WATERFORD, Wis. — When Jamie Wambach was able to cross her legs for the first time in 20 years, she almost cried.
She has a long list of things that she can do now that she wasn't able to do before. Most of them are pretty small and go unnoticed by most people: going up and down stairs, tucking her feet under another leg. But she notices them because after struggling with her weight for years, Wambach underwent surgery to limit her calorie intake so she would lose weight.
The combination of surgery and changing her habits has resulted in losing 155 pounds in nine months. Those changes have had a huge positive impact on her life.
"Before I couldn't do anything, I didn't have any energy to do anything," she said. "And now I'm full of energy."
She was able to go to a Shawn Mendes concert with her 15-year-old daughter Ronni and can keep up with her walking around Pleasant Prairie Outlet Mall. They can shop in the juniors section together and even share clothes.
"It's something I'm really excited about," said Wambach, a Waterford resident who works as an advertising representative for The Journal Times. "Except for now my daughter steals my leggings. But I can steal her clothes now, too."
She has a list of things she wants to do now that she couldn't before, such as ziplining, paragliding and riding a roller coaster. And she has a list of things that she didn't feel comfortable doing before, like wearing a swimsuit to the beach or traveling more now that she no longer has to purchase two airplane seats.
"(The weight loss) definitely has made my confidence level a lot higher but it hasn't changed who I am as a person," she told The Journal Times. "I feel like I look people in the eye more whereas before I would walk with my head down and I wouldn't want to be noticed."
Biology and habits
Growing up, Jamie wasn't obese but said she was always "a bit on the fluffier side."
"My family likes to eat a lot but they're not heavy like me," she said. "They didn't have an issue like I did."
She got into exercising in high school and slimmed down. But at 20 she became pregnant with her son and gained 85 pounds.
"I was sick the entire nine months and I still gained 85 pounds," she said.
Her doctors diagnosed her with hypothyroidism, which affects heart rate, body temperature and metabolism and can cause fatigue, dry skin and unexplained weight gain.
"I would say that I could look at a bag of chips and I gained 5 pounds," she said. "It just made it extremely difficult to lose weight all those years."
The list of ways Jamie tried to lose that weight reads like a history of the weight-loss industry — she's tried Fen-Phen, Weight Watchers (multiple times), Atkins, meal replacement shakes, a cabbage soup diet, low-carb, no-carb, low-fat, low sugar ...
"I've done everything," she said. "You lose weight for a little bit and then things creep in like, 'Oh there's a nice-looking cake over there' and you have a bit and then, 'Oh I'll start back tomorrow.' And then I wouldn't."
In addition to fighting an uphill battle to lose weight with hypothyroidism, life didn't make it any easier. For years she was a single parent raising two children. (She has shared custody with Ronni's father and says they "get along great.")
Then she married her late husband Kedrick Daniel in May 2014; that November, he had his first heart attack and was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, kidney failure and chronic high blood pressure. He was unable to work or even do tasks such as laundry or carrying groceries. So in addition to being the sole provider, Jamie had to take care of Kedrick, raise her children and maintain the household.
"(It) contributed to my overeating and just being depressed. And food brought me happiness. It's sad to say but it did — it made me happy," she said. "I ate my feelings: I ate when I was happy, I ate when I was sad, I ate when I was depressed, then I was depressed because I ate so then I ate some more. And then it was just a vicious cycle for me."
Jamie said she had looked into weight-loss surgery in the past but it hadn't been covered by insurance and she couldn't afford the out-of-pockets costs. Finally, she needed knee surgery. She saw two surgeons and both said she needed to lose weight before they could consider doing the operation. She found out that this time the procedure was covered by her insurance.
The procedure she received is called a duodenal switch. Surgeons remove most of the stomach and bypass most of the small intestine, limiting the amount of food she can eat and how many calories from that food her body absorbs.
"I literally take about five to six bites at a meal and I'm done," Jamie said. "In order for me to actually gain weight, I would have to consume about 10,000 calories a day and that's not even possible right now."
She's found other, healthier ways, to deal with stress than eating. She now exercises, taking regular walks with her daughter, has rediscovered makeup and enjoys decorating her house.
"I just try and keep my mind busy and doing something else positive," she said.
She's also maintaining a high-protein, low-sugar diet that prioritizes meat and vegetables. Her new energy levels allow her to spend more time with her family and gave her an important moment with her late husband.
In September, Kedrick had to be airlifted by Flight for Life after suffering a stroke and an aneurysm. Jamie was able to ride along in the ambulance and was able to keep up with the first responders as they transported him from the ambulance base to the operating room.
"When you're running from surgical bay to an operating room they're not moving slow and I was able to keep the pace," she said. "I was just so proud of myself."
Jamie does wish she had done more before the surgery to control her weight, such as eating better and being more active so she could have enjoyed the time that she and Kedrick had together.
"Preparing for my husband's funeral, we didn't have many pictures of us because I didn't want to be in pictures, so we had very few to choose from. And that's one of my biggest regrets is that I didn't take more pictures," she said. "He loved me no matter what size I was and was so proud of what I've accomplished."
Losing weight didn't solve all of her life's problems, but it has made a huge difference in her quality of life and she hopes it will continue to do so.
"Despite losing my husband and partner, I'm positive about the future because I know I'm going to be there for my kids, God willing, and my grandkids," she said. "I'm happy and I think the future's going to be really good."