- Associated Press - Monday, May 22, 2017

FITCHBURG, Mass. (AP) - Kim Wood decided it was time when her doctor told her she was pre-diabetic. For Hannah Phaneuf, it was when she had to ask for a seat-belt extender.

“That was probably the worst,” Phaneuf said.

But unlike many opting to undergo gastric bypass surgery, best friends and Fitchburg residents Wood and Phaneuf had someone to share in the experience and continuing weight loss journey.

Phaneuf underwent the procedure, a type of bariatric surgery, at Emerson Hospital in Concord on June 21. Wood followed suit six weeks later.

“It was nice to be able to share the same stories and understand what she was going through, as well as her understanding what I was going through,” Wood said.

Wood, 50, met Phaneuf, 24, when the younger was attending Memorial Middle School with Wood’s daughter Samantha, who has cerebral palsy.

“We were really fast friends,” she said. “Helping taking care of her (daughter), we became really close.”

Both said the decision to undergo surgery came after years of struggling with their weight and unsuccessful dieting attempts.

Dr. Laura Doyon, who performed the procedure, said this is not uncommon for people trying to lose more than 10 or 20 pounds.

“Your body is primed to want to regain weight for some hormonal reasons and metabolic reasons,” she said. “The metabolism slows down after weight loss and the hormones that make you hungry go through the roof after any kind of diet.”

Though the scientific community has known this is the case for a while, the concept gained public attention recently when a study on “The Biggest Loser” contestants showed almost all experienced a slowed metabolism and regained significant weight after the show ended, she said.

The goal of a gastric bypass surgery is to decreases the size of patients’ stomachs in order to help them maintain weight loss, according to Doyon.

While surgery is not a “cure-all,” it’s a tool that works around the body’s efforts to sabotage weight loss, she said.

Before the surgery Phaneuf was 340 pounds and Wood was 299. Since then Wood has lost 84 pounds and Phaneuf has lost 131.

Phaneuf said her weight before the surgery had sneaked up on her to some extent, though she wasn’t aware of it until she saw a piece of paper charting her weight loss attempts in high school.

“I would watch the shows of ‘My 600-lb Life’ and I (would ask), ‘How would they let themselves get like that?’” she said. “Then seeing that number and that paper and looking at pictures from that time and current, it just blew me away.”

“I was like, OK, I guess it really does happen,” Phaneuf said. “I had no idea it had gotten as bad as it did.”

Wood said her weight not only made physical tasks more difficult, but impacted how others perceived her.

“I’m just going to say it. People judge. People look,” she said. “And people assume somebody that’s larger may not be the best candidate for something, because body image is so prevalent.”

Her weight has also affected her own self-image.

“Having a larger body, you kind of try to tell yourself it’s not that bad,” she said. “Then you catch a side glimpse of yourself and you think, ‘My God, I’m a cow. What must other people be thinking?’”

Phaneuf agreed, noting her confidence has increased since undergoing the gastric bypass. She has started dating and asked for a promotion to become a full-time nurse at Manor on the Hill, neither which she would have done before the surgery.

The stigma against weight, especially for women, also extends to weight-loss surgery, Doyon said.

Though the procedure is recommended for people with a Body Mass Index over 40 and some with a Body Mass Index over 35, only 1 percent of those eligible opt for the surgery, according to Doyon.

“Oftentimes people, maybe the lay public, feel like surgery is cheating. Maybe they’re not working hard, they’re just giving up, and I say it’s exactly the opposite,” Doyon said. “Our patients work really hard.”

Both Wood and Phaneuf are now on a high-protein diet, which is recommended after the surgery, Doyon said.

Wood said when they go out to eat they often split one meal with food left over. The surgery and instruction they received from Doyon and her team before and after was - as someone who grew up in a “clean plate club” family - a wake-up call regarding portion size.

“You don’t have to finish it,” Wood said.

Wood and Phaneuf also regularly go to the gym and motivate each other to get to the cardio and weight machines after work.

“When we were heavier and doing this I never had the sense I wanted to go back,” Phaneuf said.

“Now when we go we get an almost euphoric feeling,” Wood said.

They recently went bathing-suit shopping together for a trip to the water park at Great Wolf Lodge.

This is the first time Wood can remember not selecting the suit that provides the most coverage.

“I was a little bit more daring, if you will, in color selection and style,” she said.

Both were initially hesitant about receiving the surgery - Phaneuf because she didn’t feel she had reached that point and Wood because of the complications a friend had experienced from a similar surgery.

Today’s gastric bypass has a 0.1 to 0.2 percent chance of death, an improvement over the 1990s version of the surgery, Doyon said.

Wood has experienced high blood pressure, a pre-diabetic diagnosis and a minor heart attack. She felt the surgery was a healthier choice.

“For me it’s not about a number,” she said. “For me it’s purely about being healthy and being able to help my child.”

Though still in progress, their weight loss is a journey they’re taking together.

“We’re not done either,” Phaneuf said. “With the changes that you see it gives you the motivation to keep going.”

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