From pre-diabetic and desperate to healthy and happy

It was a holiday photo that did it — a picture taken at the Biltmore Inn in Asheville, North Carolina. Jennifer Hudson was stunned when she saw it. “It blew me away. I didn’t feel like I looked like that.”

And no, she’s not ‘that’ Jennifer Hudson, the singer and actress, although both have struggled with their weight.

She’s a mother of three living in Sumter, South Carolina. And when she saw that holiday photo, Hudson realized just how overweight she’d become. At 260 pounds, she’d tried everything from weight loss programs to diet pills. She was pre-diabetic and desperate.

“I said, ‘Enough is enough. I’m too young to do this. I can’t run after my kids.’ My little boy ran away from me one time and I tried to run after him, and he almost got into the road before a stranger grabbed him and saved him because I couldn’t catch up to him,” Hudson said.

“I was too out of shape to do anything to help anybody else. I was worthless to my family if I couldn’t be who they needed me to be.”

She decided to look into weight loss surgery. She has plenty of company. As the number of overweight people has soared — more than 32 percent of adults in South Carolina are now considered obese — so has the number of people getting weight loss surgery. About 228,000 Americans had bariatric procedures last year alone.

The most popular type is laparoscopic sleeve gastrectomy, better known as the sleeve. The surgeon removes about 80 percent of the stomach, converting it to a banana-shaped tube that can’t hold much food and makes the person feel full quickly.

Hudson checked out a program in Lexington but chose the Bariatric Surgery Program at MUSC Health, where she clicked with surgeon Karl Byrne and dietitian Nina Crowley. Byrne started the first bariatric program in South Carolina in the 1990s and today does complex weight loss procedures as well as simpler ones such as the sleeve. Crowley works with him, helping people change the way they eat.

Hudson wanted them both to help her get control of her body again. “In high school I was a cheerleader, I played volleyball, I played softball. As I got older and started having children, I just let things go. I don’t think I noticed that I was going that way.”

Being overweight took a physical and emotional toll. She didn’t fit in some seats comfortably. Turnstiles were trouble. She felt like salespeople avoided her when she went clothes shopping.

And socially, her weight was a burden, too. “We would get invited to pool parties. I’d make sure that the kids went, and I had to conveniently go somewhere else so I didn’t have to stay with the other parents because I was so self-conscious about the way I looked. We avoided the beach. I felt like I was being judged.”

Last December, she checked into MUSC Health for surgery. She’d done her research, finding that the risk of death within a month after bariatric surgery is lower than most other operations — about .13 percent. Potential benefits include a longer life and fewer health problems.

Byrne encourages other patients to do their own research, too, to make sure they get the right type of surgery. Because the sleeve is a relatively simple operation, he said some doctors will recommend it for people who really need a more complex procedure because they’re extremely obese.

At 260 pounds, Hudson was the perfect size for a sleeve, Byrne said. But the surgery was just the beginning. She’d have to make major changes to lose weight and keep it off.

“Once I got it done, it was hard for about a month,” Hudson said. “Basically, the mental part of it. Knowing that the things I enjoyed before were probably not going to be the same things I enjoyed afterward. Eating had been kind of a focus of our vacations and our life at the time.”

With the dietitians’ help, she realized she could still enjoy food — just in a healthier way. “I’m still a foodie. I still try different things but I taste it and enjoy it instead of finishing my plate,” Hudson said. “We still go out. I’m still very social. My friends understand.”

Byrne, Hudson’s surgeon, said the sleeve works because of Hudson’s dedication to her new lifestyle. “All of the bariatric procedures are tools for patients to conquer their food and obesity problem, but that only works if the patients are compliant. You could put the weight back on if you drank milkshakes all day long.”

Hudson wasn’t about to do that. She’d paid $25,000 for the surgery. While some insurance plans cover weight loss surgery, hers didn’t. Byrne is hoping more insurers will add coverage based on data showing that the surgery works.

Hudson hopes that telling her story will raise awareness about the difference weight loss surgery can make for people like her. “I try to be open with everybody when they ask me. I have waitresses ask, ‘Did you not like your food? Why are you not eating?’ Once I explain it, people understand,” she said.

“I’ve worked really hard. Not really focusing on my looks but more focusing on my health. My mental state and my physical state. Exercising has given me clarity.”