Managing life and loss through fitness

Ross Pagat, with his wife, Karisma, and their son, Liam

Ross Pagat, with his wife, Karisma, and their son, Liam

Social media is incredible.

While the technology that powers the Facebooks, Instagrams, Twitters and Snapchats of the world is nothing remarkable, the outlet social media provides us to discover other peoples’ stories and for us to tell our own stories is unprecedented and unique to our time and place in history.

And while social media, especially in the fitness world, can get a bad rap, filled with a never-ending stream of chiseled ab selfies captioned with canned motivational quotes, many of the Featured Fit Dads that I’ve showcased on this site have come from connections made through social media.

I’ve tried to connect with and tell the story of other guys who not only make it a point to be a father to their children first, but also dedicate themselves to their health and fitness through a variety of ways to create a better, healthier life for themselves.

But for as much as fitness can give us new life, it can also help us deal with loss.

I connected with Ross Pagat through Instagram as I was searching through images with the hashtag #fitdad.

Ross is a pretty remarkable guy. He has dedicated his life to helping others in his small Hawaiian community, both through his professional career as a long-term substitute teacher of sorts, and also through fitness. His community does not have a full-scale gym, only a tiny Parks and Recreation facility that holds about eight people. And so Ross, after he himself got hooked on fitness through P90X and Insanity thanks to the recommendation of a friend, is a Beachbody coach and teaches two group classes of Insanity a week for members of his community.

“It’s such a small town - everyone knows everyone,” Ross says. “When I opened up the Insanity class, it allowed the community to come out. A lot of of people have thanked me for giving them an option to exercise and stay healthy.”

And because it’s such a small town, most know the heart-wrenching journey Ross has overcome over the past six months, and most have seen how fitness has been a foundation for a grieving father’s comeback story.

Just months ago, Ross, his wife, Karisma, and their two-year-old son, Liam, were set to welcome the fourth member of their family into the world, a second son named Caleb.

“When we found out we were having another child, we were excited,” Ross says. “Everything went normal. Every doctor’s appointment that we went to was normal. All the tests that she took came back fine, and we just felt like, ‘OK, cool, everything is good and we’re going to have another child.’”

When Caleb finally arrived in July, doctor’s immediately noticed something was wrong with the newborn baby boy and rushed him out of the delivery room. Ross was not far behind.

“I went with him to the emergency part of the hospital to see what was going on,” Ross says. “I went back to check on my wife, and she was fine, and she just said, ‘Go back and be with our son.’”

The reason the doctors were so concerned was that Caleb’s belly did not look right. Unable to determine what was wrong with the child, arrangements were made to medivac him to a larger hospital on the island of Oahu.

As they waited for the emergency airplane, the doctors and nurses continued to work to try to figure out what was wrong with Caleb.

“The whole time, you’re just praying. It’s hard to see something like that,” Ross says. “I wouldn’t want any other parent to go through that and see their child on the table like that and see the nurses work on him.”

Despite the hospital staff’s best efforts, at 10 p.m., five hours after he had been born, Caleb passed away, just as the air ambulance crew had arrived at the community hospital.

Later, tests would reveal that Caleb was born with autosomal recessive polycystic kidney disease, an enlargement of the kidneys and an underdevelopment of the lungs. One in 20,000 babies are born with it, and while survival rates have increased dramatically over the last 20 years, the most critical time during the disease is in the hours immediately after birth.

In the months after Caleb’s passing, Ross’ previous dogged dedication to fitness understandably fell by the wayside.

“As much as I thought that I should keep up with exercising, I just didn’t have the heart for it. All I wanted to do was be close to my wife and my son and just spend as much time with them,” Ross says. “There were times when I stayed in bed with them a lot. We didn’t go out. We just sort of stayed home. We had family and friends come over to try to encourage us, which we were very grateful for. But I just wanted to be close to my wife and my son and spend as much time with them.

“So I wasn’t exercising, and with our community being small as it is, a lot of people brought over food to encourage us and comfort us, which I appreciated, but I also just ended up eating and eating. And when you eat and eat and don’t do anything active, you start to put on weight.”

Ross put on roughly 15 pounds in a month and a half, and struggled to find motivation to do much about it. But a man of determined faith in God, Ross turned to his convictions and asked for divine intervention.

“I just kept praying, ‘What should I do? How do I get out of this slump?’” Ross says. “I don’t know exactly what day it was, but it just sort of clicked in my head that I had to do something positive - for my wife, for myself and for my son.”

While continuing to ask God for strength and help, Ross also reached out to family and friends and asked for their help in reigniting his health journey by participating in a fitness group. Everyone he asked agreed to help. For the community Ross had given so much to, it was a chance for the community to give back to Ross.

After not exercising for a month and a half, Ross says the hardest thing was getting used to the initial soreness. However, each morning, despite how sore he was, Ross would get in his workout in his garage. Making his comeback one day at a time, eventually, he started feeling better. Emotionally and mentally, he gradually eased into a better state.

“Being with my wife and my son, they began to see that I was more positive - things were more positive in our house and not so much sadness,” Ross says.

It has now been just a few months since Ross got back into working out and eating healthy again, and he has already lost seven pounds. He says he has no specific desire for six-pack abs, only that he wants “to be healthy and stay healthy for my wife and son, and any future children that we may have.”

And he wants others to understand perhaps his greatest lesson he’s learned in the trials he’s faced over the past six months as a father: Use the time you’ve been given to do something with it.

“Be aware of all that you have. We only have one life, and we have to make good choices with the life we’ve been given,” Ross says. “Trust in God, and make good choices now, because you never know when something could happen and you could be gone. Try to find something healthy to do. It doesn’t have to be the workouts that I do in my garage. Even if it’s going for a walk or jogging or biking or doing something active and fun, go and do something positive. And if you have children, put them first, and think about how you want them to see you. Know that they’re always watching us.

“Be thankful for what you have and count your blessings.”