Former EIT student Paul Smith believes he is able to help others now that he has helped himself by losing weight. Photo / Supplied
Losing a substantial amount of weight has been integral to former EIT student Paul Smith moving forward in life and helping others as well.
At the height of his own “food addiction”, Paul was told by his doctor to take drastic action and make life changes or risk dying prematurely.
Fast forward a few years and that initial blunt advice has helped Paul, (Rakai Paaka-Ngāti Kahungunu), not only maintain a 60kg weight loss, but also complete the NZ Diploma in Health and Wellbeing (Applied Practice) [Level 5] at EIT’s Tairāwhiti Campus. He is due to graduate later this year.
Paul, who has been working with Huringa Pai Charitable Trust for the last year, sees his role as supporting and helping his community achieve physical and mental wellness. The organization is managed by the same person who supported him towards wellbeing, Dr Willem Jordaan.
Paul, 53, spent years working in New Zealand and Australia, but has now found his calling in the social services sector through Huringa Pai. This came about as a direct result of conquering his own food addiction and joining Ngāti Porou Hauora as a kaiāwhina for the Puhi Kaiti community clinic.
However, it was while doing contract work on Christmas Island, off Western Australia, that he realized the severity of his obesity and how it was affecting him. Being away from family further complicated his ability to keep control of his erratic relationship with food. All this was compounded by basic healthcare and no moral support in the isolated location.
“I was morbidly obese and starting to really suffer the effects. I completed my contract and came home. I knew I wasn’t well and could feel my body rebelling. I saw Dr Jordaan as a patient, and he said: ‘Mate, if you don’t lose the weight, you’re going to be dead within 10 years. ‘ That was a shock. “
It was also true, because the next few months were spent in and out of hospital with obesity-related ailments. Paul’s wife, Theresa, encouraged him to stop working altogether to focus on regaining his health. It was not just about losing the weight but rediscovering himself.
With the support of a kaiāwhina appointed by Dr Jordaan, Paul started exercising regularly and, with the initial help of a nutritionist, began a healthy eating regime. He had to lose 30kg on his own before being eligible for bariatric surgery. At his heaviest, Paul was 181kg, at his lowest 108kg.
“For the last few years I have maintained a very healthy 121kg, which is fine for someone with my big frame because I run, walk or swim on a daily basis. My uncontrolled compulsions with food are a thing of the past.”
Paul no longer carries a heavy burden and is now nimble and light enough (physically and emotionally) to focus on helping his community to heal and in many cases, traverse the rocky path he has been down.
He enrolled in the NZ Certificate in Health and Wellbeing (Advanced Care and Support) [Level 4] in 2020. It was not easy, having been out of formal education for many years and mostly doing physical work.
“When I started, I had to get my head around the whole returning to study vibe. It was hard, but the way the program was set up was perfect for me, because I could engage in the learning as well as continue to work. “
Covid-19 was an additional challenge for both study and work.
“A lot of my clients are older people, so I would try to assist them as much as possible. Being an essential worker during the lockdown meant I was often more accessible than their own families.”
Paul says his role is now focussed on working with patients referred to him by Dr Jordaan. Together they come up with achievable goals, including a diet plan.
“My role is to support people to achieve their goals. I can walk alongside them and show them how to do it because I struggled with the same issues they face. My experiences give me a little bit of credibility which I don’t take for granted. “
Claudia Maaka, Paul’s lecturer in the Mental Health and Addiction program at EIT, says: “Paul was a strong-minded student with a huge passion and love for helping whānau in the community of Te Tairāwhiti.”
“Paul used his life experiences to help build understanding and perspective about Mental Health. As a student he would always ask when he was unsure about anything and always sought clarity which is an important skill to have when working in the sector.”
The Head of the School of Health and Sport Science at EIT, Ondene van Dulm, says: “Paul exemplifies the chief aim of EIT’s Mental Health programs in our region, as he has paired his own life experience and incredibly strong motivation with new knowledge and skills, in order to help others in his community. “