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lot of sweat and a little surgery gave Peter Ajello a much-needed—and well-earned—second lease on life.
WORDS Ivette Figueroa

There comes a time where every life experiences a crisis. It’s in these moments that a person truly reflects on the choices that led them astray, but more importantly, they find whether or not they have the strength to set things right.

For Peter Ajello, 37, that moment came after a near-fatal diabetic stroke. At 407 pounds, Pete was part of an ever-growing group of Americans referred to as “morbidly obese.” His blood sugar levels teetered dangerously high, his diabetes was out of control, he had high blood pressure, gout and was constantly plagued with bouts of sleep apnea.

“The doctors told me that I wasn’t going to make it to my 40s,” says Pete. “I was on 14 different medications. I couldn’t even get out of bed at 407 pounds.”

His body was a ticking time bomb and Pete knew that he wouldn’t survive a “next” time.

‘WING KING’

Piling on the pounds didn’t happen overnight. In fact, Pete was in great shape during his high school years; playing varsity football kept him at an even 200 pounds. But college was a whole different ball game. Instead of the infamous “freshman fifteen,” Pete put on over 100 pounds.

“I set many eating records—four large pizzas in half an hour at Sahi’s Pizza in Providence. I remember people standing on tables, cheering me on. I ate my football number (77) in chicken wings at Crazy Wings in Deerfield Beach in under 10 minutes. They called me the ‘Wing King’ and I got my picture on the wall,” says Pete.

Pete wore his weight like a badge of honor. “They used to call me ‘Fat Pete,’ and I used to take pride in that name,” he says.

But in July 2008, his record-breaking eating habits finally pushed his body to the breaking point. After the stroke, Pete began his long struggle to lose weight the hard way—through diet and exercise. The first 50 pounds melted off , fueling Pete’s motivation. To keep him going, his friends bet $15,000 that he couldn’t lose another hundred pounds by New Year’s Day. While many of us toasted the New Year with champagne, Pete pocketed a fat check and a new-found passion for life.

SURGERY REQUIRED

Pete’s story doesn’t end there. Now 157 pounds lighter, he had a whole new set of troubles. Following any substantial amount of weight loss, the skin and tissues often lack the elasticity to conform to the reduced body size. As a result, Pete had excess skin that hung from his body as well as a few fat pockets that made small lumps around his chest. “It was nauseating to look at. My skin would flap back and forth when I ran,” says Pete.

“The number one problem [with massive weight loss] is skin laxity followed by irregularities of superficial fatty deposits,” says Angelo Cuzalina, MD, a board-certified cosmetic surgeon at Tulsa Surgical Arts in Tulsa, Okla. “In general, severe skin laxity with irregular fatty deposits must be cut off.” But in order to be a candidate for this type of surgery, massive weight loss patients usually have to have a BMI (Body Mass Index, or ratio of height to weight) of less than 30, he adds.

“Skin is the largest organ in the body. Excess skin can be removed anywhere from the body, but it involves surgical incisions,” says Jim English, MD, a board-certified facial plastic surgeon in Little Rock, Ark. “There are some noninvasive tightening options, but for massive weight loss patients, they need to understand that surgery is required.”

And getting rid of excess skin isn’t a cheap procedure. Dr. Cuzalina puts a tummy tuck alone into the ballpark of $7,000.

An appearance on “The Doctors” TV show, however, gave Pete a new goal: lose 50 more pounds and get a free tummy tuck from board-certified plastic surgeon Jason Pozner, MD, of Sanctuary Plastic Surgery in Boca Raton, Fla. “He was very stern with me about the weight,” says Pete. “Dr. Pozner is a perfectionist—he had to see my rib cage.”

“When I met Pete, I was impressed with his dedication to do this,” says Dr. Pozner. “But I view surgery like a marathon. I wanted him to get in shape for it. I thought he’d get a better aesthetic result. Besides, when you give someone a goal, it really motivates them.”

Dr. Cuzalina agrees. “Physical activity along with excellent nutrition will help the patient during and after surgery, both physically and mentally.”

Thus began the hardest part of Pete’s journey. “Pre-surgery, it was tough to get to the weight. I lost the first 10 pounds pretty quickly, but to lose another 40 took me another six to seven months,” Pete recalls.

“What I tell my patients is that it didn’t take one day to get to the weight they are, and it won’t take a day to get to the weight they want to be,” says Dr. Pozner. “The key is not to give up.”

Pete tried every possible form of exercise: spin classes, sculpture classes, anything his gym could offer, but he had reached what every exercise enthusiast dreads: a plateau. “I felt like I was running out of time,” he says.

But the more he saw his nutritionist, Pascal Durand, the more Pete started to realize that it wasn’t all about eating less and exercising more. “99 percent of people who lose 100 pounds or more gain it back,” says Pete. “The secret is fiber—I [now] eat a lot of high-fiber and organic foods. Using all the things Pascal taught me, I was able to prevail and keep the weight off.”

Finally, Dr. Pozner gave the OK for Pete’s surgery. “I was nervous going in there, but my trainer stayed by me and my family stayed by me,” says Pete.

The surgery itself was done in two parts. “The first part was the lipo on my chest, which was more painful than the second part (when they removed 15 pounds of skin),” says Pete. “Dr. Pozner said to me that the surgery was easier for him because I had worked out from day one.”

Dr. English emphasizes that exercise is necessary whether a person undergoes massive weight loss or not. “A good diet consistent with a good lifestyle, good self-esteem and good cardiovascular health improves the healing process, blood flow and longevity,” he says.

‘BEEF CAKE’

The result? A total weight loss of 200 pounds in 15 months.

“It was amazing, because when I woke up I just couldn’t believe how I looked and now the pants I wear are [size] 36. I used to wear a pant size of 60,” says Pete. “Dr. Pozner basically saved my life. I couldn’t imagine going through life with all that excess skin hanging off me.”

His new and improved appearance shocked his family and friends. “They saw a dramatic transformation from a guy who not only lost weight, but someone who now took care of his body,” says Pete. “I got new nick names. They started calling me beef cake and the Weight Loss King of South Florida.”

Pete no longer suffers from diabetes, gout, high cholesterol, or any of the other medical conditions that made him a slave to medication. He has regained his health, but more importantly, he is using his second chance to help others find their way. “It was a wonderful experience,” says Dr. Pozner. “It transformed me as well. It really showed me what someone could do. He has become an inspiration to everyone.”

“It changed my life,” says Pete. “I couldn’t walk on the beach, I was so humiliated having that excess skin hanging. Now I’m the first guy that takes his shirt off at the beach. I jog and I sweat in the Florida sun, and I feel like a million bucks. Nothing is going to stop me now.”

Pascal Durand has been his personal trainer and nutrition consultant for the last two years

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