Wayne Vandenlangenberg faces the scale on The Biggest Loser
Originally published at WKIO in 2009
Wayne Vandenlangenberg will step on the scale on a special live broadcast of The Biggest Loser Couples on Tuesday. Weighing himself is common practice since he woke from a coma and resolved himself to weigh something, to be something, other than 674 pounds. From lifting a tomato juice can in his wheelchair to walking five miles and plunging into water aerobics and kickboxing, Wayne's resolve resulted in a staggering 400 pound weight loss, inspired by the long-running reality TV weight loss competition.
Touched by his story, NBC re-edited Tuesday's show to include Wayne in a rare live broadcast, celebrating his do-it-yourself weight loss and The Biggest Loser's role in it. Wayne will take his first plane flight to Los Angeles, eat healthfully at Gordon Ramsay Restaurant at West Hollywood and finally enter The Ranch to tell his story and weigh on live television. But as excitement mounts and his television appearance beckons, thoughts of his past don't occur to him.
Instead, the number clouds his mind; What will the scale say? It's like an entity into itself: The Number. He dreams about it as the trip nears. Facing what The Number was years ago, facing what The Number will be Tuesday. The glare of national television and the support of his wife, mother and close friends notwithstanding, The Number exerts a tremendous power, even if no one else understands. "I've never told a lot of people how much I weighed," he said this week as he finished preparations for his flight to Los Angeles on Sunday.
It will be his first trip on an airplane because he couldn't pay for two seats in his 600-pound days. "They're putting me on a scale at the ranch in front of all of America. I'm freaking out here. I'll turn around and see the number and I don't know how I'll react.
That Was Then
The clamor of "weight loss success stories" and the awe factor -- the "Oh wow, that's amazing!" reaction -- can muffle the fact that you have live through hell first to actually be the success story. There's a gritty, uncomfortable truth at the heart of before-and-after images -- the picture's 1,000 words don't discuss the during. Wayne's faith and positivity are impenetrable, if for nothing else than necessity. He himself never knew he weighed 674 until he entered the hospital near his Neenah, Wisconsin home for what he thought was a cold in November 2007. Little did he know his heart was failing, and his oxygen breathing capacity was 61 below normal. His lungs began filling with fluid and he entered a coma for 11 days. By that point Wayne, now 49, was no stranger to health complications -- the classic obesity-related diseases of sleep apnea and diabetes. The nightly oxygen tanks and medications for cholesterol, blood thinners. He remained in the hospital for 64 days until his lungs healed sufficiently. Returning home, a wheelchair-bound Wayne watched Jerry Liensby compete on The Biggest Loser's fourth season. He had never seen the show, he only knew Liensby was similar to his age and was undergoing a process Wayne had only envisioned. That was June 24, 2008.
Unable to leave the house and not able to afford the gym, Wayne began his journey by lifting a tomato juice can. "When I was a little bit stronger, I'd duct tape the two of them together. My muscles were so weak from being in the wheelchair," Wayne said.
"Then I started walking down hallway, I'd get out of the wheelchair and make one trip, then one and a half. Then I got brave." Wayne only left his house for doctor appointments the year between his hospitalization and seeing Liensby on television. When he got brave, he means he opened his door and walked to his mailbox. "I was just hoping no one would see me."
This Is Now
It wasn't so long ago - Wayne remembers the nights he cried himself to sleep, promising himself tomorrow would be the day he stopped being 600-plus pounds. And then it wasn't. All those "I didn't do its" added up to 30 years, Wayne said. So by the time "tomorrow would be the day" became reality, it took 200 pounds for Wayne to believe it was actually happening.
"When I lost my first 100, I don't see anything. Everybody was like ‘Wow!,' and I look in the mirror and say ‘Where? Where do you see this?' After I lost 200, I saw pictures side-by-side of my picture and said, ‘Wow, I can really do this.' I knew my clothes were bigger, but I never saw it before then. Then I'd stand sideways, and thought, ‘I guess what I'm doing is working.'"
Wayne blossomed from then on. He can rattle off the multitude of actions most people take for granted. After going from an 8X pants to a 42 waist, he can shop where he pleases without a "X" in sight. He can cross his legs, see the movies, enjoy sliding into a restaurant booth. People are impressed with his accomplishment, and even more shocked when they understand he started with tomato cans and not a surgical procedure -- which is the only thing his doctors recommended, Wayne said. Surgery can make a lasting difference for some, but Wayne said the risks at his size outweighed the benefits.
It's all moot now -- he lives with no medication and no oxygen mask. "Now that's an accomplishment," he said. "People respect me now. It's weird, [and] it's just amazing; people have to listen to what they want to say now. Before, I didn't want anyone to notice me." Then there's the odd sensation of feeling like a stranger in your own skin. Wayne estimates he has at least 40 pounds of loose skin on his body, and doctors told him it will require at least $12,000 to remove it. Because insurance won't cover his surgery and he doesn't have the finances, he forges ahead. And there's the humor. Years ago, Wayne traded his fast food and lying about grocery store purchases to broccoli spears and the occasional patch of pasta. He'll drive past drive-throughs and chuckle that his weight loss single-handedly deprived some fast food managers their yearly bonus. He's still amused that his wife, Laurie, refers to him to her "skinny minnie" instead of "her big teddy bear." And for all the nights Wayne cried himself to sleep, he's usually so focused on his goals now he doesn't have much time to be emotional. Except for those moments where just how much his life changed hits him. "I'd see pants I wear now and think ‘I can't fit in that, I'm a fat ass' and then remember ‘You don't have a fat ass,'" Wayne said. "But I just look at them and think, "Oh my God, I can fit in all of them. I'd just looking at the waistband and I think to myself, ‘Are these mine, are these truly mine?' Then I get a little teary-eyed."
So Now What?
When you speak with Wayne, three things strike you -- his gratitude for his transformation and his wife, mother and friends' constant support, his honesty and, most importantly, his humility. In an age where "success stories" pop up regularly, Wayne's straightforward spirit cuts through TV hype and the "people don't actually lose weight because of "The Biggest Loser" cynicism. When a man walks outside and is grateful to breathe and says "You're smelling life now," with complete sincerity, every reason someone can't lose weight or keep it off sounds like a cheap excuse masking another truth. He's out to prove it to everyone else, too.
"I want to inspire people to get healthy. I lost 30 years of my life due to being fat. I missed so much stuff, now I'm 49, and I can't take any of that back … so many parties, so many picnics, because I didn't want anyone to see me," Wayne said. "Now, I want to be ‘If I can do it and weigh this much, you can do it too.' I started lifting cans; I didn't have any money to go the gym, you can use what you have in the house."
So it's not a shock that <em>The Biggest Loser</em> is acknowledging him next week -- it's not just the enormity of weight he lost, or that <em>The Biggest Loser</em> influenced his decision to change his life. Amid few finances and low expectations, Wayne beat all odds. And with his wife, mother and close friends cheering from Wisconsin, on Sunday Wayne will begin an adventure beyond his wildest imagination from watching Jerry Lindsey two years ago. Wayne seeks to settle into his life changes first, but he wants to address his skin at some point. When he feels he's ready, he wants to enter motivational speaking. He still plans to attend an amusement park and ride a roller coaster for the first time. But those goals are for the future. At the moment, The Number and the public's overwhelming positivity demand his attention. The next few days will mark many first experiences -- his first plane trip, the first time he buy clothes that fit him, his first television appearance -- but let's hope it also marks a finale. Hearing his former weight and whatever the scale says Tuesday will give his journey a reality it lacked -- hearing The Number, on national television no less -- makes the process more real. You can't hide from what you were, or what you've become. But maybe in the glare of television lights Wayne will realize he is far, far greater than whatever The Number has to say about him. He's accomplished far more -- he is far more -- than any digit from the past, present or future.
The special live section of The Biggest Loser will air Tuesday at your local NBC affiliate. Be sure to cheer him on, and give him not only your excitement and goodwill, but also your deepest respect. Lord knows he has mine.