After pounding 26.2 miles of pavement, Eric Swanson flew across the finish line at the San Diego 2010 Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon with some tough competition on his heels. He completed the race in 3 hours, 14 minutes and 41 seconds — a time that would fill many seasoned distance runners with a great sense of pride.
For Swanson, the numbers symbolize something more. They are one measure of success in a lifelong battle he’s waged with his weight.
“I was fat as a kid and I got teased," he said. “I came from a family of overeaters and developed bad habits early. They were hard to break later in life. Basically, if I saw food, I would eat it.”
The fat kid eventually became a thinner, stronger man. In 1988, Swanson joined the United States Border Patrol. He now holds the position of Commander for the agency’s Special Operations Group.
He’s never been a stranger to physically demanding work and discipline, and when it came to controlling his weight, the married father of two fought hard — but failed at keeping the pounds off his 5-foot 6-inch frame.
“I would diet, lose weight and then gain it all back again. It wasn’t sustainable for me,” said Swanson. “I eventually reached 261 pounds. I was completely miserable.”
Swanson’s weight created both physical and professional challenges. During the hot summer months in San Diego, he would go on patrols in the rough, hilly terrain of the Otay Mountains — and suffer.
“I couldn’t hack what I was packing. I would get the mission done, but while gaining and losing elevation, I would be out of breath and my knees would ache,” said Swanson.
“I am a member of the Border Patrol’s Tactical Unit and committed to my job. Because of my weight, I felt ashamed to wear the special pin on my uniform that identified my affiliation. I thought, because of my weight problem, I didn’t deserve the honor.”
Swanson’s health deteriorated over the years. He developed hypertension and sleep apnea.
“I snored like a bear,” he said. “It drove my wife nuts.”
Tired of being unhealthy and feeling embarrassed about his appearance, Swanson took action. On his 41st birthday, he made an appointment at Scripps Clinic Center for Weight Management in Del Mar, Calif. to see if bariatric surgery was an option. He proceeded with caution.
“Twenty years prior, my sister had bariatric surgery and suffered a complication. After undergoing gastric bypass with another surgeon, she got an infection and almost died,” said Swanson. “She’s fine now, but that experience left a lasting impression. I wanted to make sure I got the best and safest care possible. I did my research and chose Scripps.”
Swanson’s doctor, Mark Takata, recommended adjustable gastric banding. Also known as the Lap-Band, the device reduces the amount of food a stomach can hold at one time.
It makes people feel full faster and stay full longer, so they wind up eating less. Swanson decided to have the surgery, and spent the next six months preparing for the lifestyle changes he needed to make in order to achieve and maintain weight loss following the procedure.
“I was probably the thinnest guy in the room at those support group meetings, but we all had a similar problem. I was so tired of the roller coaster ride,” said Swanson. “It wasn’t good for my self-esteem or my health. I didn’t want to die early because of my weight — that’s not how I was going to go.”
Swanson had surgery at Scripps Green Hospital in December of 2008. During the laparoscopic procedure, an adjustable silicone elastic band was placed around the upper part of his stomach creating a small pouch and restricting the passage of food.
The band is connected to a port that sits underneath Swanson’s skin. Whenever he reaches a plateau in weight loss, the band can be inflated with saline, causing increased restriction of the stomach. Swanson has had five adjustments since the operation, and the weight loss that followed came with a learning curve.
“I had to figure out, through trial-and-error, how much I could eat and when. I get a full belly fast,” he explained. “It can be painful if I’m not careful, but I would do it all over again if I had to.”
The Commander is now in control. He’s lost 110 pounds, reduced the size of his waist by more than 10 inches, and is planning to run the Boston Marathon — which he qualified for during his Rock ‘n’ Roll race in 2010.
At work, he’s wearing small uniforms instead of the extra-large ones that previously hugged his frame. Even more important than his appearance, he is healthy and happy.
“I weigh less now than I did when I was in 5th grade. I am physically fit and I wear that Tactical Unit pin with pride. When I look in the mirror, I feel good about what I see. I get on the scale with a smile. I think, ‘Wow—that’s me!’ It’s a great feeling.”
Swanson credits his faith in god for getting him through the tough times. With a transformed body and better health, he feels blessed. His wife of 18-years is pleased.
“She’s really happy that I’ll be around longer,” said Swanson. “I think I’ve made a wise investment in my own future and that of my family.”