A doctor visit in February 2018 sparked a drastic life change for Elizabeth Swartz, of Danville, as she realized she was quickly becoming part of the region’s statistical crescendo of obesity cases.
“My doctor approached me about being morbidly obese,” she said, weighing 276 pounds at the time and struggling to break the cycle that led her to that point. “It was extremely upsetting — it took me several days to come to terms with the news and what would likely happen if I didn’t make some changes. I had a family counting on me — I didn’t want to become just another statistic of someone who is overweight.”
Cases of diabetes and hypertension are projected to escalate by 30 percent each within the next decade, according to Dr. Steven Barrows of UPMC Susquehanna.
“Pennsylvania is one of the most obese states in the country,” added Dr. Christopher Motto, of Evangelical Community Hospital.
According to 2018 data from the Trust for America’s Health report, 30.9 percent of people in Pennsylvania are obese — split fairly evenly between men and women.
“I knew I needed to do something impactful to break the cycle, and after looking at family history and other factors, I decided to pursue gastric bypass surgery,” Swartz said.
The surgery, just one tool she has leaned on — along with better eating and much more exercise — has helped her lose 109 pounds since her Nov. 28, 2018, surgery.
“Once the weight started coming off, I felt tremendous,” she said. “I am no longer on my cPap machine (for sleep apnea) and I’m into things like hiking and rock climbing that I never would have imagined before.
“It has taken a lot of commitment, dedication and hard work so far, but I made a statement by going through a body-changing surgery, and I’m not taking that lightly.”
When Swartz made the commitment to pursuing the bariatric surgery, she was surprised by the response from those around her.
“So many people in the beginning, when I started telling friends, were negative about the surgery. I didn’t expect that,” she said. “They told me I’d lose all this weight and then gain it all back a year later — they shared stories of people who weren’t successful with the surgery option. And it can be very easy to go back to old eating habits, but I was committed to making this work from the start.”
That commitment was made easier when Swartz’s husband and kids rallied behind her — taking a similar eating plan for themselves and really focusing on portion control.
“I think portion size is like 90 percent of the issue for many in this region — and the changes are something we transferred over to our family,” she said. “My husband was overweight, too, when we started, and has lost 80 pounds himself through diet and exercise. My family doesn’t prepare special meals for me — they eat what I can eat. It has made a big difference for me.”
According to Geisinger dietitian Tasha Dersham, who has worked directly with the Swartz family, support is critical for any weight loss strategy.
“The family surrounded Elizabeth — as a group they realize that their health as a family depends on this being a long-term success, and they support each other through that process,” she said.
The bariatric process includes a six-month period of classes and appointments before surgery to gauge how committed the patient is to making the lifestyle changes necessary to be successful.
According to Dershem, there is a lot of work and sacrifice that needs to be made well after surgery, and that those who have negative outcomes are usually those who don’t follow through with the complete plan post-operation for the long haul.
“People complain that the surgery didn’t work for them,” said Swartz. “However, how hard did they work for the surgery? You can’t expect it to work for you if you aren’t willing to work for complete longterm change.”
Part of Swartz’s regular routine includes plenty of exercise daily.
“I shoot for at least five times per week — with an hour of cardio and an hour of weight lifting each day,” she said, adding that the family has accumulated pieces to an at-home gym.
She pairs that with a strict diet provided by the bariatric team at Geisinger.
“The plan is high in protein and low in carbohydrates. I target 180 grams of protein a day,” she said.
“Chicken has become my go-to food. I’ve cooked chicken breasts a variety of different way, and pair them with vegetables. I will make my family rice and potatoes, and sometimes I eat rice, but if I do have any potatoes the serving is like two bites.”
The family has embraced salads, usually with grilled chicken or steak, with Swartz adding cheese and hard-boiled eggs for additional protein.
Even with the structure of a strict diet and exercise program, Swartz admits that it can still be difficult at times.
“I still see myself as that fat girl — they call it body dysmorphia,” she said. “I also have some saggy skin in areas, and I’m trying to tone it up, but it has been very difficult at times to work through.”
Accepting that there will be slip-ups at times can also be challenging — but the most important thing is to bounce back as quickly as possible, she added.
“For me, I tried to focus on the way I feel overall — how much better I am now vs. what I was like before. I am able to get up and do things and take care of my family, the house and the yard work like I never was able to before,” she said. “Once you get over that hump thinking ‘I’m hungry’ and ‘my body aches from exercising,’ you feel so much better.
“This process has absolutely been life-saving for me — and it inspires me to continue the process to see how much better I can make myself and my family.”