Marine Corps Veteran, David Nevarez, takes a small break while walking up McKelligon Canyon Road, El Paso, Texas, on the morning of April 5, 2019, to exercise and train for the upcoming Bataan Memorial Death March that will take place in March of 2020. | Photo By Amabilia Payen
In 2014, the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs estimated that 78 percent of Veterans are overweight or obese. Marine veteran David Nevarez realized this statistic described him when he found himself in the emergency room at Las Palmas Medical Center, in August of 2017. He was diagnosed with diabetes, nearly dying of it.
Before the ER visit, however, Nevarez had other medical problems, including two knee replacement surgeries, due to his constant running days while serving in the Marine Corps. Nevarez said he could no longer run like he used to, and developed what psychologists call emotional eating. That day in the ER, like many veterans, Nevarez was prescribed diabetic medications. He was also being treated for hypertension and high cholesterol.
For Nevarez, it was a lot to absorb, along with the constant pain in his knees. The Desert Storm veteran had a stable job as a plumber, working for El Paso Water Utilities. However, because of his pain and physical ailments, he realized he couldn’t work any longer.
In September 2017, during a follow-up with his Veteran’s Affairs clinical provider, David learned he was now categorized as morbidly obese at 380 pounds. Nevarez decided he had to do something about his condition.
“I saw where I was heading,” said Nevarez. “The doctor showed me my bloodwork and I saw where my health was going down and my medications were going up.” The first thing he did was join the VA MOVE! Program with the El Paso Veterans Health Clinic, where he attended classes on exercise and nutrition.
VA MOVE! Programs throughout the nation are managed by the VA’s National Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention (NCP) and help Veterans develop weight management skills through 12 weeks of vigorous training and education for a healthier lifestyle.
Nevarez set a goal of reducing his daily 8,000 calorie intake down to 1,200. He stuck to eating proteins and vegetables. He also began to exercise by walking.
“I used to run nine miles a day in the Marine Corps,” said Nevarez. “I think the last few years of my service is when I started to feel the deterioration in my knees.”
First, it was short walks with his wife, Sandra. By October 2017, he decided to challenge himself and walk up McKelligan Canyon Road, which El Paso residents use to drive towards the amphitheater nestled in the El Paso Franklin Mountains. The road takes drivers uphill, climbing 669 feet over a stretch of five miles, eventually reaching 4,200 feet above sea level.
“I told her, we are going to walk McKelligan,” David remembers. “You should’ve seen the look of surprise on her face.”
When he finished MOVE! in the middle of December 2017, he was referred to William Beaumont Army Medical Center’s Bariatric clinic, to see if he qualified for bariatric surgery.
The Bariatric Surgery Service at WBAMC received a Center of Excellence designation in July of 2017 by the American College of Surgeons and the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery, two groups that oversee this type of surgery. Patients who decide to get bariatric surgery have their stomachs reduced in size with a gastric band or removing a portion of the stomach. Bariatric patients can also have their small intestine resected and re-routed to a small stomach pouch.
At the time, WBAMC was the only hospital across the entire Department of Defense to receive this Center of Excellence award for bariatric surgery. The hospital was seeing about 3,000 bariatric patients, some from other installations.
To receive the designation, WBAMC had to demonstrate a high level of care for their patients, including follow-up visits. The WBAMC Bariatric Surgery Service performs extensive follow-up care with bariatric patients. This intrigued David. Once he learned he was going to have the surgery, he began researching, reading and watching videos on the internet to immerse himself in the subject.
“What I liked about Beaumont was that I truly believed it was the bariatric center of excellence because of the support group meetings,” said David. “They have them twice a month and have six dedicated surgeons that help you and attend the meetings. Folks who showed up shared their experiences and we supported each other.”
David had gastric bypass surgery in March 2018. During the surgery, the doctor played David’s favorite song, “It’s my life” by Bon Jovi, to help him relax and settle into a positive mindset.
After surgery, he didn’t have much pain, David remembers. But only because he was so used to the pain in his knees. Food intake was his first challenge. David had two weeks of a liquid diet, then two weeks of pureed food, then eventually, two weeks of soft food. “It’s like a newborn infant,” said David. “You meet with a nutritionist and then you try foods. You have to work up to (regular) foods all over again.”
His first meal was 6 ounces of salmon and 8 ounces of steamed vegetables. David took one bite of the salmon and one bite of the veggies and he was then full. It was the first time he felt truly full in 10 years.
Three days after surgery, David resumed his walking routine. Slowly once more, walking in his neighborhood, then the park, then weeks later, back up the road in the mountains.
By the time David had his follow-up appointment, he had lost another 35 pounds.
David also went to the bariatric support meetings twice a month. He learned about chewing properly, proper hydration while exercising, and other ways to help keep his weight off. Soon, David realized that, without the MOVE! Program, he would have had a much harder time keeping the weight off than some of his colleagues.
His wife has continued to be a key supporter of David’s journey with weight loss and a healthier life.
“Most people think bariatric surgery is the easy way out, but my husband did his research, went to support group meetings, and went through the MOVE! program at the VA,” said Sandra. “He has encouraged me to exercise more and to eat healthier.”
David decided to challenge his new body with the Bataan Memorial Death March, a yearly event at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, where participants either walk or run a 26-mile stretch of road through the desert, in honor of the survivors of the Bataan March during World War II.
So, with the encouragement of his group, his wife, and his desire for change, David walked, swam, and kept a journal of his meals to prepare for the march. After a year of exercise, the day of the marching event came on March 17, 2019. David finished seventeenth in his age group with a time of four hours and 40 minutes.
“The bariatric surgery has led me to a much healthier life,” reflected David. “I’m stronger mentally. Behavioral wise, I was miserable and it showed in my relationships and marriage. Now I have completely swung it around.”
“I want him to continue to be successful and to continue to be an inspiration to other bariatric patients,” said Sandra. “He continues to research this journey and he enjoys sharing with others.”
David relates his experiences with the bariatric support group. He is now a mentor, offering his advice to group members when the WBAMC bariatric staff ask him to speak at the meetings.
David advises his fellow veterans that, if they are seriously considering bariatric surgery, to give the MOVE! program a try first with their respective VA clinic.
“You are getting a three-month head start,” says David. “Doing the MOVE! Program is like getting ahead of the game … You are given literature that teaches you all you need to know about nutrition. Talk to your primary doctor about it and research it on your own, because everyone is different on the bariatric spectrum.”
David now weighs 188 pounds, which is about a 192-pound weight loss so far. He still sets and works toward his goals. One goal is to participate in the next Bataan Memorial Death March in 2020. To beat his original time, David has incorporated weight lifting and more swimming, in addition to his walks up the McKelligan Canyon Road every morning, where he now does six laps around the five-mile road.
His wife continues to go with him to the gym and on some walks. She has lost up to 45 pounds and is considering weight loss surgery herself.
“Have attainable goals,” recommends David. “This is all a mental game. You just have to keep going and I owe my success to my wife, the WBAMC bariatric meetings and the staff, and to the VA for helping me understand my eating habits. Above all, stay positive because that positivity bleeds into your family life and friendships.”