Jeff Kendall, 26, has struggled with his weight for most of his life. But he says a life-altering health crisis in 2015 was just the wake-up call he needed to make a change.
“ had a brain aneurysm on July 4, 2015,” Kendall, of Torrington, Connecticut, tells PEOPLE. “We found her unconscious in her bedroom. It put things in perspective for me. It was an eye-opener that as much as life’s not fair, it is in that anything can happen to anyone at any moment.”
Kendall’s mother, Liliana, remained in the intensive care unit at a local hospital for weeks and slipped into a coma twice, he says. During that time, Kendall says he was in “poor” health, weighing 250 lbs. But he knew the time had come for him to stop making excuses, he says.
“Seeing her in the ICU for weeks with her head shaved and stitched up and tubes running all sorts of directions — it’s an experience I hope nobody has to go through,” he says. “It put my sadness and self pity into perspective.”
Liliana, 58, recovered in the hospital for several weeks. But by the time she returned home early in 2016, Kendall had a plan in place.
“I spent a lot of nights laying in my bed and wallowing a bit and wondering what I could do or accomplish or how I could change myself,” he tells PEOPLE. “As mom was coming home from the rehab hospital, it was a feeling that I had to do something, I guess.”
He adds: “My friend, who was going through a breakup at the time, also wanted to get in shape. So he’s the one who got me out there. On our first days we sort of made an agreement to text each other and do pushups every day and live healthier lives. It’s become a pursuit of happiness and health for me. One day I was lying in bed and I wanted to be happy, and this is what makes me happy.”
He began altering his diet, going for walks, and exercising. In a year’s time, Kendall had lost more than 50 lbs. So, he decided to post a photo of his progress on Reddit.
“I started to see the hard work paying off and I reached the point where I thought, ‘Oh man, this is as good as I’m going to look.’ So I thought I’d try to get other people’s opinions,” he tells PEOPLE. “People were really praising me. It motivated me so much to try . It made me put effort into my own appearance and it gave me a huge sense of accomplishment.”
Kendall first shared his story with Love What Matters, writing, “Many called me a real life Disney Prince …” He recently launched an Instagram account where he shares photo of his new look.
“It’s a childhood dream,” he tells PEOPLE. “It makes me hold my chest more proudly. I couldn’t think of a higher compliment.”
Now, Kendall says he’s lost more than 70 lbs., and admits that even he’s shocked when he looks at the before-and-after photos.
“I see a sadder man,” he says of the old photos of him. “I see someone I wish I could comfort somehow and let them know it will be okay.”
He dreams of being a model and actor one day. But for now, Kendall says he spends most of his time caring for his ailing mother, who is now paralyzed on her left side.
“It’s been pretty surreal. She’s immobile, she’s in a wheelchair and she doesn’t remember much. She is under 24-seven care, but she’s able to eat on her own and have a conversation. I can get her to laugh.”
He says his new look isn’t lost on his mother, though.
“She definitely notices how thin I’ve gotten,” he says of Liliana. “She always tells me how beautiful I am — though not sure how much has changed there.”