ORLANDO, Fla. (BP)–Tollie Schmidt never really found out exactly how much he weighed. That’s because the hospital scale he was standing on maxed out at 500 pounds.
Schmidt, a member of First Baptist Church in Orlando, Fla., was 24 years old at the time. Now he’s 29 and radically slimmed-down to 190 pounds on his 5-foot-9-inch frame. But the road from near-fatal obesity to a health-conscious lifestyle was wrought with potholes and winding turns that threatened to cut him down at any time.
The product of a Christian home, Schmidt was born and raised in Tulsa, Okla. Though always husky, his weight problems escalated at age 11.
“In the summer after fifth grade, my mom went back to work, and that’s when things happened,” he said. “Because she and Dad were gone all day, it was just me and my older brother. We would go to Sam’s Club and stock up on food.”
And we’re not talking fruits and vegetables.
“It was nothing but junk. I had HBO and no one to hang out with, so I would stay home and just eat.”
By middle school, he hit 200 pounds.
“Sixth grade was a very tough year,” Schmidt said. “That’s when I began to get teased a lot.”
He coped with it by denial.
“I joked it off and pretended it didn’t hurt. I hid inside my skin. I remember one time walking to the lunchroom and this one kid shouted, ‘Everybody run to one side so we can tilt the floor back.’ It was harsh.”
So harsh, in fact, that Schmidt was at the breaking point.
“I told my parents that I couldn’t go back to that school anymore.”
His parents — Joe and Becky, now both First Baptist Orlando members — sympathized and got him transferred.
“I loved it at my new school,” Schmidt said. “I was treated totally different.”
But the weight continued to pile up.
“At that point, you just accept the fact that you’re fat. You accept everything that comes with it.”
Which only made the problem worse. On top of that, when he was 14, Schmidt began smoking.
“I just didn’t care,” he said.
There was one area of his life in which he did care. Also at the age of 14, he got saved.
“It was at a Christian summer camp. That’s when I got to know the Lord. It was time for me to take that plunge, and I did.”
But his faith would always be dogged by his out-of-control weight gain, and his Christian walk suffered.
As he approached his sophomore year of high school, he ballooned to 300 pounds, then did an unusual thing.
“I decided to go to school in Moscow.”
His U.S. school had taken a two-week trip to Russia and Schmidt wanted to return. He did, for one semester as a sophomore.
“I was definitely a freak over there,” he said. “Just about everyone was super skinny. There are overweight people in Russia, but nothing like you see in America. They walk much more than we do and they don’t have all the fast food we have.
“People could tell right away that I was an American. I grew accustomed to kids pointing at me and saying to their mothers, ‘Wow, Mommy, he’s really fat.'”
When the semester ended, Schmidt returned to the U.S., but at least one thing remained the same.
“I heard the same words from kids over here that I did in Moscow. It hurt so much, but I kept ignoring it.”
He continued to ignore it throughout high school and into college at the University of Oklahoma. And that’s where things began to get out of control.
“I was in a fraternity and I kind of ‘lost’ Christ,” Schmidt said. “I drank and partied and was not walking with the Lord.”
The reckless lifestyle was taking a toll.
“Of course, I ballooned. Late nights I’d be going to Taco Bell and Sonic and eating pizzas — entire pies at once.”
By the end of his junior year, Schmidt exploded to 400 pounds.
“My weight and partying affected me so much that I couldn’t even go back to school. I left after my junior year.”
Meanwhile, his parents had moved down to Orlando, so Schmidt did the same. He joined Disney’s college program but still lived destructively.
“I partied and continued eating. I gained weight so fast.”
By age 24, the climb to 500 pounds began.
“I got to a point where I wasn’t going to work anymore. I just sat in the house eating, eating, eating. It was all fattening. I never ate good stuff.”
His life was a chaotic free-fall.
“I totally gave up. I was on water pills because my feet were swelling up. I had high blood pressure. I couldn’t walk anywhere without getting winded. I was miserable and hated myself. I wanted to die. There was nothing worth living for.”
“I still went to church, but it didn’t mean anything. I felt that God gave up on me.”
Then, one day while watching TV, everything changed.
“There was a show about a gastric bypass,” Schmidt said. “I looked at my mom and said, ‘I’m getting that done.'”
Gastric bypass is the surgical creation of a small pouch in the stomach to restrict food intake to far less than could be eaten before. The results vary and the risks are considerable, but Schmidt knew it was a gamble worth taking.
“The doctor said, ‘You understand that you can die from this procedure. But that doesn’t matter, because you’re going to die anyway. If you don’t have the operation, I give you about two more years to live.’ It scared the life out of me.”
Well, almost. With the surgery just weeks away, Schmidt went on one last binge.
“I ate and ate and ate. It was like every meal was my last. I also smoked and smoked and smoked.”
Despite the suicidal behavior, he managed to survive.
Three weeks later, Schmidt checked himself into the hospital.
“They weighed me, but the scale only reached 500 pounds. I was above that.”
He then had the 30-minute surgery — and struggled to recover.
“The side effects were the worst the doctor had every seen,” Schmidt said. “Basically, I couldn’t eat or drink because I couldn’t hold anything down. Even water. I threw up every day for four months. I thought I’d never eat again. Also, I developed a blood clot in my lungs.”
But despite his misery, the pounds were burning fast.
“Two weeks after the surgery, I had already lost 50 pounds.”
And finally, the awful side effects subsided. Not only was his body beginning to heal, so was his spirit.
“We had a pest-control guy who was a very strong Christian,” Schmidt recounted. “He came in one day and said to me, ‘Do you mind if I pray for you?’ I said, ‘Yes, I would love for you to pray for me.'”
“He gave one of the most incredible prayers I ever heard. Things changed after that. I learned that prayer works. Ever since then, I’ve been closer and growing so much more in the Lord.”
Physically, he was eating better and exercising. But that was not enough.
“I wanted to learn about nutrition. I was determined that nothing like this would ever happen to me again.”
He threw himself into nutrition education.
“I read everything I could and started going to the gym.”
But, suddenly he stalled.
“About a year after the surgery, I had lost more than 200 pounds and was down to 300. But when I got there, it just stopped.”
He went back to the doctor, who said, “‘We can do another operation.’ I said to myself, ‘Wrong answer!’ I wanted perfection right then. God had given me the strength, and I was determined to [keep losing weight].”
There was no stopping him.
“I hit the gym. I got a trainer. I learned. Within another year, I was down to 190 pounds.”
That’s where he is today.
Schmidt has maintained, and his life — both physical and spiritual — has never been better.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve learned throughout all of this is that God never leaves you,” he said. “All Jesus asks is that you believe in Him. If you can do that, He will be with you. You’ve got to believe and you’ve got to know that you can talk to Him and that somehow, someway, He is going to answer your prayers. And if you get away from Him, He’s going to let you come back.”
David Ettinger is a staff writer and editor at First Baptist Church in Orlando, Fla. Tollie Schmidt can be contacted by visiting his website at www.tollieschmidt.com.