Daniel Finney addresses DMU Grand Rounds

Des Moines Register columnist Daniel Finney recently addressed DMU students candidly about his lifetime battle with obesity, chronic depression and acute anxiety and the turnaround journey he is pursuing. He purposely chose a natural weight loss process versus gastric bypass surgery. Finney weighed 568 pounds when he began and has dropped to 424 pounds today. (Visit his blog to learn more.)

“I thought I would just do what I wanted and die. I didn’t think I had any options,” said Finney in an opening video presentation to about 150 DMU students. For the ensuing hour, all members of the audience, including faculty and staff, would ride an emotional roller-coaster listening to Finney’s lifetime story of battling obesity and understanding its causes.

After the short video introduction, Finney, the Register’s Metro Voice columnist, took a seat in front of the students. He interjected the emotional story of his weight management journey with alternating humorous and stinging perspectives of the American health care system and the head-scratching frustrations that health insurers present every day.

When asked by moderator Vanessa Ross, director of DMU’s continuing medical education program, what spurred him to seek help with a weight loss campaign, Finney described how it struck him one day while touring a neonatal intensive care unit at Mercy Hospital. “I was just walking around the hospital floor, and I had to stop at the nurse station because I didn’t have the energy to walk. My friend, who was the public relations director of the hospital, offered me a wheel chair, and, that was when the light went on.”

He shared other personal vignettes that helped ratify his decision to reverse his debilitating condition. For instance, “When I would go to the grocery store, I had to buy what I could carry into the house in one trip because I couldn’t make two trips. My knees hurt so bad it was hard to step off curbs or get in and out of cars. I could easily hurt my back carrying groceries or getting out of bed.”

Learning message for students

Finney talked to the students as a patient dealing with a very difficult, life-threatening condition. He led the audience through his exploration of understanding his condition and the causes of it. “As future doctors, physical therapists and others, you’re going to need to treat the whole person.”

He shared his view that many physical conditions often have deeper causes that are mental or environmental. He described growing up in a chaotic household where love was lacking, which was one of the underlying causes of other issues.  

Through his experience, Finney has become a staunch advocate for a more humane health insurance system that includes much needed focused attention on mental health issues.

“If we don’t address mental health issues, we can only keep coming back to the same point because the physical issue is only part of the problem,” he said with visible passion. “We cannot continue to treat health care like a commodity, like cars or other things, as health insurers do. Why don’t we think about it in terms of the whole human dimension? That is, of course, stupid!”

He emphasized his point in a socio-political example. “It’s like telling someone they have congenital heart disease because they are a sinner. Everyone,” he added, “deserves wellness and equal access to [good] health care services.”

Kizmet…finding the right regimen and a DMU connection

As Finney continued his story of discovery and advancement with his plan, he struck up a chance friendship with Nate Yoho, the son of DMU’s dean of the College of Podiatric Medicine and Surgery, Robert “Tim” Yoho, D.P.M., FACFAS. The younger Yoho is the coach and owner of CrossFit Merle Hay. The two men became acquainted during Finney’s serendipitous feature coverage of the tragic loss of Yoho’s wife, Laura, to a battle with a rare form of brain cancer that they found soon after they became engaged in 2010. While struggling through surgeries and therapies, the young couple decided they wanted to have a child. But, because it would be impossible for Laura to carry a baby and fight the cancer, they used today’s medical technology to create and store several embryos. Later, Laura’s best friend, Kara Stetson, happily agreed to be a surrogate mother for their child. Laura died on July 23, 2013. Their daughter, Caralyn, was born on November 26, four months later.

After Finney’s coverage of their story, a grateful Yoho insisted that he visit the new training facility. “Come to the gym,” Yoho said, “I can help you.”

With trepidation, Finney accepted. But it almost didn’t work out. “The second I walked into that place, with all these weights clanking, sweat everywhere, all these Adonis-like bodies, I told myself I had to get the [expletive] out of here.” But Yoho persisted. He created a plan, and a terrified Finney started down a new life-saving path.

“I’m now stronger and more flexible than at any time in my life,” reported Finney to the rapt audience.

In closing, he gave strong advice to the future health care providers or, in Finney’s parlance, “partners,” by saying, “All of you will have to address your own prejudices in working with patients.” As a living example for the gathering, he said, he knows most people look at fat people and assume the problem is overeating and that they have no shame. “Believe me, people who are obese have a tremendous sense of shame.”

Bottom line, said Finney: “We need to have honest conversations with each other. We need to address the question of the choices we make. Why are we afraid to talk about certain things?”

Finney left the audience with a compelling and simple definition of good health: “Health is not the absence of illness; it’s the presence of wellness.” And in Finney’s case, success is grounded in sharing the responsibility for care and wellness.

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