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Virginian loses weight, gains life

- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 5, 2009

Two years ago, Jack Koukerjinian was so overweight that just walking up steps without pain was impossible, and jumping out of a window blindfolded or scampering down a ladder seemed, well, beyond impossible.

Now, after battling obesity for nearly 18 years, the 42-year-old single father is a volunteer firefighter in Prince William County.

Mr. Koukerjinian, who was born in Beirut and grew up in Greece, came to the United States in 1979 for treatment of leukemia, which returned in 1990 when his father was battling cancer.

"I turned to food and nearly doubled in weight, and ever since then I was obese," he said.

In 1999, a door opened when Mr. Koukerjinian was hired in the financial department of Sibley Memorial Hospital in Northwest, where he still works.

He knew his condition was worsening when, at 34, he was constantly tired, his knees were failing and he feared he had sleep apnea.

After years of considering weight-loss surgery, Mr. Koukerjinian decided in 2007 to undergo the procedure at the hospital's new center, whose program included psychological tests and sleep studies.

He said he came from a family that loves to eat, so his biggest fear was his new relationship with food.

"It was never a fear about the surgery," Mr. Koukerjinian said.

As the first gastric bypass patient at the center, Mr. Koukerjinian was required to go through additional hoops, including his insurance company, which required six months of dietary discipline and training with a dietitian.

"He was a trooper throughout the whole process," said Kelley Osborne, director of the Sibley Center for Weight Loss Surgery. "He's very motivated."

He underwent the procedure at 289 pounds. Roughly one month later, he signed up to volunteer as a firefighter for the Evergreen Fire Department, Station 515, in Prince William County.

Mr. Koukerjinian said he submitted an application just to assist at the department, not necessarily to become a firefighter. But a few months later, friends encouraged him to enroll in the training academy to become an official firefighter.

"Every boy wants to be a firefighter, so I said, 'OK, I'll try it out,' " he said.

Mr. Koukerjinian attended the academy for four months, which required him to perform such tasks as climbing down ladders and jumping off of high surfaces - often while blindfolded.

On Sept. 22, a year and a week after his surgery, he became a firefighter.

Since the surgery, Mr. Koukerjinian has lost 120 pounds. He maintains his new weight by going to the gym three times a week and riding his bike with his daughter, which he previously could not do.

"We can go for two to three miles, then she'll get tired before me," he said.

Mario Delgado, a friend and co-worker, said Mr. Koukerjinian was a fun companion before and after surgery.

"It didn't alter his personality," he said. "But it gave him a new focus on life, new goals and more energy to do things, such as volunteer."

Last year, Mr. Koukerjinian completed a 5K Susan G. Komen walk for breast cancer research. In April, he will skydive to raise money for SOAR, Survivors of Abuse in Recovery, a nonprofit group dedicated to helping child victims of rape and abuse.

"Before when I got on a plane, that plane probably wouldn't take off," he said,

"But then I said, 'Now, why not? I can do that.' "

Still, Mr. Koukerjinian said what makes him most happy is being an ambassador for weight-loss programs.

"My advice to anyone who is overweight: Don't procrastinate like I did," he said. "All people deserve another chance in life to feel good about themselves."

He keeps his old driver's license picture handy to prove to people how much weight he has lost.

"I cannot say it enough," he said. "I'm grateful every single day. I'm very grateful."