Michigan man drops 100 pounds, kicks diabetes after ‘miserable’ fight with COVID

Tom Idema Jr. doesn’t mince words when he talks about his experience with COVID-19 and the effects the virus has had on his life post-illness.

The 50-year-old Mount Pleasant man was overweight and a diabetic — two of the most common conditions linked to severe COVID-19 — when he was infected with coronavirus in October 2020.

The disease left Idema “miserable” for more than a month. He battled a horrible cough, the worst fever and chills he’d ever had, and an inability to focus on anything he looked to for distraction.

Because he didn’t have difficulty breathing, doctors told him to stay home and “wished him good luck.” So that’s where he stayed, away from his job at Central Michigan University, for the better part of five weeks.

“I did some praying and I let God know ‘If you get me through this, I’m going to make some life changes,’” Idema said.

“COVID scared the heck out of me. I didn’t want to be caught in a situation like that again where I’m unprepared. I don’t want COVID again, but if I do, I like the idea of being in a healthier position if it comes knocking so I have a better chance.”

Obesity and diabetes are among the most common conditions in patients hospitalized with COVID-19, especially since vaccines drastically cut back on the patients whose leading risk factor was old age. About 88% of Michigan’s 65 and older population had been vaccinated as of late March.

Related: ‘We weren’t a healthy population coming into this;’ How COVID shed light on Michigan’s weight problem

In 2021, an estimated 35.2% of Michigan adults were obese, meaning they had a body mass index of 30 or higher based on reported height and weight, according to CDC data.

The immune systems of people with obesity don’t tend to be as strong as their healthier counterparts. Additionally, they are commonly at an increased risk of not only severe COVID-19, but also heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.

During the pandemic, individuals with high BMIs have seen a heightened risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study analyzed 150,000 adults diagnosed with the illness throughout 2020 and found about half of the patients were obese. Another 28% were considered overweight with a BMI of 25-30.

Additionally, individuals with BMIs of 45 or greater were twice as likely to need mechanical ventilation and were linked with a 61% increased risk of death and a 33% increased risk of hospitalization, compared to patients in the healthy weight category.

When Dr. Shelley Schmidt lost patients in their 20s, 30s and 40s to COVID-19 deaths at Spectrum Health in West Michigan, “by and large they were significantly overweight.” She hopes the pandemic will inspire Americans to do a better job of making appropriate dietary and fitness choices, putting them in a better position to fight off coronavirus and other infections.

“Unfortunately, that’s not something you can fix overnight,” Schmidt said. “If we can take a lesson away from this, it would be nice to see a change in the way we view diet and exercise in this country.”

For Idema Jr., it took time to make the lifestyle changes needed to get healthier. But it’s “all been very doable,” he said.

Upon recovering from COVID, he began meeting with a dietitian and joined a pilot program for a mobile app called DayTwo, which helps its members with meal planning.

DayTwo offered something different from the weight-loss programs Idema had tried before. It allowed him to continue to eat his favorite foods, but tweaked his portion sizes and gave him healthier options to pair with those dishes.

“I had an app that I could enter foods in and it would tell me how those foods would impact my blood sugar,” he said. “It would identify foods that my body could use and what I should avoid, and my dietitian taught me how to match foods to improve my scores.”

Instead of eating a box of macaroni and cheese, he began pairing a cup of the mac and cheese with a protein like sausage, and maybe a side of vegetables. Instead of cutting out sandwiches, he moved to low-calorie bread or wraps, and he started replacing ground beef with ground turkey, which he found to be better for him with minimal change in taste.

Idema also picked up daily walking. At first, it was a challenging 15 minutes per day. That evolved into 2-to-3-mile morning walks around his neighborhood or CMU’s campus.

“I had pretty bad arthritis in my right knee when I started and I couldn’t walk far before it hurt,” he said. “I used to have to wear a knee brace if I was doing any walking. That’s gone away, along with the pain. Now three miles is a piece of cake.”

Idema’s weight was around 340 pounds when he was diagnosed with COVID. He’s now down under 230 pounds, and his type II diabetes is in remission. Most importantly, he said the changes he’s made to his routines are those which he believes he can maintain for the rest of his life.

“The thing I’ve learned is your body is an amazing thing and it’s capable of amazing things,” he said. “When I started eating in a way that allowed my body to heal itself, and I allowed my body to rest and do what it was supposed to do, my body became more efficient. And the walking was icing on the cake.

“As awful as COVID is and as devastating as it has been, COVID changed my life. I’m living an entirely different life than I was and I’m enjoying every single minute of it.”

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