In April 2019, Alan Heck stepped into the Atlantic Ocean off the shoreline of St. Augustine, Florida and proudly hoisted his bicycle in the air, high above his head. In that moment, he was overcome with emotion, as he reflected on just how far he had come. It marked the end of a 3,000-mile cross-country cycling trip, which had begun 60 days prior in San Diego, California. It also symbolized what Alan’s life had become, after undergoing bariatric surgery and losing a whopping 184 pounds.
Alan had struggled with weight his entire life, seeing food as a source of comfort when times got tough. In his teen years and 20s, he considered himself a “bulkier” guy but still spent a good amount of time on his bike. He had a passion for cycling, and it helped him keep his health somewhat in check. Over the years however, as Alan continuously gained weight, biking fell off his radar. By the time he turned 50, he weighed more than 300 pounds, had ongoing blood pressure issues, and had been diagnosed with sleep apnea. He had problems with his knees and ankles, making it impossible for him to do the things he wanted with his family.
“I started to think about bariatric surgery, but I had the mindset if I went that route, it meant I didn’t have any willpower, and I struggled with that for a long time,” Alan said. “Life was passing me by. I couldn’t live my life the way I wanted to, and I needed help.”
At the recommendation of his primary care physician, Alan began investigating Saint Agnes Hospital’s surgical weight loss program and the bariatric physician, Dr. Andrew Averbach. He paid closer attention to hospital billboards and ads featuring Elizabeth and Carole, two patients who had undergone the surgery and completely transformed their lives, and something clicked.
“I remember thinking – they got their lives back by doing this. Maybe I can, too,” Alan recalled, whose weight had topped out at 356 pounds.
Over a period of about six months, Alan attended a bariatric information session, had a few appointments with Dr. Averbach, worked closely with a dietician, and underwent a mental health evaluation, as required by his insurance company. He learned about the lifestyle changes that he would need to make and new ways to cope with stress that didn’t involve food. And on March 6, 2014, he underwent gastric bypass surgery.
“I did exactly what they told me to do and I started to lose, quickly,” Alan said. “And as the pounds started coming off, I no longer had pain when I was moving around. I started walking longer and faster. In the gym, everything got easier because I wasn’t lugging all those extra pounds around with me. And as for food? I no longer viewed it as an experience. It was about fueling my body so that I could live well and healthy.”
All along, Alan had kept an optimistic eye on his old bike, tucked away in the basement. Six months after his surgery, he pulled it out, dusted it off, and sent it to a cycling shop for some repairs and adjustments. It was time to start riding again.
“I got on my bike and I just kept going, because I could,” Alan said. “It felt so good. After all of those years, I felt like myself again.”
Alan’s cross-country journey from San Diego to St. Augustine was literally a dream of his that came true. He will be pursuing another long distance cycling trip – from Key West, Florida, to Arcadia National Park, in Maine, in 2021. However, he believes the everyday life experiences he is now able to have are every bit as important.
“I laugh a lot more these days with my wife and kids, and we can get out and do things together as a family that were not possible because of me before,” Alan, said now weighing in at about 172 pounds, “They no longer have to worry if I am going to die of a heart attack. I did this for me, but it’s done a lot of positive for them, too.”
Another priority in Alan’s life these days is to share his story and the knowledge he has gained along the way with others. He continues to attend Saint Agnes Hospital’s bariatric support group meetings, speaking alongside Dr. Averbach to help educate prospective patients about the process and the many ways it can change their lives. He also remains an active contributor to the support group’s Facebook page.
“This is a big, difficult decision to make,” Alan said. “I feel it is my responsibility to support others who are struggling the way I once did. It’s one small way I can give back.”
To this day, Alan keeps an old picture of himself on his phone. He views it as a positive reminder of the choices he has made, and how far he has come. He shares it with pride.
“When I show that picture to people, they tell me they are amazed,” Alan said. “Most of the time I smile and tell them I am too.”