Patrick Cascella's story isn't your typical tale of transformation. Before his injury, you could find him at the gym five days a week, training for his second bodybuilding competition.
"I was 275 pounds," he says, "but I was solid. The plan was to cut down to 230 or 225 and step on stage. But that didn't happen—I got hurt."
At his job at a commercial HVAC company, Patrick suffered a lower-back injury while lifting an 800-pound condenser with a group of men. He had surgery, but it didn't heal him—he was still hurting and couldn't train or even go to work.
"I was angry, depressed, and felt worthless," he says.
For a year and a half, Patrick lived with excruciating pain and tried everything medically possible to heal himself, from steroid injections to acupuncture. His doctor told him he would need a second back surgery, a multi-level fusion that would insert six bolts and two rods into his spine. But first he needed to get down to a BMI of 32 before the doctor would operate. Patrick looked up the corresponding weight for a BMI of 32—it was 225 pounds. He was weighing in at 297.
"I had two choices," Patrick says. "One, continue on the downward spiral I was on, or two, stop feeling sorry for myself, dig deep, and get it done. I chose option two and went from 297 pounds to 229 pounds in 51 days."
With his trainer, family, girlfriend, and friends by his side, Patrick achieved goal.
This is his story.
How did your injury and subsequent weight gain affect your life?
After my first surgery, I wasn't able to work and I was in pain. Being in pain every day is mentally and physically draining, and not being able to work adds the stress of not being able to pay bills. You can't afford a healthy meal. The only things I could buy were 88-cent Chef Boyardee, mac and cheese, and maybe a pound of cheap bologna.
In that year and a half, I ate like crap. I didn't want to leave my bed because I was in pain. I got really depressed, and I would sleep all day. I had to buy extremely large clothes because I was 297 pounds. It was a bad time for me.
What made you decide to change?
When the doctor told me I had to have a BMI of 32 for the second surgery to be successful, I had 51 days before a workers' compensation hearing. My attorney and I knew that the insurance company's attorney was banking on me not making that BMI and using it as an excuse to not cover the second surgery. That knowledge drove me.
I went on Bodybuilding.com and made up my own diet using info from the site. I wasn't allowed to do much physical activity, so I couldn't eat as much. It was pretty much chicken, broccoli, and a couple of apples a day—every day.
What was your workout routine?
Due to my back injury, I was limited as to what I could do. I was cleared to walk on a treadmill, so I would walk as long as I could tolerate the pain. My walking/cardio would vary every day depending how bad my back felt.
What was your first workout like?
I don't know anyone who likes to do cardio, unless you're a marathon runner. I never loved it. The first time, I was dying 15 minutes in because that was the most exercise I had had in a year and a half. I was winded, I was struggling just to walk—not even a brisk walk, just a slow walk.
But I said to myself, "This is a starting point." Evan Centopani was a chubby kid when he began bodybuilding. Even The Rock wasn't always as big as he is now. I had this photo Evan signed at my first bodybuilding competition that I found myself obsessing over. On it, he wrote, "Never give it anything less than 110 percent." I kept saying those words to myself whenever the process got hard or when the pain got intense. So I said, "I might suck today, but if I do 15 minutes tomorrow, it might get better." And that's what happened.
What workout plan kept you on track?
What was your biggest challenge?
Every day was a tough day because I went from eating whatever I wanted and how much I wanted to eating under 1000 calories a day. There were so many times I wanted to cheat, but I couldn't bring myself to do it because it would be like starting over.
My trainer was helping me with my diet—it was almost like AA, but for people who want cheat meals. I would call him and say, "I'm feeling really crappy today. I just want some …." and he would say, "Don't do it. It's not worth it."
How did you overcome those feelings?
I found ways to spice up my food. I bought Frank's RedHot buffalo sauce (which has zero calories and zero fat) to put on my chicken. It tasted amazing, but by day 40, I was choking it down. I just kept thinking, "I'm in the home stretch. I've got 11 days until the hearing, so suck it up and eat it." I had to get it done, and that's what I did.
Also, I would watch Food Network while I was on the treadmill. Everyone thought I was torturing myself, but I guess my reasoning behind it was if I can't eat it, at least I could look at it and not have to smell it.
In particular, I liked "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" with Guy Fieri. I wanted anything barbecue or an ultimate cheeseburger with waffle fries. After the workers' compensation hearing, after I lost the weight, I went to Five Guys and called my trainer. I told him, "I'm sitting right outside a Five Guys. Can I get a burger?" He said, "You dropped 70 pounds. Get a burger and some fries and enjoy."
It was amazing, but I regretted it. My body didn't know what to do because I hadn't had carbs or fat in 51 days. I felt pretty sick after.
Besides your trainer, who else helped you on your journey?
My family and girlfriend gave me encouragement. My brother would tell me every day, "I'm so proud of you," and that meant a lot to me because I've always looked up to him. My roommates would say, "We're going to make dinner, but we're not going to eat in front of you." I would leave the room so I wouldn't smell the food, or I slammed bottles of water to fill myself up.
What was the best part of losing the weight?
On the day of my workers' compensation hearing, the insurance company's attorney asked if she could see my ID, because, she said, "I don't believe this is the same man I met a few hearings ago." My attorney and I laughed. I knew she was shocked that I was actually able to lose this much weight. I slid my ID across the table, and she had nothing else to say. Then she congratulated me. It was pretty awesome.
Other than being able to say I lost 70 pounds in 51 days, it was the best moment of this process. When someone has a doubt that you can do something and you show up, I think it's pretty notable.
Post weight loss, have you changed your diet?
Now that I've lost the weight, I'm trying to maintain. I've increased my meals to six a day, but it's mostly protein. I rarely have carbs. My carb source is Ezekiel bread, and I have one slice a day.
How has your life changed?
I feel thinner and healthier. Before, I was about to be prescribed blood pressure medication, and now my levels are in the perfect range. I feel like, when my back is healed, I'll be at a better starting point for what I want to do with my physique.
What are your future plans?
If my back was 100 percent, I would love to do another bodybuilding show. I don't think I'll ever be able to train the way I used to train, or lift as heavy as I was once able to lift, but I'll make it work.
I miss training. I even miss doing legs at this point! It's one of those things people hate, but when you can't do it you realize it wasn't really that bad. I hope I can get back to that one day.