Martin Blackburn, 45
‘The other day I went into a shop to buy some clothes. The lady behind the counter was the wife of one of my mates. She didn’t recognise me until my credit card fell out of my wallet onto the counter. When she saw my name on the card she did a double-take. When you lose a lot of weight, everything changes but your voice.’
Thanks to weight-loss surgery performed by specialist bariatric surgeon Professor David Kerrigan, now CEO of Phoenix Health, the transformation of 45-year-old Martin Blackburn from 37-stone giant down to a manageable 14st 7lbs has been life-changing.
As a child Martin had always been heavy, but at 43 he peaked at a massive 37 stone. ‘When I was the general manager at the Villa Marina and Gaiety Theatre,’ he laughs, ‘people used to tell me I was remarkably fleet of foot for someone so heavy!’
The saying that life begins at 40 came true for Martin, but in the worst way possible: ‘When I hit 40 everything started to fall apart. I was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes and gradually things deteriorated. I developed bad cellulitis, which meant that if I stood for too long my skin would burst. I got open sores which became infected.’
Antibiotics didn’t work for Martin. His GP (whom he knew well) said that prescribing drugs for him was ‘like prescribing for a small hippopotamus’. In the end Martin had to go into a hyperbaric chamber, where he’d breathe pure oxygen which permeated the skin tissues and killed off the bacteria infecting his sores.
Why did Martin put on so much weight? ‘It was too much of everything,’ he says. ‘I was a grazer. I didn’t have a sweet tooth, but I just loved pasties, pies, chips and sandwiches.’
During 1986, as part of his Civil Service accountancy training, Martin spent time as a student on block release at Liverpool Polytechnic. ‘I was a civil servant, but also a student. That made things worse because I was a ‘rich’ student living in halls of residence. There was a Tesco, a chippy and a Chinese at the end of the lane, as well as catering in the halls of residence.’
With his increasing size, Martin found air travel extremely difficult. ‘Whenever I went across to the mainland I’d have to book two seats and ask for a seatbelt extension. If I had a cup of tea, the table wouldn’t go down. It was costing me a fortune in suits, too. I couldn’t buy anything off the peg, which meant I had to have suits specially made at £500 a shot – 73-inch waist with a 76-inch chest.’
Martin had lots of interests outside work, one of which was as Deputy Clerk for the Isle of Man TT motorcycle races. ‘The race control was on top of the grandstand. They had to get me a special wide, heavy-duty chair to sit in. Two strong lads lugged it to the top of the control tower. It was such an effort for me to get up there. I had to set out half-an-hour before everyone else so that I could get my breath back and be able to talk by the time the others arrived.’
He was also involved in go-kart racing on the island. ‘At my size it was difficult to weigh myself on conventional scales, so as clerk of the course at the kart racing I use their calibrated vehicle weighbridge to weigh myself.’
Martin has been a member of the St John Ambulance Brigade since he was 11. ‘When I got to my heaviest I stopped wearing the uniform because I didn’t want to embarrass the organisation. When I was invested into the Order of St John I wasn’t well enough to travel, so it took place at Government House on the island. I’ve only recently got back into uniform.’
Realising he had a serious weight problem and he needed to do something about it, Martin tried the Atkins diet. ‘I lost a load of weight, getting down from 25 stone to 14. The Atkins diet suited me – cutting out pastry and chips wasn’t difficult – but I piled the weight back on again.’
An old school friend, who also had suffered with excessive weight gain, told Martin about his own successful weight-loss thanks to bariatric (weight-loss) surgery. ‘It got me thinking,’ recalls Martin, ‘but I was too scared to get the surgery done. Because of my weight I had always been worried about the dangers from the anaesthesia. My friend said the weight was going to go back on again, so why not get something done while the anaesthesia risks were lower?’
Martin discovered Professor David Kerrigan and his team on the Internet and read-up about the options open to him. He made an appointment to see Professor Kerrigan, who advised Martin that the duodenal switch would be the best procedure for him because of his history of yo-yo dieting.
Martin’s body mass index (BMI) was dangerously high (67), so Professor Kerrigan chose to operate using two different surgical procedures, one at a time, which meant that Martin didn’t have to be under the anaesthetic for too long. The first procedure, a sleeve gastrectomy, was carried out successfully in March 2008, followed by a duodenal switch one year later.
‘Professor Kerrigan is absolutely first class and the hospital where the surgery was performed was lovely. It was also nice to have the care of a ward sister and a matron. Everyone took a real interest, even the cleaners. The whole place smelt clean.’
Martin was back at work within a fortnight of his procedures. ‘I told my colleagues what I’d done. I just couldn’t keep it a secret! I then lost a stone each month but it cost me a fortune in clothes – in my job I need to look smart. I kept having to get new suits made and then ditch them a few months later. The cost of clothing was a side-effect I hadn’t budgeted for.’ Since his procedures Martin has lost an incredible 22 stone, now has a 36-inch waistline and a normal BMI.
‘I’m 14 stone 7 now. My parents are impressed with my weight-loss. My nephews can’t believe it – when they were little they used to climb up on my shoulders and slide down my belly. I was a human roller coaster and they thought that was brilliant!’
These days, thanks to his dramatic weight-loss, Martin has the occasional bizarre conversation with people he’s not seen for ages. ‘A chap I knew was organising a motor sport memorabilia event and I’d phoned him with advice on emergency planning.’
When I went to see what was on offer he said to me: “Martin Blackburn has given me lots of practical advice.” ‘I said, “I am Martin Blackburn.” He was lost for words – he hadn’t seen me for years.’
Since his weight-loss surgery, life is so much better for Martin. ‘My diabetes has completely gone and my blood sugar levels fall within the normal range. I love walking now and buying clothes is a dream – I have the pick of everything.
‘This Christmas was the first I can remember when people bought me clothes rather than vouchers. Before, I had to upgrade my hire car to a huge Chrysler Grand Voyager because it was the only thing I could fit into. Now I could fit into a Nissan Micra.’
His only regret is that he didn’t opt for surgery sooner. ‘I still have complications from the excess weight – swollen ankles, varicose veins and a bad back.’ So, what is Martin’s advice for others contemplating surgery as an option?
‘The benefits far outweigh the risks. For heaven’s sake go for it! It’s just a shame the NHS won’t fund weight-loss surgery here on the Isle of Man. It seems wrong that means-testing prevents many people from having it. Knowing what it’s done for me and what it could do for other people – that’s why I want to tell my story.’