Strong, Beautiful, and Focused

By Kimberly Houston and Josh Jarman

She lost 120 pounds after bariatric surgery. Now she’s a professional bodybuilder.

Losing weight is not 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 are 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 Tricia from vigorous activity. And as her ability to move declined, her weight, which she had always been able to maintain, began to creep up.

Tricia 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 did not 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, Tricia was considered morbidly obese. And she had other health issues often associated with obesity – high blood pressure, high liver enzymes, prediabetes and sleep apnea.

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

After meeting with board-certified bariatric surgeon Dr. James Dasher, who had also treated her sister, Tricia 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 is because weight-loss surgery is not just a diet or a quick fix, but a lifestyle change that requires a long-term commitment to improving health. Patients must understand what is involved and be willing to establish a healthy lifestyle after the surgery.

Tricia worked with both Dr. 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,” Samantha said. “Tricia and I worked together very closely to identify areas for improvement and create an individualized plan that would work for her long term.”

In Tricia’s case, that meant reducing refined carbs and not eating out as much. Samantha also educated Tricia 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 number one 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,” Samantha said.

And Tricia 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.”

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

“I am thrilled with the results,” Tricia said. “When I started this journey, I weighed 278 pounds, and had high blood pressure, prediabetes, sleep apnea and high liver enzymes. I have 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 does not stick with a healthy eating plan and regular exercise,” Dr. Dasher said. “They have to keep in mind that this is a forever change.”

Just the Beginning

Fast forward two years and Tricia 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 could not do anymore with the knowledge that I had,” she said.

Dr. Dasher recommended that she 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.”

Matt 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 Tricia meet her goal, he created a personal training and nutrition plan for her. “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.”

She 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 that 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 her hard work paid off in September 2019, 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,” Tricia 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 Matt’s help, Tricia’s next goal is to compete in a powerlifting competition in 2020. “In life, there are always going to be challenges,” she said. “It just comes down to how you respond to them.”

February is American Heart Month and though heart disease is the number one health threat for women in the U.S., it is also up to 80% preventable. Novant Health is proud to be the American Heart Association’s Life Is Why and Go Red for Women Sponsor in Forsyth County celebrating all women in Forsyth County, supporting women wherever they may be in their journey, and encouraging women to put their health first. To learn more or register for a free weight-loss seminar, visit WeightLoss.

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