Working in the hospitality industry often buoyed Scott Johnson’s spirits, but it wasn’t good for his health.
A bartender for 26 years at a prestigious private club in Minneapolis, Johnson worked “full-time plus” and made lucrative tips. The hours were long and grueling, but he and his coworkers adhered to certain codes of fellowship. Foremost among them, he says, was that there should be “no hungry bartenders and no thirsty cooks.” Workers fueled their fires by drinking early, eating late, and drinking again later — hard. Johnson recalls that he could finish a bottle of vodka on his own in the course of a big night.
The kitchen routinely turned out lavish staff meals. A plate of roast duck with scalloped potatoes was a typical dinner — eaten hastily mid-shift, usually while standing. Johnson is just over 6 feet tall and has a sturdy frame, but when his weight hit 375 pounds in 2004, he knew the life of the bon vivant had backfired.
Still, he loved bartending. His relationships with coworkers and customers were vitally important to him. So Johnson continued to work at the club even as it became increasingly draining. The asthma he’d had since childhood, a reason he gives for never getting involved in sports or exercise, combined with the extra weight, made climbing stairs and stocking the bar difficult. He was tired all the time. Decades of routine had instilled a deep sense of commitment to his work and a cheerful indifference to his personal health, so he ignored his worsening symptoms for as long as he could. It wasn’t until the club was sold and his relationship with the new management soured that he finally quit in 2006.
That’s when his life changed significantly. And as is sometimes the case during big transitions, several things would get worse before they got better.
Johnson stopped drinking cold turkey and went to work as a security guard at a local nursing home. He immediately formed close ties with several of the residents. Always one to put relationships first, he felt he had found his calling. He knew that many of the residents were unlikely to receive the kind of undivided attention he was so good at providing after his years behind the bar. He quickly grew to treasure them as if they were members of his own family.
Yet, he soon found himself physically unable to do the work. His job involved patrolling the building and grounds, and he had developed unbearable pain in both feet. Climbing stairs had become nearly impossible because of sheer exhaustion. In 2007 Johnson finally relented and went to a doctor. He learned that even though he had stopped drinking, he had developed gout in both feet — a form of inflammatory arthritis caused by the kidneys overproducing uric acid and often connected to a rich diet and excessive alcohol consumption. His blood pressure was off the charts. He also discovered the source of his overwhelming fatigue: congestive heart failure.
His doctor prescribed a raft of medications. And Johnson thought about his mother, a “big, beautiful lady” who passed away at 57 from heart complications. Turning 50, he knew it was time to make his own health a real priority, before he no longer had a choice.
In 2008 Johnson took a job as a cashier in a well-established natural food co-op, not far from the home he shares with his brother. He suspected his new environment would have much more salutary effects on his health than his work at the club.
Johnson immediately fell in love with the scene. Cashiering was more physically tolerable than bartending or security patrols (occasionally he sat on a stool ringing up orders to rest his feet), and it gave him plenty of opportunities to interact with customers and make friends, one of the things he had liked best about bartending and working security. But what affected him most was the exposure to a radically different approach to food and health. He found himself surrounded by staff and customers who saw the produce section as a medicine cabinet, not just something you passed through on your way to the coffee beans.
Not long after Johnson started at the co-op, he received an additional diagnosis: type 2 diabetes, another consequence of his earlier lifestyle. But now he was surrounded by support and good advice. A fellow employee with type 1 diabetes told Johnson, “You have control.” He learned not only to overcome his sweet tooth (peanut M&Ms were a particular weakness), but to take raw apple-cider vinegar several times a day to help clear the uric acid from his kidneys. He also started to experiment with tart cherry juice to help with his gout.
Johnson began taking nutritional supplements — a multivitamin, omega-3 fish oil, vitamin B complex, vitamin D — in addition to his other medications. His diet was still a work in progress, by his own admission (he says he’s working on his relationship to vegetables), but leaving the hospitality industry meant he automatically ate much less. He had gradually shed pounds since hitting his peak weight in 2004. And as he started to feel better with the help of his weight loss, medications, and lifestyle changes, he found himself able to exercise — something that had always eluded him.
Today, Johnson continues to work at the co-op and keeps up an active daily routine at home. He walks his dog, Bud, half an hour each day, rain or shine, and also spends
30 minutes on his exercise bike. (He doubles those times on his days off.) Weighing in at 260 pounds, he is still losing weight without dieting. Most incredibly, because of changes in his diet and lifestyle, he’s gone from treating his diabetes with insulin shots twice a day to taking insulin once a week. His blood-sugar levels are well regulated, “and if they’re high, I know why,” he says.
Johnson credits his generous co-op coworkers with helping him develop a healthy awareness of his food choices. And he has only himself to thank (and perhaps Bud) for his persistence with his exercise routine. Still, ever the service professional, Johnson feels the greatest satisfaction about what he is now able to offer his customers at work: organic food instead of endless drinks. “Now I’m making people healthier instead of putting them in harm’s way,” he says, smiling.
And at long last, he’s doing the same for himself.
Courtney Helgoe is an Experience Life senior editor.