Mike Swiatek, 48, has a pretty good sense about what led to a lifetime of weight battles.
“Most of my weight issues were emotional stuff throughout life,” he said.
At age 5, he saw his parents divorce. In junior high, he moved to a new school district. He became a shy kid and he endured plenty of significant life stressors along the way.
And so he sought comfort in food.
“I was always kind of heavy,” he said.
When he graduated from Muskegon Mona Shores High School in 1991, he weighed about 275 pounds.
By the time he reached his mid-20s, he weighed more than 300 pounds.
“I was doing a lot of emotional eating,” he said. “I think at one point in my 20s I was around 340 pounds.”
In his mid-30s he started to walk regularly, which led to a loss of more than 100 pounds. But then he started to suffer back pain that limited his mobility.
“I got down to about 220 just eating better and exercising,” he said. “When I was walking all the time and it didn’t hurt, I loved it.”
His back pain began to affect his ability to do his job at Orchard View schools, where he works in maintenance.
“It got to a point just getting through my workday was atrocious,” Swiatek said. “It got hard to do anything. I was off work a couple of times and, eventually, off for about a year. I got a little depressed and gained weight.”
Off work and not feeling well enough to exercise, his weight quickly shot up to more than 300 pounds.
“It just felt like the only thing I could do that didn’t hurt me at that time was to eat,” he said.
Time for action
Eventually, Swiatek hit 400 pounds.
With limited mobility and his weight a serious concern, he decided to look into bariatric surgery.
That led to Thomas Martin, MD, of Spectrum Health Medical Group Bariatric Surgery in Zeeland. Dr. Martin recommended a gastric sleeve operation.
“This operation is a very strong tool that we give patients to change their health and change their life,” Dr. Martin said.
During a gastric sleeve bariatric procedure, the left side of the stomach is surgically removed, resulting in a stomach about the size of a banana. It restricts the amount of food a person can eat at one time.
On surgery day—Feb. 20, 2018—Swiatek weighed 407 pounds.
He felt better immediately after the procedure, although he did still have lingering back pain.
“The staff and everybody there was amazing,” Swiatek said. “Dr. Martin’s team was great. They got me up and got me moving around and encouraged me to get walking.
“The weight came off fairly quick in the beginning, because you change how you’re eating and you begin eating healthier,” Swiatek said. “I didn’t do a whole lot of exercising at the beginning because of the back pain, but I was still losing weight because I wasn’t eating as much as I used to—you can’t.”
Prior to surgery, Swiatek ate a lot of unhealthy foods.
“I could easily demolish a pizza,” he said, laughing.
With his new, smaller stomach, those days are over.
“I would eat like four hot dogs or two hamburgers,” he said. “I’m lucky If I can eat one hamburger now—if a half. If I go out to eat, I get something I can warm up because I’m not going to eat it all.”
In addition to eating less, he found a solution to his chronic back pain, too. An MRI showed a bone spur hitting a nerve in his spine.
In April 2018 he underwent back surgery to remove the spur.
That proved successful.
Swiatek felt elated to be on the road to recovery.
‘I’m going to get better’
At home, Swiatek put a boxing heavy bag in his basement. Outside, he would walk—and walk and walk. He’d walk to a nearby bike trail, then take a trail around Muskegon Lake.
“I think sometimes just having a positive attitude and knowing you’re getting this stuff fixed really helps,” he said. “I don’t know if it messes with your brain chemistry, but you’re feeling better just because you know you have that light at the end of the tunnel. I thought, ‘Finally, I’m getting fixed, I’m going to get better.’”
Some days, he’d go on three- to four-hour walks.
“I would just go walking,” he said. “It was a lot of miles.”
His daughters, Emily and Makayla, would sometimes get worried because he’d be out walking for so long.
In September 2020 he had a follow-up surgery to remove excess skin because he lost 150 pounds.
His exercise routine got curtailed temporarily when he felt abdominal pain after that procedure. It ended up being gall stones, requiring one final surgery to remove his gallbladder in early 2021.
These days he feels great. He’s eating right and he’s back to exercising.
He credits his daughters for supporting him along his health journey.
“They’re amazing,” he said.
As his weight came off, Swiatek’s confidence and self-esteem improved. He’s even started dating again.
“That someone found me attractive again, that was the best part,” he said.