By Dawn Krebs
ST. LUCIE COUNTY -- For Gary Blackburn, it was a life or death decision.
In July 2010, the St. Lucie County resident's weight hit an all-time high of 538.8 pounds. Today, he sits quietly on his back porch, sipping water, 306 pounds lighter.
"I had to make the decision then whether I wanted to live or die," he said. "I decided I wanted to live."
And that's when his journey back to health began. But it wasn't always that way.
His struggle with weight has followed him his entire life.
"I've always been pretty big," Mr. Blackburn said. "In high school, I weighed about 250-260 pounds."
By the time he reached his 30s, health problems and his eating habits were spiraling out of control, and his weight reached more than 400 pounds.
"From 2001 to 2008, I was hospitalized 15 times for infections from water retention, after being diagnosed with lymphedema," he said.
Lymphedema is where the lymph passages are blocked, which causes swelling and keeps tissue from draining fluid. The condition affected Mr. Blackburn's legs.
Feeling helpless and constantly sick, his weight soon crept to more than 500 pounds and he was diagnosed with clinical depression.
"I was unhappy and unhealthy," he said.
In 2010, he made the decision to change his life for the better and the research began.
"I started to count calories and write down everything I ate," he said. "I realized I was eating between 3,000 and 3,500 calories a day. I never knew."
Mr. Blackburn started a 1,500 calorie diet, eating fresh fruits, vegetables, light protein and grains.
"I made some major changes," he said. "I tried to keep everything low sodium. Now, I do all my own cooking."
Then, in January 2011, the walking started, on the street where he lives.
"At first, I could only go two houses down the street before I had to come back home," he said. "But I tried to walk a little further every day and by February I could walk one lap around the block."
One lap built up to two, then four. Now, he walks 10 laps a day, averaging about 4.5 miles.
"I would walk five laps in the morning and five laps at night," he said.
The weight has come off slowly and steadily over time, motivating Mr. Blackburn to keep with the program.
"My doctor is stunned," he said. "He keeps a close eye on my progress."
His progress has not gone unnoticed by others, either.
Residents of the neighborhood where he lives have stopped to cheer him on and tell him how much he inspires them.
"I get stopped all the time," he said. "I'm more than happy to talk to people and answer questions. I know almost everyone on a first-name basis now and I've gotten so much inspiration from their praise."
Now, at 232 pounds, his goal is to lose another 40, and get below 200 pounds. He joined Indrio Gym in Lakewood Park and walks there three times a week to work out on the treadmill and with weights.
"The staff there has really supported me," Mr. Blackburn said. "Tom, one of the trainers, has really inspired me."
Currently, Mr. Blackburn is talking to plastic surgeons about the excess skin he now carries all over his body.
"I found that my insurance doesn't cover the skin removal, since it's seen as a cosmetic procedure," he said with a smile. "But I'll keep trying."
It's that positive attitude that keeps him walking and eating well, too.
"It was a blessing in disguise," he now says of his time at his heaviest weight. "Maybe I needed to go through the stuff that I did so I could do it on my own. It's changed me."
But while overall he found the process easier than he thought, he knew he was going to have bad days.
"There are some days I don't want to eat healthy or I don't want to walk," he said. "But it's important for me to remember that as human beings we go through ups and downs. We feel frustrated or depressed, and that's OK. Just work through it."
For those out there still struggling with their weight, Mr. Blackburn has this advice.
"Hold yourself accountable," he said. "Everything you do is a conscious decision. You just have to be patient. Losing weight isn't an overnight thing. Set a plan and then stick with it."
Mr. Blackburn has a Facebook page detailing his journey and offering inspiration. It can be found at www.facebook.com/willpoweranddetermination.