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Indiana's Health Chief Got Sick of Life in the Fat Lane, and He's Never Svelte Better

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Dr. Woodrow Myers Jr. had been Indiana’s health commissioner only two months when he made a spectacle of himself at a reception in the Governor’s office. When the speeches were over and it was time to stand up, Myers found that he couldn’t; his 418-lb. body was stuck in his chair. Under the embarrassed gaze of a roomful of dignitaries, he finally pried himself loose, only to lurch across the room out of control and crash into the Governor’s desk, knocking a lamp to the floor. “That was very humiliating,” he says. “You shouldn’t knock over lamps in the Governor’s office.”

In fact you probably shouldn’t be state health commissioner and weigh 418 lbs. Apart from the risk to his own health and the daily inconveniences—including the difficulty of traveling by plane—Myers knew he was setting a bad example. “I’m a doctor, for God’s sake,” he says. “I’m supposed to know better.”

So the commissioner, veteran of a lifetime of failed diets, decided to take drastic action. On May 31, 1985, two months after issuing a memo in which he vowed to make his new department a “lean, mean fighting machine,” the 6’3″ Myers went on a 500-calorie-a-day, albumin-based liquid-protein diet. He put himself under the supervision of Dr. Ted Hegeman, a weight-control and kidney specialist at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. Myers also enrolled in a daily exercise program.

For nine months Myers went without solids, living on five protein shakes a day and dozens of glasses of ice water. Occasionally he treated himself to a diet drink or a cup of black coffee. Three times a week he visited Dr. Hegeman, who carefully monitored his progress, testing his heart and blood pressure, and he underwent intensive behavior-modification counseling.

Myers was encouraged when a local TV reporter noticed his clothes were beginning to hang more loosely and asked him about it. “I wasn’t going to make my diet public,” says Myers, “but she wanted to do a positive health story, and I figured I could trust her. The week after the TV story ran I got 300 letters from people who’d battled obesity all their lives. That spurred me on.”

Finally, after 260 days of near fasting, Myers had dropped 201 lbs., bottoming out at an almost-svelte 217. On his 32nd birthday, Feb. 14, 1986—”a day,” he jokes, “that will live in infamy”—Myers had his first solid food in almost nine months: a chunk of pineapple and a piece of cantaloupe. Myers now weighs 250, which he says feels comfortable. His waist, an elephantine 56 inches at the start of his diet, is now a relatively trim 40.

Myers’ weight problems began when he was a child. “I came from a plump family,” he says, “so it was part genetic and part environment. This is a society that eats, but I don’t blame it on society—I blame it on me.” By the time he graduated from high school in Indianapolis, he was already up to 250 lbs. He added another 50 at Stanford University and a few dozen more at Harvard Medical School. “When I really got into medicine I stopped exercising,” Myers explains. “I was working 12 to 16 hours a day and always on call. I was under a lot of stress and eating a lot of starchy foods and desserts.”

Myers weighed 300 lbs. in 1970 when he met his future wife, Debra, who is also a doctor. “I always worried about his health in regard to his weight,” says Debra, “and add to that that he’s a hardworking, stress-prone type of guy, you had the possibility of heart disease and cancer.” Six months into her husband’s fast, Debra, who admits to being 40 lbs. heavier than she should be, got on the bandwagon herself. “I started fasting, but I had a more difficult time because I had fewer pounds to lose,” she says. “I lost 75 and regained 40.”

Her husband too is constantly aware that weight lost can soon be recovered. “The easy part is over when you quit fasting because then you have to get back to eating,” says Dr. Hegeman. “Maintaining that weight loss and learning to eat sensibly is the hard part.” Myers has managed by modifying his eating habits, and he and Debra keep a close eye on their children’s diet. “I’ve discovered that I don’t have to eat three full meals a day,” he says. “I almost never have lunch any more, maybe a salad or popcorn. And I hardly ever eat meat—and never foods containing fat or anything fried.”

Myers, who resigned as vice-chairman of the President’s Commission on AIDS last month (citing “inadequate support from the White House”), tries to exercise regularly. He also attends weekly counseling sessions. “I’m scared to death all the time,” he says. “Every day I need to make good eating decisions. I really need those meetings because I need confirmation that this really matters.”

Early next year Myers will release a free booklet entitled The State Health Commissioner’s Guide to Weight Loss. Readers can be assured that it is based not on dry clinical evidence but on the painful experience of Woodrow Myers, happy to be little more than half the man he used to be.