Westminster resident Michele Heim believed she was on the verge of death nearly four times throughout her life. Her family was unsure if she would be able to stay alive, due to her ongoing battles with weight loss and mental health.
Heim, who was over 400 pounds at the time, realized she couldn’t keep living the same way anymore when she visited her parent’s house on Christmas Eve 2003. “My father had disappeared on Christmas and we found him in his room. He was crying,” she said. “He just said ‘I love you so much, you’re beautiful, but I’m afraid you’re going to die.’ "
Several months later, in April of 2004, Heim thought enough was enough and decided to take a life-changing step to undertake gastric bypass surgery. Since then, she has lost over 300 pounds and has managed to both keep the weight off and improve her mental health.
She even managed to receive her certified nursing assistant certificate from Carroll County Community College, an accomplishment she said she couldn’t imagine before her surgery.
Heim’s battles with her weight and mental health began at only 9 years old, as the youngest of five children in a seemingly normal and loving household. However, she had just moved from Woodlawn to Carroll after spending nearly all of her life in her family home. Heim would later realize that it was because of this and other trials and tribulations in her life that put her in such a vulnerable position.
“My parents moved from the neighborhood I grew up in, and I just flipped out,” Heim said. “They should have known.”
According to Heim, she believed that the move and her mother’s own mental health issues at the time triggered an addictive personality disorder — in this case, the addiction was to food.
“I was being raised in a loving and supporting home, but all of this together, like a whirlwind or a tornado, directly related to my overeating.”
For most of Heim’s young adult life, she struggled with eating disorders and an unhealthy relationship with food, even recalling a time where she grappled with bulimia in high school. Heim, who was more than 400 pounds at the time, was not only battling her own weight-loss issues that persisted into her adult life, but she also had also been battling persistent grief.
Heim has lost six family members just within the past 15 years, causing her to spiral further into mental despair and anguish. But she was determined to change her life and get back up on her feet.
Although Heim had previously tried numerous diets and weight loss programs such as protein shakes, SlimFast, keto, and even some prescription medications, she realized she was making little progress.
“I tried these things, but I did not dedicate myself to them,” she said. “I mean, I can try and say they didn’t work, but I know exactly why they didn’t: I didn’t apply myself to them.”
In April 2004, Heim thought enough was enough and decided to take a life-changing step and undergo gastric bypass surgery, something she had already researched beforehand. Heim said that she had overheard someone mentioning the surgery and had made her decision right there and then.
“I had been researching a bit myself, and that just kick-started it,” she said. “That was my decision right there.”
Heim underwent surgery that same month at Saint Agnes Hospital in Baltimore with Dr. Kuldeep Singh.
Since the surgery, Heim has lost over 330 pounds.
Gastric bypass is a surgical procedure that significantly reduces the size of the stomach and reroutes a part of the intestine to bypass the digestive system. A smaller stomach will hold less food, and as a result, you will eat less and lose weight.
Before the surgery, Heim said, she was required to meet with a therapist and a nutritionist so she was aware of how her body was going to feel both physically and mentally after the surgery. Although Heim was excited for the results, she recalled her doctors stressing that the surgery was only a “tool” in her weight loss goal and that real results would only come if Heim truly committed to a healthier lifestyle.
According to Heim, her weight loss after the surgery was painfully slow, much slower than she anticipated, and that gave way to stress eating and frustration.
“I plateaued and only would lose two pounds a month, maybe five pounds a month and that was it,” Heim said.
Her exasperation even led her to go back to her surgeon and ask to reverse the effects of the surgery.
“I went back to the doctor and asked him to put back whatever he did and he said, ‘Sorry, but there’s no going back, you’ll thank me next month when you come in.’ And I was very upset, but he was right,” she said.
After her surgery, Heim decided to go through dialectical behavioral therapy and realized that she needed to be “mindful” of how she was eating.
“That was a major success because I minded what went in my mouth. I felt it was one of the things in my life that I could control,” she said.
As she incorporated exercise and healthy eating into her lifestyle, along with frequent therapy sessions, Heim began to see the weight fall off.
Heim’s relationship with food also recovered and she began to love cooking again, especially with her husband, who she says has helped her throughout her journey. She now loves to eat different kinds of vegetables, something she didn’t enjoy before.
“I like the fact that there are no more kids at home, and my husband and I can do these things that we really didn’t think about doing before with food,” she said.
Heim’s husband Michael, who has been with her for the past 37 years, said that he and his wife now spend lots of time in the kitchen cooking together. “We just really pay attention because she doesn’t want to gain the weight back and I don’t want her to gain the weight back. And I’m just here to support her,” he said.
Another critical aspect of her success, he said, is her ability to give back to the community through service work and volunteering hours at Opportunity WORKS, a program through Human Services Programs of Carroll County. Heim was able to volunteer her time to help others in need in the community by supplying families with household items such as curtains, silverware, pots and other essential items.
“Nothing makes me feel better than doing something for someone,” she said.
Heim’s husband also spoke to her ability to care for others even when she was struggling herself. “She loves to help people. She has a very kind heart, and it’s just gotten bigger and better,” he said.
After losing more than 300 pounds since her surgery, Heim says she has never gained any of the weight back and still has plans to shed some more.
Today, Heim said, she still struggles with pain throughout her body due to various medical conditions, but hopes that one day she will be able to run and ride a bike. For now, she hopes her story will help others the way other people’s stories have helped her.
“I always want to take care of everybody else first and I always set out to take care of me later,” she said. “I guess later is here now.”