Losing weight isn’t just about fitting into a size 6 or wowing everyone at your 20-year high school reunion. While those can be wonderful side effects, for people with weight-related health issues, the real objective is to improve overall wellness and quality of life.

But even when you’re ready, willing and able to do what it takes to shed the weight, it can still be a big challenge. Just ask Tricia Thomas.

The sales support professional from Kernersville had always been active, playing softball several times a week until 2012 when she broke her foot during a game. That injury, along with the surgery needed to repair it, sidelined Thomas from vigorous activity. And as her ability to move declined, her weight, which she’d always been able to maintain, began to creep up.

Thomas remained determined to drop the extra weight, though. She tried several popular diet programs, but nothing helped her achieve the results she wanted.

“I wasted countless dollars on weight loss tools that didn’t work, and I was at my wit’s end,” she said.

But she knew she had to do something. According to the body mass index (BMI) screening tool, Thomas was considered morbidly obese. And she had other health issues often associated with obesity – high blood pressure, high liver enzymes, pre-diabetes and sleep apnea.

That’s when she decided to seriously consider the solution that had previously worked for her sister – bariatric surgery. Thomas’ sister raved about the supportive and knowledgeable team at Novant Health Bariatric Solutions, and because Thomas saw the great results her sister had, she decided to check them out.

After meeting with board-certified bariatric surgeon Dr. James Dasher, who had also treated her sister, Thomas decided to undergo a sleeve gastrectomy. This advanced weight loss surgery reduces the size of the stomach by 85 percent, limiting the amount of food that can be consumed so patients feel full after eating a smaller amount of food.

A lifestyle, not a diet

The procedure was performed in August 2017, but the preparation and support started long before that.

That’s because weight-loss surgery isn’t just a diet or a quick fix, but a lifestyle change that requires a long-term commitment to improving health. Patients must understand what’s involved and be willing to establish a healthy lifestyle after the surgery.

To help ensure this commitment to change, the board-certified providers and support staff at Novant Health Bariatric Solutions provide a robust level of integrated, holistic care, including a thorough assessment of the patient’s health and weight loss goals, and access to a registered dietitian, exercise physiologist, behavioral health counselors and other support services.

Thomas worked with both Dasher and registered dietitian Samantha Spain for nearly eight months to prepare for her procedure.

“In order for patients to find success with bariatric surgery, they need to take part in the development of the treatment plan,” Spain said. “Tricia and I worked together very closely to identify areas for improvement and create an individualized plan that would work for her for the long term.”

In Thomas’ case, that meant reducing refined carbs and not eating out as much. Spain also educated Thomas on other positive dietary and lifestyle changes, including reducing fried foods, adding lean proteins to her diet, increasing her intake of fruits and vegetables, exchanging refined carbs for whole grains, and eliminating alcohol and caffeine.

“Our patients’ safety is our No. 1 priority, so we use research-backed, evidence-based information to help educate them on substantive lifestyle changes that are going to work long term, rather than focusing on trends and fad diets,” Spain said.

And Thomas was driven to make the changes. “I did everything I was supposed to do. And I had great support,” she said. “Samantha, the nurse navigators, Dr. Dasher – everyone is so amazing and walks you through the whole process step by step.”

Commitment to change makes good candidates

Dasher pointed out that bariatric surgery works best for people like Thomas who are motivated to make lifelong diet and exercise changes, and just as importantly, understand it’s not just about losing weight.

“The side effect of this surgery is weight loss, but the health issues are what we’re really out to fix,” Dasher said.

“I’m thrilled with the results,” Thomas said. “When I started this journey, I weighed 278 pounds, and had high blood pressure, pre-diabetes, sleep apnea and high liver enzymes. I’ve lost 120 pounds since the surgery, and most of my health issues have been resolved.”

Support is always available

The Novant Health team sees weight loss patients once a year for the rest of their lives post-surgery, so exercise and nutrition modifications can be made if necessary.

“That continued follow-up is critical because weight regain is a common side effect after bariatric surgery if the patient doesn’t stick with a healthy eating plan and regular exercise,” Dasher said. “They have to keep in mind that this is a forever change.”

Just the beginning

Tricia Thomas with Matt Fortune a sports performance trainer at Novant Health.
Tricia Thomas with Matt Fortune a sports performance trainer at Novant Health.

Fast forward two years and Thomas is now in the best shape of her life.

“I was working out all of the time, until I got to the point that I realized I couldn’t do anymore with the knowledge that I had,” she said.

Dasher recommended that Thomas work with Matt Fortune, a sports performance trainer at Novant Health Rehabilitation Center in Winston-Salem.

“I remember he was interested in helping me, but also realistic when I told him that I was a 46-year-old woman, who recently had bariatric surgery, and that I wanted to become a professional bodybuilder.”

Fortune, who has a bachelor’s in athletic training and a master’s in performance psychology, approaches fitness from a quality of life perspective. “My goal,” he said, “is to help people compete no matter where they are in life. It takes guts to step on a stage and have strangers grade your physique no matter what shape you are in.”

To help Thomas meet her goal, Fortune created a personal training and nutrition plan for Thomas. “Most people think bodybuilding is all about cutting fat, but I consider it more about mass building,” he said. “We actually had to increase her carbs in order to put muscle on, before we could start cutting.”

Thomas gained 20 pounds and then cut 15. This helped her to increase her lean body mass and then she removed the excessive fat from the process. Her stage body fat percentage was well below 15 percent. Note, this is a good percentage for bodybuilding, but 20 to 30 percent is a healthy long-term range for women.

After five months of training, all of her hard work paid off on Sept. 14, when she entered the Greensboro Muscle Heat and won first place in the true novice physique category for her age group. She also placed in three other categories.

“My 6-year-old granddaughter says that she wants to be a bodybuilder now,” Thomas said. “My message to her, and to everyone else is the same, women can be both strong and beautiful. You just have to stay focused on your goal.”

With Fortune’s help, Thomas’ next goal is to compete in a powerlifting competition in 2020.

“There are always going to be challenges in life,” she said. “It just comes down to how you respond to them.”

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