As told to Jackie Froeber
Growing up, I never had a problem with my weight. I was an active kid and I loved playing outdoors. After I had my own kids, I ran to get back in shape.
I was also a firefighter, which helped keep me motivated to stay trim and healthy. But, when I turned 39 years old in 2005, I quit my job as a firefighter. It was a tough decision, but I decided to stay home because my four children were getting older — my youngest was five years old — and I wanted to spend more time with them. Also, it was always in the back of my mind that wildland firefighting is dangerous. My then-husband and I fought fires together, and it started to hit home that if a flashover (rapidly spreading fire) happened and our crew was caught, my children would have ended up orphans.
Shortly after I quit, my mother passed away and I was distraught. I stopped putting an emphasis on my own health and fell into a depression. Food was my comfort — food became my best friend.
I’m Native American, and in our culture, we love to eat. We believe that feeding each other is the best way to celebrate and share with others. When something happens — good or bad — we have big gatherings and dinners with tons of fried food and heavy dishes like macaroni soup, hamburger soup and fried bread. Beyond the food itself, I was terrible at portion control. Sometimes my family would tease me, saying that I was getting fat, but I didn’t think it was serious. I didn’t realize that my weight was out of control. In the three years after my mother passed, I gained over 80 pounds.
As my weight climbed to 287 pounds, I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and I learned that Native Americans have a higher chance of having diabetes than any other racial group in the United States. I was put on five different medications — a combination of shots and pills — to help control the disease.
Over the next decade, life went on. I became a proud grandmother, but I was out of shape and down on myself. I continued to struggle with my weight until three years ago when I took my grandkids to the local gym and I said out loud that I wished I could do the box jump with them. I used to be a runner!
A trainer overheard me talking and told me that I could, in fact, do this. I just had to try.
At that moment, I thought of my father. He was just 54 years old when he jumped in Twins Lake and didn’t resurface. He died of a heart attack in the water. I didn’t want diabetes to cut my life short. I didn’t have my parents around anymore and I wanted to be around for my kids and grandkids. I was sick of being overweight. I wanted to run again.
I began making small changes that day. I started walking more and tweaked my diet. Since I love to cook, my daughter and her fiancé helped me learn how to make ground turkey and ground chicken and buffalo with certain spices to make meals fun and tasty. I also added more fruit and vegetables. Since I love to experiment with spices, I bake and sauté veggies with cumin, mustard seed, all spice, jalapeno seasoning and paprika.
Although I was losing weight and proud of the progress I was making, my diabetes was still hard to control. I received so much support from the community — friends and family encouraged my lifestyle changes — but I was worried that nothing was going to help me get healthy again, and then my doctor suggested gastric bypass surgery. The surgery would make my stomach smaller, help me feel full with less food, and help me lose the excess weight if I kept up with my diet and exercise routine. But it was really the diabetes that convinced me to get the surgery.
The day I left the hospital, I left all the diabetes medications there also. I haven’t had to take any diabetic medicine for over two years now. It was amazing that I didn’t have to wake up and give myself an insulin shot! I felt like I had a second chance in life.
I knew that my diet directly contributed to diabetes, and the biggest overall change I made was giving up pop. It may sound insignificant, but I loved drinking Pepsi. I had no idea there are 41 grams of sugar in a 12-ounce can. That is more than four Krispy Kreme glazed doughnuts!
Over the past three years, I’ve learned to read nutrition labels to help me make good decisions in the grocery store. I haven’t had a Pepsi in two years. Also, due to a rare side effect from the gastric bypass surgery, I had to have my esophagus stretched because certain foods like bread are more likely to stick in my throat, so these days I stick to ground meats and vegetables.
Today — at age 55 — I weigh 200 pounds. I am trying to lose more weight — even one pound to just get under 200 — but I tend to be my worst critic. I credit a good friend and my daughter for getting me into the gym to lift weights and increase my cardio. I love the battle ropes now. I try to focus on how my clothes fit and how good I feel after working out.
I want women to know that obesity is a constant struggle. But no matter how big you are, you can make changes. Start small. Put one foot in front of the other and be there for yourself. Walk as far as you can, and the next day walk a little further. Keep pushing yourself and eventually you will reach your goal.