After 10 minutes on the stationary bike, sweat begins to bead on Tim Nichols’ brow.
He pedals faster, breathing harder, cycling for another 10 minutes.
With the flywheels still whirring on the bike, he hops off, moves on to the lat machine, puts in a set of 10 reps. He wipes down the equipment and, barely losing his stride, walks 2 miles on the indoor track at Tamarac, the Spectrum Health wellness center in Fremont, Michigan.
Two miles later, Nichols slides his 6-foot frame into the rowing equipment. Then on to the chest press, a set of bicep curls, sit-ups, leg exercises. Eventually, he winds up on the same bike he started on.
He repeats all the exercises. For two hours. At least three times a week, sometimes four.
“My doctors didn’t think I’d be able to even walk,” he says, looking around at the bikes, step machines, the dozen or so bodies in motion. “I shouldn’t be walking. Yet here I am.”
Snowy roads, shattered life
“Here” is both a physical location and a state of mind for this 52-year-old man.
Tragedy came barreling at Nichols on New Year’s Eve in 1983, as he walked home his then-girlfriend and two other friends in Muskegon Heights, Michigan.
“We were walking on the sidewalk when I saw these headlights head straight for us,” Nichols recalls. “It was dark. It was cold and snowing. I just reacted.”
Instinctively, he shoved his three companions out of the path of the car hurtling toward them. The car plowed into Nichols instead. He flew through the windshield and the car flung him forward as it lurched to a stop. Just as suddenly, the car then sped up, dragging Nichols for three blocks through the darkened streets of Muskegon Heights.
Nichols’ memory of the night is pieced together, like shards of broken pottery, from witness accounts and police reports. The driver, Nichols learned, had been drunk.
The collision shattered Nichols’ left leg in so many places his doctors didn’t think they could put it back together. He suffered a broken back and spent four months in traction.
Nichols was 18 years old.
Seven years later, still on his grueling road to recovery, Nichols broke his back again when his truck hit black ice, flipped six times and crashed into a tree.
“At the time, I was working spraying paint in Muskegon,” Nichols says. “I love working, and I’ve been a painter all my life. I’ve been working since I was 14 years old. I started working as a kid at Deer Park Funland, which is now Michigan’s Adventure. But work—that’s what I love to do.”
By 2000, the pain became too much.
Nichols couldn’t stand straight. Some days he would simply fall, unable to stay on his feet. He could barely remain in one position for more than a few minutes before sharp bolts of pain would seize his body.
The pain grew so intense he would almost black out, or he’d be immobilized. Treatment didn’t do anything to reduce the pain.
Eventually, he had to quit work and sign up for disability.
“Work was instilled in me from a really early age,” he says. “I always had a feeling of self-accomplishment when I worked. I used to work all the overtime they would give me. So when all this happened, I begged the doctors to fix my back so I could go back to work. Sometimes, I fight depression because I can’t work.”
But his back proved inoperable. He slid into despair, developing diabetes and dangerously high blood pressure.
As he grew increasingly inert and immobile, he put on the pounds.
In some ways, he tip-toed on the brink, his life slowly and inexorably sliding toward oblivion.
Geri Merkey, a diabetes educator at Spectrum Health Gerber Memorial, attended the same school as Nichols—Mona Shores High School, where Nichols played as a defenseman on the Sailors hockey team.
The two graduated a few years apart and they didn’t know each other, but it seems they were destined to cross paths.
More than 30 years later, Nichols found himself in Merkey’s office at Tamarac, where she provides diabetes education—information on dieting, life tips, support groups and more—to 20 patients each week.
“I didn’t know Tim in high school, but I’m glad he decided to make a change and come to see us at Tamarac,” Merkey says while having a salad with Nichols, who now lives in Hesperia not far from his mom’s five-acre home.
In 2013, tired of taking pain pills, Nichols’ doctor suggested he sign up for outpatient rehabilitation. He chose Tamarac, where physical therapists taught him to incorporate what he learned into daily exercises.
At the same time, he began his diabetes education program with Merkey.
“I remember asking him when he first started his class with me, ‘What’s your goal?’” Merkey says.
“I said I want to have a six-pack,” Nichols recalls.
“And I said, ‘You have a six pack, it’s just hiding behind a barrel,” Merkey says.
When he first walked into Tamarac in 2013, Nichols was north of 320 pounds.
Merkey’s game plan for patients like Nichols is clear and straightforward—get them to set realistic goals.
For Nichols, that meant getting his diabetes under control. Merkey gave him an arsenal of tactics, starting with dietary information.
“My diet was basically candy, donuts, potato chips, washed down with 2 liters of pop,” Nichols says. “Before I started coming to Tamarac, my idea of vegetables was corn and potatoes.”
Today, Nichols fills half his plate with vegetables. A quarter of the plate is reserved for starch. The remaining quarter, or about 3 ounces’ worth, for protein—preferably lean, Merkey says.
Nichols also attended three diabetes self-management courses. After each three-hour class, participants get a 1-week free pass to the gym at Tamarac.
Nichols used his three passes to the fullest, exercising four or five times a week. The one-time defenseman who once dreamed of playing for the Muskegon Lumberjacks rediscovered the exhilaration of being in motion.
“The feeling you get after a workout is indescribable,” he says. “You feel great, you feel like a new person. Exercising has helped my balance, my mobility, my outlook on things.”
He would do an hour of cardio, getting his stamina back. He did weights and regained his strength. The pool improved his balance.
After three weeks, however, his free gym passes expired. He was on disability and had no room in his tight budget for the $56 monthly membership.
Committed to good health, he asked around and discovered he qualified for Tamarac’s community financial assistance, essentially a sliding fee scale program to help low-income individuals continue an active lifestyle.
“Tim came into our program through a referral to diabetes education, which is one of our clinical pathways for wellness that connects patients to Tamarac,” says Josh Gustafson, director of community health services at Gerber Memorial. “In Tim’s case, what was clear to all of us was how committed he is.
“In many ways, he’s a true inspiration,” Gustafson says. “And we’re really thrilled he can be a member and an ambassador for healthy living.”
In the financial assistance program, a review committee sets a person’s monthly payment based on federal poverty guidelines. The program now helps more than 40 low-income Tamarac members.
In Nichols’ case, it put his monthly membership at $16.80.
To stay eligible, he must meet additional steps, including visiting the gym at least six times a month and undergoing evaluations with one of Tamarac’s certified fitness specialists.
“All the evidence shows that when someone has access to a place where they can exercise regularly, they’re more likely to be successful at achieving their health goals,” Gustafson says. “Tim’s living proof of that.”
Once a two-pack-a-day smoker, Nichols has cut back significantly on cigarettes and is on the path to quitting altogether.
He no longer fries his food and instead cooks almost everything—vegetables, venison, fish and more—on the grill outside his home.
“I love broccoli and cauliflower, so I grill those all the time,” he says. “And green beans, too. Even when there’s a foot of snow outside. You can grill just about everything. And it’s better for you.”
Instead of soda pop, he now drinks water. His weight is a little over 200 pounds. He shed it slowly and methodically, trimming an astounding 12 inches off a 48-inch waist.
“The recommendation is to lose 7 to 10 percent of your current body weight,” Merkey says. “So in Tim’s case, that means he changed his lifestyle—and not by going through a crash diet that may have adverse health effects.”
Nichols’ hemoglobin A1C—a measurement of blood sugar—plunged from an alarmingly high 11.1 percent to 5.7 percent. The normal range is 4.1 percent to 5.6 percent. Diabetes is 6.5 percent and higher.
“Tim’s brought his blood glucose to pre-diabetes range,” Merkey says. “He’s not out of the woods yet, and he still has to keep in mind all the gains he’s made in terms of his lifestyle changes.”
But he’s a good example, Merkey says.
“When he first came in, I told him he could do it,” she says. “Not everyone does it. Tim did. He changed his diet, he started exercising and he turned his life around.”
Nichols also did something less overt early on: He embraced an introspection about his condition, which translated into inspiration and, ultimately, momentum.
“My dad has been stuck in a nursing home for 12 years,” Nichols says. “I think about him lying in the nursing home since he was 60—that really wakes you up, and I didn’t want to wind up like that.
Merkey recounts how Nichols’ emotional honesty emerged in one of her diabetes education classes.
“Tim’s not a guy who opens up, but in the last class he opened up,” she says. “He shared his motivation, he shared his feelings, the hard emotional journey he’s gone through. He looked in the mirror, and he forced himself to take a hard look at himself. I think he saw what he needed to do.”
Nichols says he hopes his story can serve as a lesson, a road map, for others—that good health can help steady a life.
“People at the gym root for me, and that means a lot,” Nichols says. “They treat me like family. And I’m inspiring my buddies to take better care of their health, too, and now those guys work out with their kids because they’ve seen me change so much.”
Inwardly, Nichols says he’s still the same kid. And he’s always been a man anchored by an ethic that values family, hard work and staying motivated.
He still dotes on his ex-wife’s two sons, who visit him in Hesperia regularly.
He still loves going to race tracks like Thunderbird Raceway in Muskegon and Winston Speedway in Rothbury, or even some as far away as Ohio. He likes watching those cars take curves faster than they ought to.
“We used to do that all the time, go watch cars on the tracks,” Nichols says. “Except now we bring fruit baskets.
“Imagine that,” he says. “A bunch of big tattooed guys, watching the races and eating from a fruit basket.”