Kathy and Paul Harris decided to live a little.

After a traumatic year in 2018, when they lost Kathy’s sister to pancreatic cancer and as Paul overcame serious health issues of his own, they decided they weren’t going to take life for granted.

“We decided life was short—and started doing fun things,” Kathy said. “We just started celebrating life.”

They took a trip to Arizona to see their daughter and son-in-law.

They bought an RV and took an extended trip through Canada, visited Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and toured the northeastern United States.

They took another trip to St. Louis to see their son and daughter-in-law.

They went on small camping trips.

A European trip for the holidays capped 2019, highlighted by attending their niece Colleen’s wedding in Kaiserslautern, Germany. They rang in the New Year in Strasbourg, France.

They packed in the memories, but unfortunately, they also packed on the pounds.

Back home in Middleville, Michigan, Kathy didn’t like what she saw in trip photographs.

“The weight just continued to creep up on both of us,” she said. “Seeing pictures, I realized I was back where I didn’t want to be.”

She weighed 192 pounds.

Paul weighed 220 pounds. He has Type II diabetes, Stage 3 kidney disease and hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a thickening of the heart muscles.

His diabetes had spiraled out of control.

“His A1C (blood sugar level) was up to 8.5 and I figured I wanted him to be around a while so we can enjoy that trailer some more,” Kathy said, laughing.

A line in the sand

Kathy has asthma, but she’s otherwise generally healthy.

Still, a visit to her primary care physician, Andrew Stanley, DO, showed her cholesterol levels were quite high. She committed to improve her cholesterol through diet and exercise.

At about the same time, in January 2020, Kathy and Paul received a mailer from the Health and Wellness Center at Spectrum Health Pennock. It showcased the OPTIFAST weight management program.

The timing proved perfect.

Kathy and Paul decided to enroll in the program, which combines lifestyle education with medical monitoring and meal replacement products.

“A thing I liked about this is that it is overseen by a physician—Dr. James Weatherhead,” Kathy said. “Before we even started, they did a ton of lab work on us.”

“And then we went in for a complete physical, the most complete physical I’ve ever had, along with a very detailed medical history. They were very thorough.”

The couple started the program Feb. 25, 2020.

Paul, 66, set his goal weight at 180 pounds, the same weight he held for years in the military.

Kathy, 58, set her goal for 140 pounds.

‘It’s going to test you’

In the beginning, participants are limited to five meal supplements a day: protein shakes, protein bars and soup.

“It’s a little hard in the beginning. It’s not an easy program,” Paul said. “If you make this commitment, it’s going to test you.”

Kathy agreed—the first few weeks are the most challenging. But she also said having other classmates in the program helped with encouragement and support.

The program is hard, but those who stick with it can achieve life-changing results, said Stacey Youngs, training and development specialist in the community education department at Spectrum Health Pennock.

“If they have good willpower to stick with the program it’s very rewarding for them because they see weight loss quickly,” Youngs said. “It’s not a simple fix. You don’t take a pill and suddenly you’re thin and life is great.”

The program includes weekly classes with lessons on time management, dietary information and promoting self-care.

“We really take the time to talk about nutrition,” Youngs said. “Americans are often starving for nutrients, but not calories.”

A few weeks into the strict diet, specific food items can be added to the supplements.

Kathy and Paul would add ice and fruit to their shakes to make smoothies and they’d add celery to their soup to give it more substance.

“You stay on the full program until you get toward your goal weight, then you go through an eight-week transition where each week you add additional food,” Kathy said.

Paul hit his goal quickly, in April. Kathy hit hers by July.

“Paul and Kathy were amazing at hitting their goal,” Youngs said. “Not every patient hits it at the eight-week mark. They didn’t start out extremely large, so they hit their goal number quicker. It really varies.”

“Even after I fully transitioned over to food, my weight was still coming down,” Paul said.

Happy with the results, they’ve stayed with parts of the program and continued to exercise more, too.

Walk it off

“We continue to have a shake most mornings because it has all the nutrients and it’s simple and easy to get out the door and on with your day,” Kathy said.

Their day typically includes a 5- to 6-mile walk.

They live just down the road from a network of outdoor trails, where they can enjoy early morning walks with their two miniature Australian labradoodles, Sadie and Willow, who the empty nesters dote on continually.

“They’re our babies,” Paul said.

They all share air-popped popcorn as an evening snack.

“It’s better for you than having butter or oil and our dogs like it, too,” he said laughing. “They have to have their popcorn, too.”

Part of the OPTIFAST program includes using the Pennock Health & Wellness Center, which has exercise equipment and a pool.

A healthy diet and regular exercise is a critical part of their lifestyle, but they still celebrate with an occasional treat.

“Life is short,” Kathy said. “I’m not going to totally deny myself. We will allow ourselves to have a treat or celebrate, we just don’t have it on a regular basis. A lot of it is not having the stuff around so you’re not tempted by those things.”

They’re still in the program to maintain their target weight.

Staying on track

For Youngs, it’s rewarding to watch the success of people like Kathy and Paul.

In fact, her husband is now in the program.

“Personally, it’s affected my life watching how people have changed and watching the transformation as they learn good eating habits versus bad eating habits,” Youngs said. “It’s been extremely rewarding on my end just to watch them be successful.

“They do the work,” she said. “All I can really do is encourage them and provide education and support.”

Youngs runs the program alongside colleagues Erin Meleca and Dr. Weatherhead.

Program participants range from age 22 to 88.

“If someone is committed to having a healthier lifestyle and lose weight, I would recommend the program,” Kathy said. “It’s been researched. It works. You’re being monitored by a physician and you have the support of the staff and your peers who are also going through it.”

Before the program, Paul would get winded just walking up stairs.

“Now I can fly up and down the stairs and run all over the place,” he said. “I think I rearranged the garage three or four times this summer. When we’re camping, we go hiking—and I think the dogs are more tired than we are.”

His A1C has dropped to 5.4 and his cholesterol is below 100.

“I feel better, I have more energy,” he said.

Friends and family have noticed their weight loss, although that’s not the source of motivation for the couple.

Their true purpose? Get healthy and stay healthy.

“For me, it’s more about how I see myself and how I feel than what others may notice or not notice,” Kathy said. “I feel good, I feel healthy. I feel motivated—and that’s what is important to me.”