Renee Petro clearly remembers the day she decided it was time to get her life back. She’d been diagnosed as morbidly obese and wasn’t able to do the things she once enjoyed, like going to the beach or taking long walks with friends. “It wasn’t how I wanted to live,” says the 54-year-old mother of two. “I wanted to be a participant in life again.”
Renee had always been slightly overweight, but she didn’t start to become obese until she was in her 40s. At that time, her knees were hurting a lot, and her orthopedist said she needed a knee replacement. She knew she had to lose weight, but now exercising was becoming harder and harder. It was a vicious cycle.
“I was getting depressed. My confidence was shot,” she says. “I’ve always fed my feelings. I would try to tell myself this is just who I am. But I wasn’t happy.” Then Renee started experiencing other concerning medical problems. She became prediabetic, and her cholesterol was going up.
Finally, in November of 2020, Renee had a knee replacement. The physical therapy afterwards was brutal because she was so heavy. It was then that a friend who’d had bariatric surgery suggested she go talk to a doctor about her options.
FACING HER FEARS
Renee started doing some research. “I read great things about the bariatric program at Providence St. Joseph and set up a consultation with Dr. Eric Pham, a surgeon who specializes in minimally invasive surgery. That was in June 2021. When I got there, I was the highest weight I’ve ever been: 294 pounds. I was horrified,” she recalls.
Her life-changing journey from feeling hopeless and discouraged to confident and energized began with that call to Dr. Pham. At first she was wavering on the idea of surgery. When the doctor asked what was holding her back, Renee said she felt like she should be able to lose the weight on her own. She felt like this was cheating.
Dr. Pham explained her options in detail and told her how surgery can change one’s quality of life. But how did he address Renee’s feeling that an operation meant she was cheating? “Bariatric surgery is often stigmatized,” says the doctor. “This stigma arises from the belief that obesity is a result of personal failure or lack of willpower, and therefore weight-loss surgery is seen as an easy way out. However, this perception is inaccurate and harmful. Such stigma can prevent individuals from seeking the treatment they need, leading to negative health outcomes and a decreased quality of life.”
Dr. Pham also stressed to Renee that the surgery is not a quick fix. He explained, “It’s a major surgical procedure that requires significant lifestyle changes before and after the surgery. Patients must make a lifelong commitment to a healthy diet-and-exercise regimen.”
THE JOURNEY BEGINS
By the end of their first meeting, Renee felt up to the challenge and had full trust in Dr. Pham. She began to prepare for the surgery, went on a liquid diet and lost 20 pounds. The operation was scheduled, but then an unexpected challenge emerged. Her father got very sick and she had to fly to Texas to help with his care. It could have been a major setback, but Renee was determined not to let that happen. “While helping with my dad, I was very stressed. But instead of stuffing my face, I was taking care of myself, which was a big flip of the switch for me,” she explains.
When Renee returned home, she underwent gastric sleeve surgery. She also began meeting with a specialist who treats obesity through weight management. That helped keep her on track with her new way of eating. “A lot of this is mental,” she says. “You have to tell yourself that you just had surgery and can’t blow it now. On days I feel bad about what I ate, I cannot beat myself up.”
Renee learned a rule that she follows to this day—the “rule of two.” She explains, “It tells me when I should get concerned. If I gain 1% to 2% of my lowest weight and keep it on for more than two weeks, it’s time to take action. The holidays were really hard for me. When I went for my appointment, I had gained 2%, so it was time to act. I did, and I got back on track!” Renee stresses, “The bottom line is that patients shouldn’t feel ashamed or embarrassed about weight regain.”
In fact, as of this spring, Renee is totally on track, having lost 100 pounds since her surgery. Medically and personally, the bariatric surgery was the right thing for her. Within six months of the operation, her blood work was perfect, and it’s stayed that way. You can hear the joy in her voice when she says, “I look at all the things in my life that have changed for the good and am so grateful. It’s amazing that weight loss truly did give me back my life.”