Tour de Cure participant shed 100 pounds, gained life back
Nearly half of Amanda Schaefers has vanished.
The 5-foot-2-inch Schaefers ballooned from about 130 pounds in 2003 to a high of 230 pounds by 2014. A gastric sleeve operation at Allegheny Health Network’s Bariatric and Metabolic Institute has helped her shed more than 100 pounds.
“This surgery gave me my life back,” said Schaefers, 34, of Carnegie.
Schaefers plans to bicycle 63 miles around Allegheny County in Saturday’s Tour de Cure, a fundraiser for the local chapter of the American Diabetes Association. She has been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and other obesity-related conditions such as high cholesterol and fatty liver disease.
As of Friday afternoon, 595 people had signed up to participate in the Tour de Cure and the event had raised nearly $339,000, just shy of its $350,000 goal.
For Schaefers, the bicycle ride will symbolize how far she has come in her struggle to get her weight under control.
“We couldn’t be prouder of her journey to live a healthier lifestyle,” said Chelsea Schaffer, associate director of development for the American Diabetes Association’s local chapter.
Tears and jeers
After graduating from high school, Schaefers stopped playing team sports and watching what and how much she ate. Her weight began creeping up slowly — about 5 to 10 pounds a year at first. Then at 25, she began packing on pounds faster.
She said she often ate to cope with stress.
“Some people have a beer. Some people have a cigarette. I would eat until I couldn’t eat anymore — sometimes way past that,” Schaefers said.
At every turn, it seemed, something reminded her that she was overweight.
Her dress size soared from 4 to 18. She found it difficult to buy a stylish dress for a wedding or to go to the beach. As she grew heavier, sales clerks treated her as if she were invisible. Strangers asked if she was pregnant.
When she attended police academy, some bet against her passing the physical fitness test. She smart-talked back to the naysayers after passing it, but then went to a secluded spot and cried.
In 2014, when she and her future husband, Jason Notaro, hiked up New Hampshire’s 6,288-foot-tall Mt. Washington, other hikers chuckled as they passed the 230-pound Schaefers on the trail. Huffing and sweating, she made it to the top, but took the bus back down.
“I honestly thought I was going to have to call a helicopter to get me off the mountain,” Schaefers said.
Once at a club in Pittsburgh’s Station Square with Notaro, his sister and her friends, she overheard someone say, “’They always keep a fat girl around to make them look better.’”
In tears, she told Notaro that they needed to go home.
The final straw for Schaefers, a university police officer, came in April 2017. When she and another officer responded to a call, she said she tried to subdue a suspect who was under the influence of drugs but was too heavy to help much. She said she later vomited and felt like she’d run up 17 flights of stairs.
After returning home, she concluded that her weight posed a risk to herself, her fellow officers and the people she is supposed to protect. She decided something had to change.
‘Best version of me’
Schaefers said she tried diets and did triathlons, but her weight bounced up and down like a pogo stick. Her frustration mounted.
Losing pounds and regaining it is a familiar cycle because the body thinks it’s in trouble and resists losing so much excess weight, said Dr. George Eid, system chair of the Bariatric and Metabolic Institute at West Penn Hospital in Bloomfield.
“You get in a trap,” Eid said. “You want to climb out of that trap. You climb halfway through and fall back in. Then you feel like a failure. We tell people don’t beat yourself up. We can get you out of it.”
Eid said Schaefers met the criteria for undergoing the gastric sleeve surgery. Candidates for the surgery must be at least 100 pounds overweight or at least 60 pounds overweight with other medical problems such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure or sleep apnea, he said.
Schaefers underwent the surgery last year.
Eid said the hourlong surgery involves removing two-thirds of the stomach, including the fundus or stretchable part of the stomach, which produces a hormone that creates the urge to eat. With just a sleeve or “skinny banana” for a stomach, the patient has less room for overeating and a smaller appetite.
The operation is not a quick fix, Eid said.
The patient weighs about the same immediately after it’s done. Patients need to watch their diet and exercise or they can regain the pounds. The institute at West Penn offers patients support, including access to nutritionists, exercise physiologists and mental health counselors to help patients lose weight, keep it off and learn why they wanted to eat so much.
Schaefers, who weighed 125 pounds when she competed in last month’s Vermilion Triathlon in Ohio, said she no longer needs diabetes medication. She and her husband are planning longer hikes and more vigorous activities such as zip-lining.
“I found Amanda pretty then and now, regardless of her weight,” said Notaro, 41. But he added that he had grown concerned about her health and unhappiness. He’s shed those concerns as his wife has shed the pounds.
Schaefers urges people battling with their weight to consider whether the operation is right for them.
“I’m still me,” she said, “but I’m the best version of me that I’ve ever been.”
Bill Zlatos is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.