WILMINGTON — Michael Allbright is hands-down the world’s biggest fan of the long-running, CBS television series Survivor. He’s attended numerous show-related events, hosts a national radio program devoted to all things Survivor and has met 446 — 92 percent — of the cast members that have attempted, since its debut in 2000, to “outwit, outlast and outplay” each other for a $1 million prize.
Last year, season 30 winner Mike Holloway gave Allbright a shirt in recognition of the aficionado’s keen interest in Survivor and his work with its charity events. That shirt symbolizes a key milestone in Allbright’s quest for enhanced health and wellbeing through his massive weight loss — he went from 525 to 299 pounds in 13 months!
“Mike gave me the double XL shirt when I was 6X — now I can wear it,” said Allbright, a 2002 Wilmington College alumnus and assistant dean of students for housing and residence life at WC.
And wear it he did when he and Holloway both attended a Survivor charity event in early June, which was just days after Allbright dipped below 300 pounds for the first time since 1998, the year he entered WC as a freshman.
“Mike was shocked — everyone was shocked. Mike gave me a big hug and said how excited he was for me,” Allbright said, noting that’s been a common reaction from friends and family. Even though many have followed his journey on Facebook, he said they are amazed by his physical transformation when they see him in person. “People are shocked. Their reaction is dramatic. First, their mouth is open in amazement, then they say, ‘You look totally different!’”
The gregarious Allbright has accomplished a seemingly miraculous, 180-degree, life-affirming change in a little over a year — a remarkable year.
With his life literally in the balance, Allbright underwent a surgical procedure last November that essentially cut off more than 80 percent of his stomach from his gastro-intestinal tract, which is complemented by his commitment since May 2015 to healthy diet and exercise.
Allbright was heavy-set as a boy, a mixture of family genetics and resorting to overeating in response to everything from celebrations to family turmoil and normal teen angst.
“Then I went off to college,” he recalled. “People talk about the ‘freshman 15’ but, being an exceptional guy, I experienced the ‘freshman 50’ instead, and then almost the ‘sophomore 60.’ My weight became a huge concern.”
He tried to exercise more, gave yoga and Zumba a shot, and even tried the controversial Atkin’s diet, which “melted pounds away,” but he realized it was unsustainable for the long term and ended up regaining the weight he lost — plus.
“My health was terrible,” he added.
Allbright developed high blood pressure, sleep apnea and likely was on the road to becoming diabetic. Walking minimal distances and climbing few steps quickly left him short of breath. Flying induced the stress of making others uncomfortable and even came with the possibility of being thrown off the plane if he hadn’t purchased two seats. By the time he approached his mid-30s, his friends and family became “extremely worried.”
“My doctor basically said I needed to do weight-loss surgery — or I would die,” he recalled.
Taking first steps
Allbright started on his road to better health by cutting his caffeine habit of drinking a two-liter bottle of Diet Mountain Dew each day. Even though the soft drink does not contain sugar, he is convinced the artificial sweetener induces an urge to snack.
“My first step was to cut out pop — cold turkey,” he said, noting he knew that relatively small gesture needed to be followed by bigger ones. Maxing out at 525 pounds, Allbright attended a weight-loss seminar in April 2015,where he learned about various surgical procedures that would diminish his ravenous appetite, which often resulted in consuming 4,000 calories a day — much of it junk food — combined with little physical activity.
May 1, 2015, was the day Allbright embarked upon an exercise regimen designed to prepare himself for the surgery and literally his new life. “That first day I could barely walk 500 steps,” he recalled. “I was gasping for air and could hardly breathe. Now my daily walk is often the most enjoyable part of the day.”
He hit a roadblock when his health insurance provider deemed these gastric bypass procedures as cosmetic surgery not covered under his plan, but Survivor friend Laura Holzwasser urged him to attempt raising some of the more than $15,000 needed through Go Fund Me, a popular fundraising vehicle on social media, which dovetailed well with his Facebook group of 3,000-plus friends.
“Laura told me, ‘You have a lot of people that love and care about you,’” he said. “Within three or four days, it was up to $8,000. I broke down crying in my office — I didn’t expect that kind of support.”
Eventually, contributions totaled $11,632 from 140 donors, including a $5,000 donor who wishes to remain publicly anonymous.
By the date of his surgery, Nov. 11, 2015, Allbright was down to 450 pounds. The gastric sleeve procedure involved cutting and suturing most of his stomach, resulting in an inability to consume anything but small quantities of food. His diet for the subsequent six weeks was so restrictive that what little he was allowed to eat often had to be blended.
“I missed Thanksgiving and my birthday dinners — there was no birthday cake either,” he said.
His 1,200 calories a day consists largely of chicken, turkey, nuts and cooked vegetables with very little red meat and dairy. He drinks up to 100 ounces of water each day.
“I physically cannot eat that much,” he said. “It would take me four days to eat a pizza.”
Health by the numbers
Consider these numbers since Allbright’s November surgery: He weighed 380 pounds in late January and, on the eve of the one-year anniversary of his dieting/exercise regimen, April 29, he had shed 200 pounds, which he describes as his “watershed moment.” On May 29, Allbright weighed less than 300 pounds for the first time this century.
“Getting below 300 pounds is a big deal to me. And I’m not done yet!” he said.
Allbright often walks as many as 16,000 steps a day (nearly eight miles), easily eclipsing his goal of 10,000 steps (five miles) a day. In April, he walked 16 miles at WC’s Collegiate Relay for Life and, when the event moves to fall in October, he has his sights sets on walking a marathon — 26.2 miles — during the 12-hour event.
The results of losing 43 percent of his body weight and lowering his body mass index from 67 to 37 are nothing short of amazing. Not only is Allbright a mere shadow of his former self, literally, his sleep apnea is gone and his doctor took him off blood pressure meds.
“My doctor, nurse and nutritionist said they’ve never seen anyone lose that much that fast,” he said, noting that, after not seeing his mother for a month during the spring, she barely recognized him.
Those spotting him as he takes his daily walks — sometimes circling campus as many as 10 times — will notice the end of his belt dangling to his knees as he maintains a steady pace. It’s a reminder of the progress he’s made in losing 12 inches from his waist in a little over a year.
His goal is to approach the 230 pounds of his sophomore year in high school. “How insane would that be to have lost 300 pounds?” he exclaimed.
“I have all kinds of energy now. It was a lifestyle change, not a quick fix,” he said, noting he’s interested in presenting motivational talks to others struggling with some form of addiction or barrier in their lives. “I’m proof that if a person puts enough work and effort into what they want to accomplish, they can achieve it too.”