Jalyn Phelps has a smile that lights up her face.

That hasn’t always been the case. Two years and 195 pounds ago, she struggled with fatigue, migraines and fibromyalgia.

In those days, she missed a lot of work at the Spectrum Health Long-Term Care, Rehab and Nursing Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she prepares meals for residents.

“I was dealing with a lot and going to the emergency room a lot,” Phelps, 30, said. “I can’t even remember all the meds I was on.”

At her heaviest—355 pounds—Phelps tried a variety of weight-loss programs, including Weight Watchers.

Nothing worked.

‘A rough patch’

Her weight began spiraling out of control at age 9, after her father died of pancreatic cancer.

His death sent her into a tailspin that included what she calls “a rough patch” in her teens. She got shipped off to boarding school because of behavioral issues, then later returned to graduate from Coopersville High School.

After fighting her weight and seeing various specialists for wide-ranging health issues, Phelps gained inspiration after seeing her childhood doctor’s dramatic weight loss from bariatric surgery.

Phelps felt encouraged to try the same approach.

“He was my biggest push,” she said.

Jon Schram, MD, medical director of bariatric surgery at Spectrum Health, has heard similar stories from other patients who felt encouraged after seeing their own doctors experience weight loss from surgery.

In April 2017, Phelps underwent bariatric gastric sleeve surgery at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital.

It led to changes in her appearance and, eventually, her mindset.

But more importantly, she reclaimed her good health.

And she hasn’t looked back since.

“Basically, we remove 80% of the stomach, giving patients a new stomach that is about the size of a banana,” Dr. Schram said. “It significantly reduces the amount of food they can eat at one time.”

After surgery, patients meet regularly with dietitians and behaviorists to develop a new eating plan that fits their lifestyle.

Dietitians emphasize staying hydrated and eating small servings of protein every four hours, which helps control blood sugar and cravings. A small serving is about 20 grams.

“My patients suffer from a chronic disease (obesity), for which there is no cure,” Dr. Schram said. “I can provide them with a treatment plan. It’s how they use this tool that will determine their success.”

New habits

Success can be measured in numbers and quality of life.

After bariatric surgery, up to 80% of patients with Type 2 diabetes can stop using insulin. About half can eliminate medications for high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Eight in 10 with obstructive sleep apnea no longer rely on CPAP machines.

In the first year after surgery, Phelps saw her weight plummet from 355 pounds to 200.

She’s now lean and fit, holding steady at 160 pounds.

And she’s determined to stay on track.

“I think people consider (surgery) an easy fix,” Phelps said. “I don’t like that word. It’s not easy. It takes a lot of work and discipline.”

Roughly 90% of patients who have bariatric surgery will keep off at least half of their excess weight. A small percentage slowly slip back into their old lifestyle, only to regain the weight.

“Patients who are tremendously successful always combine physical activity and small amounts of protein throughout the day,” Dr. Schram said.

A new smile

Phelps’ new lifestyle is rich with healthier habits.

“I always take the stairs,” she said. “I’m always on the go.”

She exercises at least three times a week, alternating between weights and cardio workouts in her home gym. She walks. She bikes. She plays hoops with her younger brother.

She has goals of kayaking and traveling.

Her dietary habits have undergone dramatic change.

Instead of eating large portions of carbs and processed foods, she now cooks fresh, healthy foods from local grocery stores and farm markets.

At work, she’s careful to avoid foods that might sabotage her progress.

“There are things I miss, but it’s all been worth it in the long run,” she said. “I think about where I used to be, how I felt then and how I feel now. And I don’t want to go back.

“It’s a learning process,” she said. “That’s the big thing.”

She has gained confidence and become more outgoing, which has impressed her coworkers.

“Everyone says my smile has totally changed,” Phelps said.