A sobering thought intruded on Cathy Arsenault’s joy as she held her first grandchild, born on New Year’s Eve in 2010 – at 5-foot-1 and more than 300 pounds, her time with him would likely be short.
“I’m looking at that baby and thinking, ‘I’m not going to be there for his wedding,’ ” she says. “My health was deteriorating terribly.”
Five years ago this month, Arsenault underwent bariatric surgery at Rex Healthcare and has since lost about 150 pounds. The experience changed her life in ways beyond her appearance and health, giving her the energy to spend more time with her family and even increase her salary as a mortgage specialist by allowing her to take on more clients.
So Arsenault decided to give back by helping others who are on the same path. She spends several days a week meeting with patients at Rex before and after their operations, helping to answer their questions and assuage their fears.
She keeps in touch both informally and through support groups with those who, like her, must continue to live by strict guidelines on diet and exercise long after the surgery is done.
Seeing a need, Arsenault helped establish a fund for bariatric patients who need help with the many expenses that crop up, from transportation to special protein shakes. She gives $100 from every mortgage she closes to the fund.
Dr. Lindsay Sharp, Arsenault’s surgeon, says her work at Rex and with patients at his practice has been invaluable.
“We talk to patients and we give them a lot of information, but it’s more meaningful when they hear from someone who has had the surgery themselves and has done well,” says Sharp. “They get to attach a real person and a real experience to what the doctors tell them.”
Melissa Kulesza met Arsenault before her surgery three years ago and was in contact with her every day as she recovered. She says Arsenault’s support was as surprising as it was helpful.
“I’ve never really met anyone who has such a passion,” says Kulesza. “Obesity is something that’s usually shunned. It’s embarrassing and no one wants to talk about it, but she’s an open book. You could ask her anything.”
Arsenault grew up in Massachusetts, part of a family that had long had many obese members. Arsenault said she saw the problem both at home with her father’s family, and in the summers in England, where her mother’s family lived.
“Every family group had someone who struggled like me,” she says, “and the rest were fine.”
As a youth, Arsenault was considered “chunky,” she says, bigger than the other children but still active in sports and other activities. Her sister, raised on the same diet and less active, was always thin.
Arsenault married and had children in her early 20s, raising them as a stay-at-home mom and starting her career as they got older, first as a real estate agent and later migrating to the financial side of the real estate industry. She moved to the Triangle in the 1990s with her husband, a software developer.
Always energetic by nature, she relished her work in the mortgage industry, a commission-based job that requires a lot of self-motivation, but also a lot of driving to real estate closings and other meetings.
Over time, the weight piled on, a few more pounds tacked on every year, despite Arsenault’s efforts. She could sometimes drop 20 or 30 pounds a time, but then have a hard time keeping that weight off, much less succeed in losing more.
“You spend your whole life kind of hiding inside of or behind the weight because it’s just this burden,” she says. “No matter what I did, I couldn’t get rid of it. You try every diet in the world, and none of them work.”
My life before surgery was very limited. The bigger we get, the smaller our worlds become.
The weight slowly chipped away at her quality of life. Her work became harder to do, and she would come home exhausted. Her husband is an avid outdoorsman who loves kite surfing; Arsenault would come begrudgingly to drive the boat.
She had a hard time tying her shoes, and would have to buy two seats on an airplane. Personal care became difficult. By the time she had her surgery at 54, she was always tired, having to take breaks every 20 minutes just to clean her home on Saturdays.
“My life before surgery was very limited,” she says. “The bigger we get, the smaller our worlds become. It just became an unacceptable burden.”
Now, she says, she doesn’t clean on Saturdays at all; she has the energy to get it done after work during the week and spends her weekends with her family. She walks most mornings at 4:30 a.m., does Jazzercise four times a week and competes with her husband on their Fitbits.
She has taken on more clients, yet still has time for her volunteer work with bariatric patients.
“I felt like after surgery I got my life back,” she says. “I pack as much into every day as I possibly can. I have years to make up for.”
‘Someone like them’
The term “bariatric surgery” refers to a variety of procedures aimed at helping obese patients lose weight by reducing the size of the stomach, whether by removing part of the stomach, placing a band over part of it or other means.
The surgery has become increasingly common as rates of obesity and related conditions such as diabetes have skyrocketed. Nearly 200,000 people underwent bariatric surgery in 2015, according to estimates from the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery.
While the procedure seems straightforward, the varying types of surgeries and their impact on the body can be complex. Once she decided to pursue the option, Arsenault immersed herself in the details: the science behind it, and accounts from people from just after surgery, five years after and a decade or more out.
“This was my opportunity and I wasn’t blowing it,” she says. “I wanted to learn as much as I could.”
She also came to realize that the surgery would require an extreme effort on her part, from fasting for a week or more before and after the surgery, to maintaining a strict diet and exercise regime long after to avoid complications and ensure weight loss.
Before undergoing the surgery, patients undergo procedures such as an endoscopy and tests on cardiac health and sleep. They practice eating small amounts, even using smaller spoons, and learn to read labels, weigh their meals, and find healthful choices on restaurant menus.
Part of her job working with potential patients is to prepare them for that effort, and for the physical side effects of the surgery and subsequent weight loss. She wears her “before” picture prominently so that the patients will recognize her as having been in their position.
“I’m not a surgeon or a nutritionist, but I’m someone like them,” she says. “There’s a need for that, too.”
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Born: August 1958, Massachusetts
Career: Mortgage specialist, Equity Resources; volunteer
Education: Studied at Mount Wachusett Community College; Patient Navigator Certificate, Harold P. Freeman Patient Navigation Institute, 2016; Certificate in Patient Advocacy, The Beryl Institute, 2017; Bariatric Instructor Certification, Bariatric Support Centers International, 2017
Family: Husband Daniel; daughters Jennifer and Andrea; four grandchildren