Josh Shaffer

Shaffer: Together, the McCoys lost 300 pounds, found unexpected joy

Jonathan McCoy has lost 230 pounds in less than a year thanks to bariatric surgery at Rex Hospital. He and his wife Audrey are a rare couple to have undergone the procedure together. She has lost 70 pounds to date.
Jonathan McCoy has lost 230 pounds in less than a year thanks to bariatric surgery at Rex Hospital. He and his wife Audrey are a rare couple to have undergone the procedure together. She has lost 70 pounds to date. jshaffer@newsobserver.com

After college, Jonathan McCoy watched his football player’s body billow out slowly, adding 10 pounds a year to his husky frame, growing steadily until he hit his danger weight at 556 pounds.

By then, the steering wheel of his car touched his stomach when he drove. He got winded climbing stairs. Doctors estimated his life would last another 10 years in that shape.

But when he took the next step, a severe one that would remove 93 percent of his stomach, he had a partner and constant nurse. Jonathan and Audrey McCoy opted for bariatric surgery together at Rex Healthcare and lost a combined 300 pounds – the sort of commitment you don’t expect when you exchange wedding vows.

Now that Jonathan has dropped down to 325, his wedding ring doesn’t fit. And Audrey, who shed 70 pounds herself, finds herself looking at a man who weighs less than he did on their first date. They can’t drink carbonated beverages anymore, and it takes them roughly an hour to polish off a bottle of water, so the champagne toast will have to be imaginary.

“It’s like getting a brand-new husband,” Audrey, 44, said. “But while you’re watching him transform, you’re also transforming yourself.”

If you’re an alcoholic, you can recall a time when you didn’t drink. If you’re addicted to drugs, there’s a period in your life that you spent clean. Other compulsions – gambling, sex – all develop sometime after childhood, diversions on life’s long road.

But you start eating as an embryo. It’s legal. It’s necessary to sustain life. Your mother stands over you at the breakfast table and insists that you clean your plate. People get insulted if they offer you food and you say, “I’m not hungry.”

I never considered the pervasiveness of snacks until I met Jonathan at Broughton High School, where he is a teacher, and he started listing days of the year when stuffing your face is more or less mandatory. Thanksgiving. Christmas. Easter. Super Bowl Sunday. The list goes on. As a culture, we’ve made this craving so easy to satisfy that you don’t even have to stop your car.

Nobody feels sympathy for the overeater. Unlike any other preoccupation, it’s viewed as a weakness that’s easy to overcome – as simple as pushing your chair from the table.

“Would you take an alcoholic to a bar?” asked Jonathan, who is 45. “No. But at every meal, you’re putting food in front of somebody who’s basically addicted to food.”

Jonathan’s weight didn’t give him a slap in the face. He didn’t have a heart attack. He didn’t have high blood pressure. He just knew his size carried consequences.

“I haven’t seen a 600-pound, 60-year-old man,” he said. “I’ve never seen one. I’ve never had a piece of pizza that was worth my life.”

He tried every diet. None worked for long. When he brought up weight-loss surgery, Audrey was skeptical. She worried it could go wrong in a variety of ways.

But she felt the pressure, too. At 320 pounds, her joints were suffering under the weight. A seminar at Rex won them over, and the six-month wait their insurance company required gave them time to make a mental shift. Jonathan started a liquid diet months in advance, trying unsuccessfully to get under 500 pounds before his surgery in August. They met with a nutritionist and a psychiatrist before the big day. But both of their operations went smoothly, and the couple took turns helping the other recover.

For anyone who considers surgery the easy way out, consider this list of no-nos for the McCoys: Bread. White flour. Rice. Carbonated beverages. Fried food. Sugary food. Fatty food.

“I can still have pizza,” Jonathan told me, “if I just eat the toppings.”

His lunch Friday consisted of three slices of deli turkey, two slices of cheese and two pickle slices. It took him an hour to eat. Water takes another hour, a sip at a time.

But the regimen is simpler when you do it together. It’s easier to remember all the vitamins and to make all the Zumba classes when you’ve got a spouse for an ally.

They’ve both got more energy. They’re happier and less stressed. They don’t get the same cravings for ice cream and cake. The only downside is Jonathan will likely need skin surgery. Sometimes, as a joke, he takes the sagging flesh under his arms and flaps it at Audrey, exclaiming, “I can fly! I can fly!”

And in more ways than one, he can.

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