ready to go shopping, he's ready to go to the movies, he's ready to go. We leave the house at 6 in the morning and stay out till 6:30 p.m. We find lots of things to do."
Pickard tested his resolve on a recent vacation to Las Vegas, the first trip in years when he didn't have to ask a flight attendant for a seat belt extender. He passed with flying colors by making healthier food choices, continuing to keep daily logs and staying on the sixth floor of the hotel and taking the stairs.
"I never did stairs before. If it didn't have a ramp or an elevator I just didn't go," he said.
He gives most of the credit for shaping up to the free Move! program and to the professional staff at the Lutz VA Medical Center, where he attends a monthly support group session.
"The prior attitude (to weight management) was, 'We'll just increase your insulin and add a pill,'" he said, referring to the family's cabinet formerly devoted just to meds. "Now they're trying to make our veterans healthy veterans, which will reduce our meds and give us a better life."
He believes the program works because "it incorporates so much into one phase that it sticks a little longer.
"We're going to be on it the rest of our lives," he said, noting that he recently gave away all of his "big" clothes. "I like that I don't have to face needles in the morning."
Sonya Mack, the medical center's weight management coordinator and a registered dietician, said Pickard exceeded her expectations.
"His motivation for coming was not going on mealtime insulin, which was three more shots a day. That was why he came," she said. "But he learned way more than he thought he would. And he continued to do well after the 12 days, which is the hard part.
"It's learning how not to let life interfere with your eating and your exercise."