Shadyside woman appears on ‘Extreme Weight Loss’

SHADYSIDE Tuesday’s episode of ABC’s “Extreme Weight Loss” featured a local woman and her community.

Melissa Karkowski, 46, of Shadyside, was chosen for the show last year and has been working ever since to lose approximately half of her body weight. Her journey has been wildly successful, as she reached her goal and improved her life, along with her family’s lives.

A viewing party was held at the Shadyside American Legion Post 521, and a large screen was set up so that dozens of Karkowski’s friends and family could watch the show for the first time together. The room was frequently filled with cheers for Karkowski’s highs, tears for her lows and groans for commercial breaks over the two-hour program.

One particularly funny moment came when Karkowski was surprised by trainer Heidi Powell. Heidi is the wife of Chris Powell, who usually does the training for “Extreme Weight Loss” participants. However, Karkowski felt she could identify better with Heidi, as a mother, and she addressed her applicant’s letter to her.

Powell watched as Karkowski rode her lawn mower down the driveway to pick up her mail, then jumped out of her car to greet her and get her ready to travel to Denver, Colorado for her first three months of weight loss training. Before packing, Karkowski stepped on the scale and saw a number she didn’t want to know: 301. She apologized to her sons, as she felt she was doing them an injustice by endangering her own health.

After arriving in Denver, a harsh first workout left Karkowski wanting to go home, and Chris Powell doubted whether she had the gall to complete the weight loss. However, Heidi vouched for her.

“I was surprised by how hard she fought for me,” said Karkowski, who was seeing all the show’s footage for the first time on Tuesday night.

Karkowski had trouble coming to terms with how long she would have to be away from her sons, especially since her 14 year-old Cody suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Karkowski’s husband, Mike, committed suicide in 2009 while suffering from PTSD. Married to Melissa for 12 years, Mike was an Army veteran of the war in Afghanistan.

Instead of dealing with Mike’s death, Karkowski buried her feelings and turned to food. Before leaving for Colorado with Powell, she opened her husband’s foot locker to sort through his personal items for the first time. It was a powerful moment which inspired Powell to deal with her own father’s recent death by sorting through some of his items. Karkowski said she was honored to have influenced Powell so strongly.

Karkowski has said previously, and revealed on the show, that she had two reasons for wanting to be on “Extreme Weight Loss.” The first was her desire to get healthy to make sure she can be around as long as possible for her family, which includes sons Cody and 16 year-old Eli, foster daughter Jennifer, mother Barbara Houston and boyfriend Kirk Hood. The second reason was to bring awareness to one of our nations’ greatest tragedies, PTSD.

The disorder is so pervasive that in 2012, more American soldiers took their own lives than were killed in combat and one in five soldiers returning from war are affected.

Originally, Karkowski wanted to run in an established Army Ten-Miler race to honor Mike. However, Powell came up with the idea to organize her own run in Shadyside. The first Miles for Mike 10-mile run was held in October, and $2,000 was raised to be donated to PTSD charities K-9s for Warriors and the Wounded Warrior Project. Karkowski is shown in “Extreme Weight Loss” running alongside Chris Powell, and much of Shadyside and its residents can also be seen in the footage.

For her six month weigh-in, Karkowski and her sons were treated to a trip to New Zealand. Down to 182 pounds, she climbed the steps of the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere in just 12 minutes and 40 seconds. Along with Heidi, she then jumped off the building.

After her nine month weigh-in, Karkowski was eligible for a skin tuck surgery. Her surgery initially frightened Cody, but he was reassured of her safety by the Powells.

Karkowski kept her weight loss going with healthy meals and workouts with local trainer Ashley Morgan and her running coach Deanna Merryman. Finally, to film her one year weigh-in, Karkowski and many other Shadyside residents traveled to Los Angeles, CA, where her transformation was fully revealed. Originally weighing in at 301 pounds, Karkowski lost 142 pounds over the course of one year, putting her down to a healthy 159 pounds. At the weigh-in, Cody remarked that he was proud of his mom, calling her “a hero.”

Also at the weigh-in, Karkowski was allotted a one-week scholarship to the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center (where she initially trained with Powell) to be given to someone else to jump start weight loss. Karkowski chose her friend Cynthia Caldwell, principal of Jefferson Avenue Elementary School in Shadyside.

Now that she is down to a healthy weight, Karkowski says her lifestyle has changed dramatically. She and her family eat healthier foods, which she learned about from celebrity chef Rocco Dispirito, and are much more active. Karkowski has incorporated her sons into her workouts, taking them on family hikes and bike rides, which she says are things her boys wanted to do before the weight loss.

She also successfully used the show as a platform to speak about PTSD, and has heard positive feedback from members of the community. Karkowski attends The Experience Church in Bridgeport, and has spoken about PTSD with members there.

Heidi Powell’s idea for a run to honor Mike Karkowski has been very successful. A second Miles for Mike was held during Shadyside’s annual Loop Festival last month, and $4,000 was raised for the aforementioned charities. The race is sure to be an event at the festival for years to come.

Eli Karkowski called both races “awesome events” that raised awareness and got the message about getting help for PTSD out. He said his mother’s weight loss journey has been both awesome and unbelievable.

“It’s lead to a better life for us all,” he added.

To get help for PTSD, contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1 or call the Suicide Prevention Line at 1-800-273-8255. Information is also available at Karkowski’s “Extreme Weight Loss” episode will be made available for viewing online at on Wednesday, July 8.

Warner may be reached at