Susan Petronio was 56 years old when she realized there was one last weight loss strategy she hadn’t tried – bariatric surgery.

A medical bariatrician at Novant Health Bariatric Solutions informed her that she was an appropriate candidate for weight loss surgery. When Petronio received this news, she dove into research on bariatric surgery, attending seminars, participating in support groups, and for the first time in a long time, she had hope that there was a solution to her weight loss struggle.

This time, the desire to lose weight was not to fit into a pair of skinny jeans; it was life or death. Her doctor had recently given her the news that many people dread to hear: if she didn’t lose weight quickly, she would have to start taking injections of insulin to help manage her diabetes. Petronio already took three prescription medicines every day. But the thought of giving herself daily shots fueled her determination to find a solution once and for all.

“I did not want to go down the path of insulin,” Petronio said. “I knew I had to get in control and I had to do something.”

Petronio began to struggle with her weight in her early 30s, shortly after she graduated from graduate school and began her career. She had a stressful and sedentary job, and ultimately dealt with her stress with food as an outlet, especially carbohydrates and sweets. Petronio began experimenting with many different diets, but nothing had worked despite her best efforts, causing her to fear for her health.

Petronio’s husband, Francisco, played an important role in supporting her decision to get the surgical procedure and throughout the weight loss journey. He attended bariatric surgery educational seminars with his wife and helped her sort through her options.

“I didn’t tell anybody I was considering bariatric surgery until I made the decision myself,” she said. “I had never thought about the possibility of pursuing surgery until my doctor mentioned it.”

Becoming informed

Petronio frequently attended Bariatric Solutions seminars to help receive more information. “At first I thought the seminars would be a sales pitch but it was not at all. The information they provided educated me on the pros and cons to the various procedures offered, and it helped me make my decision," she said.

Petronio learned from support groups, especially from the post-operation patients who frequently attended, to share their stories. After hearing from them and considering the other information she received, Petronio ultimately decided on a sleeve gastrectomy, a surgical procedure in which the stomach is reduced from its original size. With the decision finally made, she was ready to move forward with plans for the surgery.

“Before the surgery, my life was a constant cycle of losing weight, gaining weight, losing weight and gaining more back,” Petronio said. She had tried countless name-brand diets such as Nutrisystem, Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig, but quickly became discouraged by her lack of results.

“It’s very depressing, very discouraging,” she said. “I really felt like I had no control over my health. For me, eating the low-calorie, prepackaged food was not a sustainable lifestyle.”

She had experienced some success but it was short-lived. Once Petronio quit following the programs or eating the prepackaged meals, she would quickly gain the weight back. This cycle made her feel like a failure.

Considering the many diet failures she experienced she also was concerned the surgery would not work. “The only fear I had about pursuing bariatric surgery was the fear of being a failure,” she said. “I had failed at so many diets. I was afraid it wouldn’t work and that I would be obese for the rest of my life.”

During her efforts at weight loss, Petronio believed that she understood good nutrition. She thought she was eating the right things because she consumed fruits and vegetables daily. However, she later realized that she was eating a substantial amount of carbohydrates. She learned that for some people, even good foods can be eaten unhealthy in large amounts.

“As a diabetic, that’s the worst thing to consume that many carbs,” she said. “I did not eat junk food and would not resort to fast food. But clearly I was eating too much of the wrong thing.”

Petronio’s friends and family were supportive of her decision, and on Feb. 10, 2014, she underwent surgery at Novant Health Kernersville Medical Center with Novant Health Bariatric Solutions. “Once I committed to having bariatric surgery, I had no qualms. I wasn’t afraid and I wasn’t worried about it,” she said.

Novant Health Kernersville Medical Center is accredited as a comprehensive center under the Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery Accreditation and Quality Improvement Program (MBSAQIP), a joint program of the American College of Surgeons (ACS) and the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery (ASMBS). The MBSAQIP standards ensure that bariatric surgical patients receive a multidisciplinary program, not just a surgical procedure, which improves patient outcomes and long-term success.

Post-surgery life

Petronio experienced no complications after her surgery, and felt the benefits of having a decreased appetite right away.

Immediately after the surgery, Petronio could only eat liquids and soft pureed foods, such as sugar-free pudding, broths, applesauce, and sugar free Jell-O, until her stomach healed. “We are given guidelines on which foods are appropriate over several weeks. Gradually I could add in other, more solid foods,” she said.

Petronio only spent two days in the hospital, with a trouble-free recovery period. She experienced almost no pain or discomfort, and her staples were removed after one week.

“I ate very small portions, with frequent meals per day, and lots of water and electrolytes,” she said. “After several weeks, I could try to introduce regular, but healthy foods, but had to remember to chew very well and eat slowly! It took more than a month before I could eat lettuce, which I really missed.”

Early in Petronio’s post-surgery period, her appetite was limited and she often had to force herself to get in the recommended amount of protein and fluids per day.

“I learned through the pre-surgery education that after seven or eight months, your appetite comes back. If you haven’t learned how to control your appetite with food during this period, then it’s very easy to succumb to old habits.” Petronio’s appetite did come back, but she was fully prepared when that day came.

“I had the education from Novant Health’s program and I knew what I needed to do,” she said. “I continued to attend support meetings and I heard how other people deal with temptations of their favorite foods, but most importantly, because of the friendships I developed in the support groups with people going through exactly what I was experiencing, you get this very special bond, so I never felt alone in this process.”

Very quickly the mirror and the scale began to show her results. Petronio was so inspired by what she saw in herself and in her new friends in her support group that she was inspired to start a Facebook page for Novant Health patients considering or who have received bariatric surgery.

“A lot of bariatric surgery veterans give tips and tricks and will post recipes or helpful articles. It’s a constant resource,” she said.

When Petronio reflects on her story of losing weight, she said most of the struggle from losing weight and keeping it off is emotional and psychological. “Breaking habits is extremely difficult. The only way to do it is to create new, healthier habits. I suggest everyone goes to the support group meetings to meet with people who are fighting the same battle. We are not alone. It really helped me succeed to know that I had the training and knowing that I could always go back and talk to a nutritionist for new tips and to go over my food log,” she said.

Updating a food log helped keep Petronio on track. She was able to count calories, fats and the sugar she was putting into her body every day.

Seeing results

Since her procedure two years ago, Petronio has lost 120 pounds.

“It takes a while for your head to catch up with what you see in the mirror. Now I see my reflection and I think to myself, ‘am I really this small?’” Petronio is amazed by her success and feels like she has gained her life back.

“I finally felt like I had control,” she said. “After the surgery, I knew that I could be successful and I wasn’t a failure and food did not have control over my life.” Petronio realized that focusing on the “non-scale victories” allowed her to gain the feeling of control back into her life.

“When you think about it, it has nothing to do with the number on the scale, but proves that you are at a healthy weight,” said Petronio, contemplating the many ways she feels better after the surgery. “You can sit in an airplane seat, you can go shopping and not be exhausted, you can bend over to tie your shoes, you can cross your legs, or climb a flight of stairs.”

While the results she saw on the scale and the many compliments from family and friends were wonderful, the one most important benefit was when Petronio’s doctor gave her the amazing news that her health had improved. “I walked out of the hospital completely off my diabetes medicine and blood pressure medicine, and I think that’s a miracle," she said. "I was euphoric, and I remember saying ‘This program saved my life.’”

Petronio said that after surgery, it’s very important to find an exercise program that you can stick to. “Not for a month or a year, but for a lifetime,” she said. “I had never exercised regularly in my life so that was a big challenge for me. Now I do water aerobics every day and am trying to do more weight-resistance exercises.”

Petronio now weighs 134 pounds and takes horseback lessons with her husband, something she has always dreamed of doing, but never could because of her weight. She says that she now feels 20 years younger, with abundant energy that allows her to partake in more activities than she ever could before.

“My husband and I like to travel a lot and now I can go hiking or climb a big hill. I used to not be able to do things like that, but now there’s nothing holding me back, there are no limitations," she said.

Click here to learn more about weight loss services offered by Novant Health.