By now, many Americans are vigorously walking the treadmill, pushing themselves on the stair climber, straining through situps and lowering their intake of beer and chips, all to meet their New Year's resolution to lose weight. It was mere coincidence that Stephen Pagano started his diet and exercise program on Jan. 2, 2012. He was resolved, but it had nothing to do with New Year's. That just happened to be the date that Pagano reached his limit. At 601.4 pounds, he could hardly bear the pain of standing. He knew that soon he would have to use a motorized cart to get around. "It's either live like this and die, or make a change,'' he thought.
He joined Weight Watchers and, except for a few lapses that made him feel sluggish and depressed, stuck to it. In nine months, he had lost 100 pounds. "When I hit 100, I knew I could do this.''
As of this week, Pagano has lost 284 pounds. Now at just over 317, his goal is to get down to 180 pounds.
Pagano, an unemployed 25-year-old who lives with his mother in Valrico, is a reticent talker. He said he finds it hard to trust people. In school, he was the frequent butt of jokes. He could not fit in a desk, so he sat in a chair off to the side in class. Bullies would call him names, or they would pretend to befriend him, only to get him to do something "so they could all laugh.''
He remembers the relief he felt when he dropped out of school at 16. "It just went quiet.''
In the years since, he continued to put on pounds. Wilma Peoples watched it happen from the sales counter at the local Walgreens. They started talking about it, and she encouraged him to lose weight, telling him he was too young to be so heavy. "We just formed a bond from then on,'' she said. On the day he announced he was on a diet, she didn't believe him. But over the weeks, she noticed the pounds disappearing, and she became a kind of cheerleader for him, encouraging him, telling him to not lose patience.
"I am so proud of him,'' she said.
Pagano's mother is thrilled. "Oh, wow, he's doing great,'' Gloria Madonna said. She has seen him try and fail to lose weight a number of times, and she's not sure why he stuck to it this time.
"I think he was just tired being by himself, being like a loner.''
Madonna is going to Weight Watchers, too. She has lost 40 pounds and wants to lose another 60. She said her son has had a weight problem most of his life; part of it is genetics, she figures, but she wonders whether steroids he was prescribed for allergies as a little boy may have triggered it.
Pagano said he blames no one but himself. He just never made a real effort to control it until now.
"I would eat all times of the day, and I was eating the wrong stuff,'' he said. "A normal dinner would be like 2 pounds of chicken tenders from Walmart, plus a half pound of fries, while drinking a 2-liter (bottle) of Mountain Dew.''
Now, he said, he weighs everything that he eats. He goes to the gym twice a week. But he said his favorite place to walk off weight is Busch Gardens. Using his annual pass, he goes to the park about two days a week.
He has even more reason to go: He can finally fit on the rides. Before, he was too big for the seats. The seat harness would not buckle. Then, one day last November, "it clicked,'' he said, "and I was excited.
"Now I can't get off them,'' he said with a rare grin.
Losing so much weight, however, has left rolls of loose skin, and Pagano worries about being able to afford an operation to remove it.
Such an operation is considered cosmetic, said his physician, Dr. Robert Friedmeyer, though insurance may pay "a small portion'' of it if a case can be made that it would be beneficial to his health. "We'll work on that as soon as he chooses a plastic surgeon,'' Friedmeyer said.
Compounding his difficulties, he'll be dropped from his mother's policy upon turning 26 next month. Being unemployed, he's worried about being able to pay for insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Having recently earned his high school equivalency degree, he said he's looking for a job and will work for "anybody that will take me.''
Friedmeyer, who practices in Brandon, seems amazed at Pagano's progress. "He's just phenomenal.''
Friedmeyer has watched his client's blood pressure drop substantially. He has determined that Pagano is no longer pre-diabetic. Apparently, after repeated lapses, something clicked this time. Pagano has stayed on the steady path toward his goal.
Friedmeyer's prognosis: "I think he's going to make it.''
Philip Morgan can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3435.