I am just returning from my most recent visit to Mindstream Academy, a boarding school that preferentially addresses the needs of middle and high-school students with severe obesity and related health problems. I leave amazed, and inspired, as I have on each prior occasion. I have shared the impressions of my prior visits before (1, 2, 3), and won't reiterate them now. But I do have some new ones.
For this visit, I wasn't alone. I was privileged to be joined by two colleagues, both visiting Mindstream for the first time. Dr. James Galloway is a cardiologist in the preventive medicine department at Northwestern University and a former Assistant U.S. Surgeon General. James Levine, M.D., PhD is a research physician at the Mayo Clinic, focused on promoting physical activity, and controlling obesity, among other health promotion efforts.
I have been involved with Mindstream from the start, serving as the Senior Medical Advisor. Neither Dr. Galloway nor Dr. Levine has any ties to Mindstream, other than keen interest. But we were all there for the same reason: to see the program up close, and confer about how best to expand it so that it can serve more kids.
During our relatively brief stay of about a day and a half, we met with a group of roughly 25 current students twice. I believe I can safely say that my colleagues were, as I was, blown away by what the kids had to say. For starters, more than a few of them had lost over 100 pounds in a semester or two at Mindstream.
Let's pause there for a moment. More than 100 pounds of weight loss is always an incredible feat. People who lose over 100 pounds write best-selling books; they go on Oprah (or did) and The Dr. Oz Show; they become celebrities. In this single cohort of students, there were four or five such cases in the same room.
Weight loss of that magnitude is seen, of course. But generally it's seen on reality TV shows, or in the aftermath of bariatric surgery. There are pretty serious limitations to each of these, and Mindstream suffers none of them.
Reality TV, for one thing, is certainly not an option available to the masses. It is not a public health solution. Expanded into a network of franchises, Mindstream certainly could be.
But even more importantly, the methods of reality TV weight loss (and I say this as a veteran of the inaugural season of Celebrity Fit Club on VH1) are suspect at best, downright objectionable at worst. Grueling workouts, drill-sergeant oversight, and severe dietary restrictions make for good drama; but none of these is sustainable in the real word. These are gimmicks.
Mindstream uses no gimmicks. The kids learn the fundamentals of healthful eating, and practice it with disciplined and sensible moderation. They learn how to fit fitness into real schedules, in the real world. They work in an organic garden, and learn where real food comes from -- or should. They learn to cook. They learn a skill set that is tried, and true, and thorough -- and totally suitable to the challenges of everyday life in the real world.
As for bariatric surgery, I don't think we should have to cite the objections to relying on scalpels to fix what can be accomplished with more enlightened, empowered use of feet and forks. We might merely note this: When you undergo surgery, you are unconscious. Nobody learns very much under general anesthesia.
In contrast, school is all about learning, and Mindstream Academy is school. It just happens to be school that teaches healthy living along with reading, writing, and 'rithmetic.
There are many reasons why the distinction between surgery done to you while unconscious, and learning you do while conscious, is important. But perhaps most salient among them is this: You can share what you learn. There is no way to share the rerouting of your gastrointestinal tract.
Since Mindstream is producing weight loss to rival that of bariatric surgery, all of this makes a powerful case for it. But not the most powerful case -- and that, really, was the epiphany my colleagues and I shared. For the real story of Mindstream is not what the kids lose -- it's what they find.
One after another of these young people talked about finding not just a community of understanding at Mindstream, but a new family. They reported finding confidence they never had, self-esteem they had lost. They found self-respect, and purpose, and passion. They are finding academic success as well, with most of the students shifting their grade point average up a full letter grade or more.
Dr. Levine asked the group about their dreams, and they shared aspirations from medical school, to professional sports, to computer programming, to social service. They had found their way back to dreams, and a belief in the possibility of making them come true.
They found the path to dreams partly because they had removed the obstacle of all those excess pounds, which had literally been weighing them down. But they also had removed misconceptions, doubts, and fears. In fact, at a bonfire ceremony the night before our second meeting, the kids had written notes about their fears and anxieties -- and tossed them into the fire.
More than once, when a member of the group stalled, a friend reached out to take their fear from them -- and toss it into the fire, stating with an eloquent, beautifully human gesture: You are not alone!
So while Mindstream is a stunning example of what can be done to improve the condition of a human body, it is an even more vivid, compelling, inspiring case of what a body can do with a little help from the body politic. It is a potent demonstration of the power of all for one.
But it is just as poignantly a tale of one for all. Every one of the kids spoke eagerly of wanting to share what they had found here. With newfound capability and confidence, every one of these kids is eager to go out and pay it forward to peers and friends and families. And in fact, that process is well under way. A father of one of the girls at Mindstream, back at home, has lost over 40 pounds -- thanks to his daughter's enlightened guidance, and her commitment to sharing.
A concentrated dose of "all for one" produced an incredible cohort of kids, renewed and inspired, every one of whom is now committed to lending the best help they can, for the good of all. The only thing I can think to say the proven power of all for one, and the great promise of every one for all is: amen!
Dr. David L. Katz; www.davidkatzmd.com
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