Finding Light on the Ride: A Comeback Story

The tricky thing about hitting bottom is knowing when you’ve done it. Making his way to his usual bus stop, Jon Perry slipped on an icy sidewalk and grabbed for a garbage can to break his fall. That might have worked, except Jon weighed about 280 pounds and the force snapped his upper arm in five places. It hadn’t helped that he’d been drinking.

The day Jon was about to be wheeled into surgery on his arm he confessed to recent heavy drinking, and the surgery was cancelled. It had all the elements of hitting bottom: his arm would heal painfully and never be the same. But a year later, Jon was in the hospital again. Battling alcohol addiction and weighing 400 pounds, Jon was told if his kidneys didn’t start working in a few hours they could fail permanently. Here, finally, was bottom.

Jon Perry

Jon Perry, who once rode for Benaroya Research Institute’s bicycle team.

Jon’s kidneys did start working that night, but something had changed. “I had faced my mortality and here was another chance,” says Jon. “Something made me want to seize the opportunity.”

Maybe what kicked in that night was Jon’s muscle memory for facing challenges. He’d been a two-time Ironman triathlon finisher and competitive bike racer; one season riding to a state championship. That’s when the drinking slowly started. The more he drank the better he got at hiding it. But he couldn’t hide the toll it took on his spirit, swamping it in alcohol. Beyond exhausted, Jon fired his coach, kept drinking and his weight ballooned.

Jon’s choice to get better that night in the hospital might have flown away, but he had the benefit of community. Jon’s south Seattle loft is in a building designated for artists, who all applied and moved in at the same time. Jon gave his TV away and recommitted to his music, playing bass guitar and drums, and adding a passion he’d put aside: singing.

“It’s inspiring to be in this community, one I helped build,” says Jon. “It was a huge part of my recovery.”

Getting back to work and doing what he loved, Jon’s recovery leapt forward. Working long hours on his feet as a cook helped the pounds fall off, as did giving up alcohol – not so much as a drop, Jon says. Soon he could ride his bike to work; he kept feeling better and continued to lose weight.

Jim, Jon’s stepfather, witnessed Jon’s incredible transformation and was moved to help. It would be the last gift to his stepson: Jim had terminal lung cancer.

“We sat on the edge of his hospital bed and he said, ‘I want to do this for you, when you’re ready,’” remembers Jon. Jim was offering to pay for a big surgery – a body contouring procedure that would tighten the loose skin around Jon’s abdomen, the result of his significant weight loss. “He said it was to finish off what I had accomplished,” says Jon. “He believed in me.”

Several months after Jim passed away, Jon underwent a circumferential lower body lift at Virginia Mason – an extensive surgery to lift and reshape the front and back areas of the torso, removing excess tissue. Plastic and reconstructive surgeon James Schlenker, MD, says Jon’s strong motivation to be active again made him an ideal candidate for an operation with life-changing potential.

“Often people who lose a lot of weight don’t anticipate the impact of having loose skin, and there are many types of procedures available,” says Dr. Schlenker. “The lower body lift is a less common and more involved operation than abdominoplasty, but results can be dramatic for the right patient. The surgery had great benefits for Jon, helping him continue doing everything he enjoyed.”

Jon was buoyed by Dr. Schlenker’s enthusiasm for the surgery’s possibilities, and for his gentleness and knowledge. Recovery took all the weeks prescribed, but for Jon it’s been nothing short of transformative. These days you’ll still find him on a bicycle – at a leaner 175 pounds, reminiscent of his bicycle club days. And who knows? His next race may be just around the bend.

“It’s been a monumental time for me,” says Jon. “Life is rich. I have so many things and I’m incredibly grateful. I like to say there is light where we’re traveling.”

 

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