Cabinet secretary now preaches good-health gospel

January 01, 1994|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Staff Writer

When Nelson J. Sabatini took over as the state's top health official in 1991, he seemed an unlikely preacher for the gospel of preventive health.

A wheezing, overweight chain-smoker, Mr. Sabatini could break a sweat just walking across a room. His favorite breakfast was an egg and sausage biscuit with a doughnut.

"He looked like a stroke waiting to happen," said his spokesman, Michael Golden.

But in the past two years, Maryland's health secretary has become a poster child for his own cause.

In 1992, he kicked a 3 1/2 -decade, pack-a-day-plus smoking habit. Beginning with a New Year's resolution last January, he switched to an 800-calorie-per-day diet and began working out four days a week.

Since then, the 5-foot-10-inch health secretary has shed nearly 50 of his 268 pounds. He also has burned 6 inches off his 44-inch waistline. Family, friends and colleagues are proud, pleased and relieved by the transformation.

"He's got a lot more vigor," said Dr. James D'Orta, chairman of the Governor's Commission for Emergency Services. "He's a lot more lighthearted."

In fact, no one seems happier with the New Nelson than the secretary himself.

"There's nothing in the world that makes you feel better than spending money to have your pants taken in," he says.

Colleagues illustrate how far Mr. Sabatini has come by recalling his old, sometimes distressing habits. He used to eat so much salt that his deputy secretary for public health, Dr. Mary Mussman, would hide the shaker from him during lunches.

Robert W. Eastridge, his deputy for operations, remembers how Mr. Sabatini would forage through employees' desk drawers looking for pretzels and other snacks.

"If Nelson came to your office, he'd always walk out with something in his hands," Mr. Eastridge said. "It was always a game trying to preserve something for yourself."

The story of Mr. Sabatini's conversion began nearly three years ago when the governor elevated the veteran administrator to the position of health secretary. His job was to focus more energy toward preventive health and education while managing 12,000 employees and a nearly $3 billion budget.

But fighting the tobacco lobby in Annapolis while chain-smoking Marlboros became embarrassing, and the wheezing grew worse. finally broke his cigarette addiction with the help of a nicotine patch.

After he quit smoking, Mr. Sabatini began eating even more and his weight rose another 25 to 30 pounds. Last winter, he reached critical mass.

"I just didn't feel good looking at myself," he said.

He and his wife, Marilyn, went on a low-fat diet and exercise program early last January. The menu at home changed from pizza, souffle and apple strudel to grapefruit, broiled fish and chicken.

Instead of evenings lounging on the couch in front of the television, the Sabatinis headed to the Severna Park YMCA near their home for hourlong workouts.

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, Mr. Sabatini, who will turn 54 this month, charges through a 20-station cardiovascular and weight training circuit. During one workout last week, he rattled off 21 repetitions on the bench press (72 pounds), leg press (260 pounds) and the arm curl (68 pounds). By the end, sweat dripped off his nose, and much of his blue sweat shirt had turned several shades darker.

"When you leave this place, it's amazing how much better you feel," he said.

Until recently, Mr. Sabatini hadn't seen a personal physician in years. He had avoided them because he didn't want to hear the inevitable lecture about his smoking and eating. In September, Mr. Sabatini finally went to visit one, Dr. James Chaconas of Arnold.

Dr. Chaconas declared the 220-pound secretary in excellent health. But he added, "He still has to lose at least another 25 to 30 pounds."

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