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That dying patient could have been me

By Ron Cothran, Special to CNN
February 28, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
"I have seen what poor lifestyle choices can do to a person," Ron Cothran says.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ron Cothran was 352 pounds and had sleep apnea and type 2 diabetes
  • Cothran had a gastric bypass procedure to help him lose weight
  • Follow Ron's journey training for his first triathlon on Twitter @TriHardRon

Editor's note: Ron Cothran is one of six CNN viewers selected to be a part of the Fit Nation Triathlon Challenge program. Follow the "Sassy Six" on Twitter and Facebook as they train to race the Nautica Malibu Triathlon with Dr. Sanjay Gupta on September 14.

(CNN) -- There I am, a respiratory care coordinator at the hospital, taking care of a man who weighs more than 400 pounds.

He's breathing with the help of a mask strapped over his mouth and nose. He needs the support because he has so much fat in and around his chest. His sheer weight limits his ability to breathe while lying in bed.

His heart is in ventricular tachycardia, a life-threatening rhythm that does not let the heart pump blood efficiently.

As I check his breathing machine, I strike up a conversation with his family around his bed. They say he smokes constantly, eats whatever he wants in whatever quantities he wants, and drinks alcohol in excess, despite the pleadings of those who can see what is happening to him.

It can be easy to look at someone else and say, "How could they let themselves get to that point?" Instead, I think: If it weren't for the grace of God and the support of good friends, family and medicine, I might have been in that hospital bed.

I have been a respiratory therapist for 25 years. I have seen what poor lifestyle choices can do to a person. You'd think that would have given me the motivation to quit making poor choices myself.

Diabetes took my teeth but not my life

I was the kid in elementary school that had to wear husky size jeans to cover his portliness and was teased by those he desperately wanted to be his friends. I had to ask my first wife to marry me twice, because she broke off our engagement due to her family's fears that I was too unhealthy.

You'd think that kind of rejection would have fueled my resolve to quit being an overeater and underachiever in exercise, but alas.

I tried all the diets. I would lose a few pounds but then stall out. I had always been somewhat athletic, but the thought of going to a gym or running didn't sound so good. I was busy raising a family, building a career and doing church work. I was working so hard for everybody else, to "earn" their love, acceptance and attention, that I was killing myself in the process.

Why I gave up soda

I ballooned up to 352 pounds. I developed obstructive sleep apnea and had to wear a breathing device when I slept. I developed high blood pressure, then type 2 diabetes.

I was a train wreck headed down the wrong track. If I didn't do something drastic, I was not going to be around much longer. In 2008, I had a gastric bypass procedure where doctors created a tiny pouch was made from the upper portion of my stomach, and connected it to my small intestine.

One month after the procedure, my wife of more than 20 years and I split up. I was at the bottom of my barrel; my whole world was crashing around me and I was eating food from a half cup-size container. I had to face the most devastating rejection of my life without the comfort of food.

But God didn't forget me. Friends supported me. My children didn't reject me. I made the choice to be in the gym as much as I could after work so that I didn't have to go home to a lonely apartment and graze on stuff that could "quench" my pain.

6 people who will inspire you this year

When I had the gastric bypass done, my mantra was (and still is): "I am going to live the second half of my life better than my first."

Today, I am blessed with a new wife who loves me unconditionally and is excited that I am training for my first triathlon. In addition to my two wonderful adult children, I have two stepdaughters who have added joy to my life. I work out six days a week, and I love it. There is no going back.

Come along on the journey with me and the rest of the Fit Nation team. It won't be easy -- the road is going to be rough at times. But I am sure that when you travel with others, the potholes don't seem so bad.

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