Feverish and sick to his stomach, with pinpricks of pain shooting through his massively swollen right leg, Rafael Zuniga called 911.
Please, he said, no sirens: He didn’t want the neighbors to point and stare. But when the ambulance arrived, it was with a flash of lights and an ear-piecing blare. Neighbors peeked out through their windows. It took four or five people to get Zuniga’s 831-pound body into the ambulance, carrying him on a giant sheet. At the hospital, doctors told him they could treat the immediate problem, a serious obesity-related infection, but his enormous weight was almost too much for his legs.
The suburban Chicago man was in danger of losing the ability to walk or even to stand.
"It was very grim," recalled Zuniga. "I wish I could say the doctors were very inspiring, they gave me positive news, but nobody gave me anything to look forward to."
Five years later, as he tells his story in a downtown Chicago coffee shop, Zuniga, 45, of Blue Island, bears little resemblance to the man in the hospital bed. He carries 302 pounds on his 5-foot-10-inch frame, maybe 30 pounds of that is excess skin from his 529-pound weight loss. His face has lines and angles. His arms are muscled. He walks with a cane at times, due to arthritis in his knees, but he hits the exercise bike six days a week and makes good use of the three weight-lifting stations in his basement.
"You put me in a gym with anybody, I don’t care who," he said with a twinkle in his dark eyes. "On the bike, in the pool, I can go."
Weight losses as big as Zuniga’s are extremely rare, according to J. Graham Thomas, co-investigator at the National Weight Control Registry, in part, because it’s rare for someone to weigh 800 pounds to begin with. The registry tracks thousands of people who have beaten the odds by losing a large amount of weight and keeping it off for at least a year. Registry members have lost up to 300 pounds, according to the website.
"It’s extremely inspiring," Thomas said of Zuniga’s weight loss. "It shows what can be achieved, via major lifestyle changes."
Zuniga, who has not had weight-loss surgery, according to his doctor, weighed 330 pounds when he graduated from high school; for much of his adult life, he was in the 400-to-500-pound range. He worked hard as a salesman, a public insurance adjuster and a real estate investor, he said, and he dealt with work stress by going out drinking with his friends about four nights a week. Drinking led to eating; he’d often finish a night with pizza or hamburgers.
His weight spiraled upward starting in 2005, and he basically stopped leaving his house in late 2009, though he was still able to work. His parents helped him and urged him to lose weight, he said, but he was like the drug addict who won’t change until he hits rock bottom.
Rock bottom came when he was hospitalized in 2011. He remembers looking out the window on a bright summer day.
"I saw my life passing by me," he said. "There was always work, work, work. Drink, drink, drink to relieve the stress. Eat, eat, eat. That was my life. I said, ‘To hell with that.’ If my credit gets hurt, to hell with it. If I die, what am I going to do (with good credit)? I kind of let it go. I said, ‘Whatever’s going to happen is going to happen. I’ve got to take care of myself.’"
He applied for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, which he received due to lymphedema, in which the drainage of fluid in the lymph vessels is impaired. Symptoms in his case included pain and massive swelling in his legs. He stopped trying to work and focused on his health, losing 47 pounds in a year. Disappointed by that total, he researched weight loss online and discovered the weight loss app Lose It!
The app gave him calorie counts for the foods he was eating — for him, a real game-changer. He was surprised to learn a latte, croissant and low-fat muffin came in at an eye-popping 800 calories. He was actually eating 3,000 calories a day. He joined Lose It! — available at the Apple App Store, the Google Play Store and www.loseit.com (free for all tracking, $39.99 a year for premium features) — and started logging his food intake and the situps and weightlifting he did in bed. He went online and found healthy foods that would fill him up, among them half a Boston Market chicken with no skin and steamed vegetables. He ate that for dinner most nights for a year.
He quickly began losing 30 to 40 pounds a month and was down to 627 pounds by September 2013. At that point, his SSDI-related Medicare health insurance kicked in, and he was finally able to begin therapy for the lymphedema in his legs. The treatment, a combination of massage and compression, reduced the swelling considerably.
Today, Zuniga, who lives with his mother and his 14-year-old daughter from a previous relationship, is working again as a public insurance adjuster. Like many of the people who beat the weight-loss odds, he eats very carefully and exercises religiously. He’s hard on himself, he says, because he has to be: For him, food is an addiction, and he can gain weight very easily. He stays away from alcohol, eats high-protein foods and a lot of steamed vegetables, and drinks about a gallon of water a day.
"I started traveling, and that’s what keeps me in line. That’s my prize," said Zuniga, who recently went to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.
There are everyday rewards too. He has gone from not being able to wear street clothes to shopping for regular sizes. Sometimes, he said, he is caught off guard by his own image, glimpsed in a store mirror.
"Wow!" he will say to himself. "That’s me."
Spring is coming, which means it’s the perfect time to stop and smell the roses. You could go to the Chicago Flower & Garden Show that runs March 18-26 at Navy Pier. Or you could explore your closest garden. Whether it’s an indoor conservatory or a lilly pond, get out and see what’s blooming. Here is a list of Chicago city and suburban gardens and arboretums to check out this spring.
Updated with fresh colors and edgy designs, classic plaid never looked better.