PAWTUCKET – Julie Nolan is happy again, and it's because she can leave her Harcourt Avenue home for a walk. She can place her three young grandchildren in her lap and read them a Berenstein Bears book, make them laugh. She can move freely.
She now revels in the fact – at 5’ 5” – her body matches her height, as she weighs a svelte 118 pounds. Her penchant for overeating has ended, though also calls it a lifelong journey.
Nowadays, this 46-year-old retired Army veteran, mother of six adult children and longtime Pawtucket resident – a woman who once weighed 272 pounds – adores helping others overcome the serious disease of obesity.
A certified bariatric support group leader at Roger Williams Medical Center in Providence, she's the charge behind four separate “families” – the oldest her “Living Life” contingent – who gather and discuss ways to deal with their lap band, gastric bypass or other weight-loss surgeries, stick to their diets and exercise regularly.
Nolan even organized Rhode Island's first-ever “Walk from Obesity” Five-Kilometer event, held Sunday, Oct. 24 at Slater Park, and was astonished when 96 folks – including nine children – signed up at $25 a pop ($30 on “Walk Day”).
“The highest weight we had was 550 pounds, and the lowest, I'd say, 120,” she offered. “My goal for my 'Living Life' group was to have 20 people register and raise $2,000. From that group alone, we had 45 registrants and took in $3,600. I was thinking, 'Oh, my God!'
“Ultimately, we wanted to raise $5,000, but – in our first year – we raised $12,000, over twice that much (for the American Society for Metabolic & Bariatric Surgery); it was crazy!” she continued. “My goose bumps have goose bumps just talking about it. My son has a friend who's a disc jockey, and he did it for free. The Rhode Island National Guard donated a rock wall, 20 tables, 40 chairs and banners – for free.
“Ocean State Job Lot donated 500 bottles of water, and Ana Novais, the Department of Health's Executive Director, spoke. You know how that made me feel? I was on stage to hand out three bouquets of roses to the team captain that raised the most, and the top two individuals with the highest amount of pledges. All I could get out was, 'Hey, everybody' before I started tearing up.
“I looked around after the walk and saw people who were united to support something not well accepted in the public. People don't view obesity as a disease. They just think, 'He has to stop eating' or 'She just has to exercise.' With some, that's the case. With others, there are underlying circumstances. Too few understand that.”
Nolan's feeling pretty good about herself after losing a whopping 152 pounds since 2008, but – trust her – that wasn't always the case.
Without embarrassment, she revealed she began having weight problems as a senior at Windham (Conn.) High in 1981-82. She had married the love of her life shortly after graduation, and soon became pregnant with first son Adam, who was born in October 1983.
“I dieted constantly; I would go to an all-women's gym called 'Gloria Stearns,' and I would even use that belt machine to make you shake,” she said. “I'd lose weight, gain it back, lose and gain it back again. In 1988, I got pregnant with twins (Brian and Jordan), and that was the first time I realized how big I was.
“The day before I had Adam, I weighed 197, the day after, 211. I was 19, and I thought, 'OK, Julie, you can lose.' Needless to say, I didn't. Then came the twins, and I weighed 197 the day before, 211 the day after. Two years later, my daughter Michelle came along, and it was the same thing – 197, then 211. I knew I was in trouble when, without being pregnant, I stepped on a scale and weighed 211.”
She claimed she walked her kids to Mohegan Elementary School in Uncasville, Conn. that January day in 1997, and returned home “huffing and puffing.
“I was thinking, 'How'd I get here? This isn't who I am,'” she stated. “I joined Weight Watchers, and lost 82 pounds by eating right and running five miles a day. I was feeling good about myself, but I was working as an oral maxillofacial surgeon's office manager in New London, and I wasn't making enough to support my family. The pay was less than stellar.”
That March, she figured she had no choice but to join the U.S. Army.
“I was afraid, nervous, because I had put my body through so much having kids,” she explained. “I was 33, and I knew I'd be with kids 18-19. I thought about signing on with the Navy because I always wanted to be a nurse, but I knew I needed to challenge myself physically and mentally.”
After enlisting in the Connecticut National Guard, she experienced basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri that September and became a heavy equipment operator. She figured the Army would help pay her way through college, fulfilling her lifetime dream of entering nursing.
In January 1998, she went back to work in the same office and found her salary wasn't enough to provide for her children, so applied for a job as a supply sergeant for the 192nd Engineer Battalion in New London.
“That paid a lot better than being a medical assistant, plus I got medical/dental (insurance) for my kids,” she said. “Still, my weight was a constant struggle. The Army medics would give us checkups every six months, where we'd have to weigh in and have our physical training tests. I'd barely make it.
“A month before, I'd start running again to prepare. I'd live on salads, then starve myself the last couple days. I'd just squeak by. I didn't think I was a big overeater. I think it was more the types of food I ate. I always had healthy stuff in the house for the kids, but they'd go to bed, and I'd go into the bedroom and eat chips, ice cream, white chocolate.
“I was rewarding myself for doing my job at work, my job with the kids.”
Previously divorced, she met John Nolan at Fort Dix, N.J. on March 26, 2000 and weighed 171. Head over heels, she married him.
“I think I loved the snacks, that was part of it, but it also was depression, worrying about my family, money, etc.,” she offered. “I gained weight because I was relying on food to make me feel good – instant gratification. Instead of smoking or drinking, I ate. That was socially acceptable, because you can't get arrested for being fat.”
Due to a dislocated shoulder and five herniated disks in her neck, she received her discharge in 2003. She went through three surgeries in eight months in 2002-03, and quickly ballooned to 272 pounds.
“I couldn't walk; I could barely move,” she indicated. “I was depressed, even though I had this terrific husband, a sergeant major in the R.I. National Guard. He and the six kids (including John's children, Jessica and Justin) took care of me. I got to the point where I needed a cane, couldn't go upstairs without assistance. I made a joke to my husband I wanted my mouth sewn shut.
“It was so bad, I couldn't go see the kids play sports. Other parents had to pick them up for practices and games, and they'd say – some I could hear – 'She's lazy. She won't even go to the (Tolman High) gym and see Michelle wrestle.'
“I was crying all day every day. I was jealous of my family because they had lives outside this house. I couldn't even drive. I told John he married a lemon, and felt sorry for him. He looked at me and said, 'There's got to be something we can do.'”
As Nolan suffered from high blood pressure, sleep apnea, bursitis in her knees and osteoarthritis in her hips, John came home one day in January 2008 and explained their insurance included lap band surgery. The couple researched it, and she went to a three-hour RWMC seminar to hear Dr. Dieter Pohl, who gave her advice.
Her three doctors later suggested she have gastric bypass surgery because it would remove the excess poundage quickly, allowing her to exercise.
“I didn't think I was big enough for a gastric bypass,” she mentioned. “I thought that was only for the morbidly obese. Then my (body mass index) came back at 46.6, which is morbidly obese. My reaction? 'Oh, my God!' I was in so much pain, I couldn't take it anymore.”
She returned to the same seminar in March, paid closer attention and had her first appointment with Dr. Pohl in April. On June 4, he performed the surgery.
“He's the trendsetter in the field of bariatrics in Rhode Island,” she said. “He was the first one to do the pre-op, high-protein diet, and the first to do education seminars. He made Roger Williams the first hospital to become a center of excellence for bariatric surgery statewide in 2005.”
Slowly but surely, she began losing three-four pounds a week. She joined an East Providence health club on her 44th birthday, July 25, began walking in the 25-meter pool and worked with trainers Colin Aina and Kerry Taylor, a former New England Patriot.
“I'd still be walking with a cane if not for them,” she said. “They pushed me to work harder, and made me feel more confident. They would challenge me, saying, 'C'mon, Julie, put the cane down! If you fall, we'll catch you.' I never did fall.”
Three months later, she stepped on a scale and discovered she was well on her way – with help from dieting, walking, biking and lifting weights – and grandchildren. She claimed her realistic goal was to drop to 160 pounds, her unrealistic hope 140, but reached the latter in April 2009.
Nolan promised herself that, when Jessica got married in Pawtucket on July 17, she would walk down the aisle cane-free.
“I'm 46 now, and I feel like I'm 33, or younger,” she grinned. “I don't feel invincible, but I feel like I can do anything I want to. One thing I always hoped to do was go para-sailing, and – last year – I flew to Tampa and did. It was better than I ever imagined.
“I have a mantra,” she added. “I look in the mirror, whether I'm having a day from hell or everything's good, and say, 'I'm lovable, I'm capable and I'm worth it.' I used to say that, but didn't believe it. Now I do. I've kept the weight off – 152 pounds – for over a year.
“Sure, it's hard, the hunger comes back, but I have a tool. It's the pouch that's part of my stomach. The surgeon takes off the top part, connects it to the esophagus and that creates a pouch. That becomes your new stomach. The 'old' stomach is still used, not for housing the food but by creating gastric juices that help digest it.
“It prevents me from overeating, eating wrong things; otherwise, I'd get sick. They're called 'The Pouch Rules.'”
Simply put, those are to eat proteins first, then complex carbohydrates (vegetables), then a small potato or fruit, if one has room. Also, one shouldn't drink anything 30 minutes before, during or after a meal. Nolan says, if you do, you turn your food into “soup” and will become hungry again.
After her surgery, she trekked to support groups, but quickly noticed they were for pre-op or post-op patients, not those who experienced it months before. Concerned, she asked Pohl if she could start a self-help congregation. Naturally, he loved the idea.
The initial meeting was held two years ago Nov. 19, and about 15 showed. Attendance now is near 50.
“I knew this was something I and others needed,” she noted. “I decided to call it 'Living Life' because it was all about living your life after bariatric surgery. Last year, I started up the gastric band group, and – because there was such a low percentage of men – I decided they needed a group to talk about their individual needs, sports, whatever.
“The new one, for all weight-loss surgery patients, starts Dec. 9 at Roger Williams. I don't have to do this, but I just love helping other people. I'm giving back what I received from my family during my down time. Dr. Pohl even sent me to San Antonio to become certified as a bariatric support group leader.”
She also became an official RWMC volunteer.
“I can go anytime someone asks me,” she said proudly. “There have been folks who told me they'd be alone before surgery, asked me to be there with them. Of course, I do. I'll stay for an entire day, or get up at 5 a.m. I even get phone calls at 3 (a.m.), but I don't mind. I tell them my family was there for me, and I want them to have the same support because they're lovable, capable and worth it.”
She still suffers pain in her hips and neck, but doesn't let that interfere with her life.
“I'm now out of my own jail. I'm free. I can breathe again,” she stated. “Yes, I always wanted to be a nurse, but I don't need a credential behind my name. Now I feel, 'You can do this. You're wonderful.' I used to rely on that stuff to feel good about myself, but it all comes down to self-esteem, personal accountability and integrity.”