Yonas Michael lost his younger brother Daniel to heart failure in September 2017. Daniel died aged only 32.
His death, though tragic, was a pivotal moment for Yonas, inspiring him to make changes to his own lifestyle, to lose weight and get healthier.
Originally from Maryland, Yonas was studying for a Master’s degree in education at Iowa State University. Daniel left their childhood home to stay with him for a while.
Whilst together, Daniel kept saying that he felt “funny,” writes American Heart Association.
“It’s like I can really feel my heartbeat,” Daniel had told Yonas.
At first, neither thought very much of it with Yonas later recalling, “He was trying to figure out life, so he moved in with me for a few years. He wasn’t living a healthy lifestyle. He smoked, drank, ate whatever.”
Yonas’s own lifestyle wasn’t great either, and he was carrying 328 pounds (approx. 149 kg) on his 6-foot-4-inch frame. The brothers, and sister Yordanos, were all significantly overweight, having grown up on a poor diet of processed food and pop.
Daniel’s problems eventually led to hospitalization. Initial tests were inconclusive, so their worried mother brought him back to Maryland.
At John Hopkins Hospital, the 25-year-old was given a devastating diagnosis. He had both type 2 diabetes, which he kept to himself, and congestive heart failure.
He was given a wearable defibrillator, which monitored his heart and could administer electric shocks if needed. Daniel quit smoking and drinking, and started losing weight.
Yonas took action for his own health too.
“I joined a gym and exercised almost every day, doing group fitness classes, and I started eating really healthy,” Yonas said. “In half a year, I’d lost 55 pounds.”
Sadly though, Daniel’s heart function deteriorated to the point where he needed a transplant. He was fitted with a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) that essentially did the pumping, as a stop-gap measure.
“He made improvements, and I was feeling optimistic,” Yonas said.
“We were waiting for a heart. But what I later learned is, I’d been watching too much TV. … There’s not a bunch of hearts sitting around.”
Come summer 2017, Daniel’s health had worsened further. Yonas left his job working with at-risk students in the Ames Community School District to be near his family in Maryland.
With his organs essentially shutting down, Daniel was hospitalized, and died that September. The family were distraught.
“I lost some weight from depression,” he said, “then gained weight from eating more again.”
In August 2018, there was more bad news when Yonas himself was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
“That’s when I thought, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t allow my parents to bury another child,’” he said. “I made a commitment to cut out all processed foods and sugar and carbs.”
Through diet and exercise, he lost a further 60 pounds (approx. 27 kg), reaching 215 pounds (approx. 98 kg). He no longer required diabetes-management medication.
His sister, Yordanos Drar, also a type 2 diabetic, wanted change too.
“My brother’s passing made me think how I wasn’t taking my health seriously, but I still didn’t do anything about it until my diabetes diagnosis,” said Yordanos, a respiratory therapist in Maryland. “But Yonas and his own weight loss was my biggest motivation.”
She cut out processed foods and sweets, exercised, and followed a vegetarian diet, losing more than 100 pounds (approx. 45 kg), with more to go, she said.
In 2019, Yonas returned to Iowa to become principal at Ames Middle School.
He shared his story publicly for the first time during an assembly to announce the American Heart Challenge fundraiser.
“I had this huge knot in my stomach,” he said, “but I wanted to tell them my ‘why.’ Why this was an important cause to me. How my brother had heart disease, and although he eventually passed away, funding for research allowed him to live longer.”
He kicked off the fundraising by donating $1 for each of the school’s 1,100 students, challenging each to raise $32, representing Daniel’s age when he died.
“I was so happy to not only help raise money to save lives, but to see the humanity in our students,” Yonas said. “That was the greatest reward.”
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