In 2003, Dr. Mehmet Oz and his wife Lisa launched a national health program that resembled a kind of health Peace Corps. College graduates pursuing public health studies are recruited for two-year teaching stints in at-risk schools. Since launching at its first school at the George Washington Educational Campus in Washington Heights in 2004, HealthCorps has expanded to 50 schools in nine states.
Rishi Thakkar was a freshman when HealthCorps came to Franklin Lane High School in Brooklyn. Now a senior, he reflects on his journey. Below is an edited transcript of his conversation with Go Healthy New York:
Growing up, I was always the big type. I started out small, and then for some reason, I finished a pizza at school -- and after that, I loved eating. When I came to high school, I wore 5XL shirts and a 48-waist size [pants]. I was huge. I was close to 350 pounds. And I was having trouble with my asthma and everything was going bad for me healthwise. I was only 14 years old. Not the place a 14-year-old wants to be.
[My HealthCorps coordinator] Lauren Abramowitz told me about a very simple program: Walk 10,000 steps per day. I thought it was a joke. Said it was the easiest thing in the world. My first day trying it, I realized I only walked 2,000. I was heartbroken. I really was. And it dawned on me that it was something I could improve.
At first, it was scary -- especially as big as I was. I was told, "Rishi, if you keep getting bigger, you are bound to have a heart attack." And heart disease runs in my family. Asthma runs in my mother's side of the family. So eventually a big problem was going to occur. And it was scary at first. But Lauren was the person you can talk to who can tell you the worst kind of news in the best kind of way. She was the person who made me believe in myself.
I started out slow. I started out with my regular routine, which is walking to the train station, and walking from class to class, but when I was going home, I decided to walk a long way from the train station home and it added an extra 200 steps. And then I tried walking the long way to the train station and walking the long way back home. That was an extra 400 steps.
So I tweaked the way I walked. I walked the long way to class, which wasn't a great idea because I got to classes late. But I ended up getting my 10,000 steps. And it was probably one of the greatest accomplishments of that time period. I was happy; I was ecstatic. It was a wonderful experience for me. And then I decided to keep going with it.
It was fun because not only did I get out of my house more and walk around more, I got to see things I normally would not have seen if I wasn't in HealthCorps. I walked the Brooklyn Bridge, which was amazing. I did that with my mother. My mother herself has bought a pedometer. And I bought my bike. Everything I started changing in my life was specifically designed around the idea of HealthCorps.
I didn't start questioning my diet until Lauren Abramowitz started the cooking club. That is when I realized I wanted to be a chef. Cooking became my life. I love cooking. I substituted foods in my house with the grocery list, I started cooking more at home, and I began to see the difference.
There was plenty of times where I wanted to say, I don't think this program is for me, and I'm not sure if I'm doing it too fast, if I'm doing it too slow, I don't know what's going on and I'm scared of change. And [Lauren] was there to tell me right away, look, this is something you need to do. And she was the boost. She was the one who got me to love the program.
When I joined HealthCorps, I wore a 5XL shirt. Today, I stand before you -- this sweater is 2XL, but the t-shirt underneath is a 1XL. My pants, I said I was a size 48, these pants are a size 40. I'm in the best shape that I have been in a very long time. My asthma has gone down. I was diagnosed with hypertension. My hypertension has disappeared. I no longer need the blood medication, the water pills to stabilize my blood pressure.
The lessons I've learned in HealthCorps, especially with the cooking, will always be with me. One of my friends has also decided to become a chef with me. I plan on owning a restaurant when I get older, and between him and me, we will be the head chefs.
Rishi, who will graduate from Franklin Lane High School this year, says he wants to pursue an education in culinary arts and eventually open a restaurant. He, alongside other HealthCorps students and coordinators, will be at the HealthCorps Gala this Wednesday, April 13, hosted by Dr. Oz and his wife Lisa. For more on the fundraising event, click here.