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Meet the Characters: Rosie Dehli
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Rosie Dehli

Rosie Dehli defines herself as "first of all, a grandma" to her six grandchildren. Along with her husband Paul, Rosie lives in Montevideo, Minnesota, where she spent her career as a teacher and elementary school principal. She is now retired from public education, but continues to work as a consultant with the University of Minnesota. After a lifetime of struggling in vain to get to a healthy weight, Rosie finally elected to undergo gastric bypass surgery. Since that time, she has maintained her weight, health, and optimism.

Watch Rosie Dehli in FAT: What No One Is Telling you

Interview

What was it like being a principal?
I loved being a principal. We're from a small town, and when you're in a little town like this, when you're a principal, you're involved with everything: the community, the church, the school. It was so fun because I was here for a number of years as a teacher and then as a principal and you get to see families grow up. So you get to (teach) kids and then you have their kids. It was the most rewarding job anybody could ever have. I was so blessed to have that opportunity.

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Do you remember the first time you thought you were overweight?
Probably when I was a very little girl--I can remember thinking I was fat. I came from a very small town, Chester, SD, of which I am very proud. I knew everybody and everybody knew me, and my dad had a grocery store there and we had a restaurant across the street and I loved to go over there and have hamburgers and malted milks. But I can remember that that was always in the back of my head, that I was always chubbier than anybody else.

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When did you start trying to lose weight?
Probably when I was in junior high.

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How many times do you think that you tried to lose weight?
About 1,687 (laughs)... I mean it was a continuous thing. I always worried about it. I would gain and lose and gain and lose and gain and lose. I think I lost a hundred pounds probably two times, maybe three times, and gained it back, plus a little more. So it was forever.

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What kind of methods did you try?
Um... perhaps what I should say is what I didn't try (laughs)! I did the grapefruit diet and the protein diet where you just eat protein. I did very well on Weight Watchers; that really taught me some good things about how to balance my diet and to eat well. I can't say that there was a lot of exercise (information) like there is now, so I can't say that I did a lot of (exercise). I went to TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly). All of them are good for certain people but they weren't for me. It didn't work for me.

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We hear so many stories about people that lose weight very successfully, and then eventually regain it. Can you describe what it feels like to see yourself lose and regain the weight that you fought so hard to lose?
Oh, it is so devastating! It's almost like you're out of control and you don't know why. I can't say that for anybody else, but for me I couldn't put my finger on what I was doing wrong and I felt so guilty! I can remember specifically that I'd lost a lot of weight and I had gained it all back by the next summer. And I remember people looking at me, like "how could you do that?" And I'm thinking, "I can't believe I did this! What's wrong with me?" Ugh! It was horrid.

We've learned so much since then about why we eat and how we eat, and I think emotional eating played a big role. When I was happy, I ate. When I was sad, I ate. When I was stressed, I ate, and when I wasn't stressed I ate to enjoy.

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In addition to the emotional eating, do you think your weight problem had physical or genetic or environmental causes?
I think that because both of my parents were overweight, there may have been something genetic. You know, how do we know? But I think also the environment in which I was brought up, you know how I learned how to eat when I was little, I'm sure that played a part in it. In those days, we didn't do a lot of physical exercise. So it was never part of my mental repertoire to do a lot of exercise and use that as one of my releases.

I am so fortunate because both of my kids are very active, all of my grandchildren have those same traits and I am so grateful for that. When I was on Weight Watchers, (my daughter) Jody went with me. She was in grade school and (Weight Watchers) played a really important role in her life because she learned how to eat. I think that basically has stuck with her. She got that basic knowledge at a young age.

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What made you consider having surgery?
I had talked to my doctor about that two or three years before the actual time. My dad had died of a heart attack when he was young, so I knew that I had to make some changes in my life. I had tried every doggone (weight loss method) that I could think of. I'm not used to failing. I'm not good at failing. It bothered me terribly that I was failing. I couldn't walk anymore without hurting. I couldn't get down on the floor when I was playing with the kids. I wanted something better in my life and I knew that.

My doctor was very wise because he didn't push me in that (surgical) direction. He knew that was something you had to do when you were ready. One of his nurses had had the surgery and had been very successful, and my doctor said, "Would you like me to set up a time where you could talk to her? I think she'd be willing." I talked to her. I took my husband and my daughter to three different seminars by three different surgeons because I would never had done this if they had not approved or if they were not aware of it. And that's how I came about making my decision. I wanted something more for my life than what I had, and I wanted to live longer

So that's how I came about making that decision. I kept it very private, because I had struggled immensely. Surgery is not a quick fix. It is something you have to work on, and you have to be sure that you understand all of the ramifications. So I kept it very private: only my family.

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What was it that made you keep this private and something that you discussed with only those close to you?
There were a couple reasons. One was that it wasn't really anybody else's business. I didn't want this to be anymore of a failure than (other weight loss methods) were in the past. I remember referring to it as being emotionally fragile. I couldn't have handled it if somebody would have said to me, "Oh, you shouldn't do that."

And the second reason was that when you're an elementary principal in a little town, you're pretty high profile. Everybody in town kind of knows who you are. I didn't want to have it broadcast all over town, you know, "This is the way to solve your weight problem. Look at what happened to Rosie!" It has to be a very intensely personal decision and I didn't want in any way to influence anybody to do anything that would not have been right for them.

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How did you prepare for surgery?
I think "getting my head on" was really important for me. Deep down I recognized that I wanted to be healthy. I wanted to be able to do stuff with my grandkids. I wanted to be alive and not be wasting my time.

The second thing was getting the support of my son and my daughter and my husband because they were the only ones that mattered to me. My son is a doctor. I really respected him, and he was supportive after we had gone to the bariatric seminars. My husband and my daughter were both very supportive. They knew how much it meant to me and they wanted me to live too.

You have to go through a lot of (psychological) and physical testing...(There were) a lot of actual steps that you had to take with the physicians and their assistants. I never questioned that it wasn't the right thing to do.

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Describe the surgery and the recovery.
I was so excited to have surgery! Did it hurt? Yeah, surgery hurts, but it was almost "hopeful hurt," if you can explain it that way. I had the normal kinds of things that everybody has, you know, where you eat wrong and you throw up. I had all of that. But it was all for a goal that I knew I could now achieve.

After the surgery, you couldn't really eat anything at all for a few weeks. And you had to drink water. You could start (back on a solid diet) with mashed potatoes. Immediately I started walking, and I think that helped my whole body, too. I think the physical exercise that you start out with right away after surgery is really important.

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So what was it like to go on a walk after surgery, and to notice your body changing?
My knees hurt but I kept walking anyway because it's just so inspiring. I can't even tell you. It feels so good to be able to walk.

I've got a funny story to tell you. I can remember when my daughter took me downtown after I lost probably sixty, seventy pounds. I was walking one and a half to two hours a day usually, and she parked. She said, "This might not be close enough, Mom." Then she started to laugh and she said, "Oh, that's right! You can walk now."(Laughs.) So it just changes your whole life. It changes your whole disposition, your whole perspective. It's just unbelievable.

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What were some of your post-surgical goals?
One of my goals was not to be so concerned about the number on the scale, but be more concerned about how I felt and what my clothes looked like, but mostly how I felt. If I was able to keep up with everything with my exercise program and so on. So I did join a gym and I did make the decision to get a personal trainer and that really was helpful to have somebody (help me). I didn't know how to lift those barbells. I didn't know what in the heck these machines were for! So that was really helpful.

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What research or information gathering did you do? Or what kind of help did you have to make your surgical decision?
I had read about everything that I possibly could, I mean everything that I could get my hands on to read. And then there were a couple of websites that I had (used). I did a little research on some of the physicians as well.

I also went to the (bariatric surgery informational) seminars. They were very helpful because at that time, there were two different (procedures) that you could do. You could have the gastric bypass or you could have the band. I also talked to some people who had had (my) surgery, and some who had had different surgeries. It was helpful to learn the pros and cons of both kinds of surgeries.

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Has your relationship with food changed since surgery? Or is it something that you still battle?
I don't think that you could ever change that with just a stitch or two (laughs)! I think the surgery was like a jump start for me to make that change, but it is an evolving change. I still think am I eating now because I should be eating or am I eating because I'm upset with something? It's still hard work. I still have to plan my meals. I have to be sure that I have time to walk. (Surgery) is not a quick fix, but it helped me to make that change in terms of how I'm living.

I remember that somebody once said something about will power, and I just got feisty about it because I thought, "I can't conjure up will power, but I can learn how to be disciplined." And (surgery) has helped me to learn how to be disciplined.

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Can you talk a little bit about how your life has changed post-surgery?
I think people would be surprised if they knew the emotional pain that I was going through (with being overweight) because I never really talked about it. I think that they would be surprised at how awful I felt about my weight. I felt horrid. I feel much better about that. I'm much less self-conscious about my weight, although I think people would be surprised that I ever was.

I'd be foolish if I said (that my appearance) doesn't matter; it really is nice to look nice. But you know that's just a superficial change. Now I'm able to walk. I'm able to laugh more with my kids and get down on the floor and play games. My granddaughters think this is just a riot: I went tubing. I'm going to learn how to ski. We just bought a motorcycle. We dance. I love to dance.

It's much easier to go on vacation. I remember the first time I got in an airplane (after my weight loss). And I looked over at my husband and I said, "I can buckle the seat belt!" I know that sounds like a dumb little thing, but it meant so much to me.

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How has your weight loss experience impacted your relationships?
It depends on who it is and what the previous relationship was. I'd had a lot of people who've been very careful about saying things because I've never ever offered that I'd had surgery, because I didn't want to influence anybody in that direction.

Some people are just really supportive, and say "Good for you, Rosie. I see you walking all the time, and you're looking great." And then there's another group that are real hesitant to say anything because they're like, "Well she's done this before." Rightfully so. You know, "What's she gonna look like next year? How long is she gonna keep it off?"

Then there are people who have a weight problem and it puts a lot of stress (on them) if you lose weight and they don't. I always was very conscious of that because (before my weight loss), I can remember wondering, "Will I ever be able to do what she has done?" For me, it's been important to remember what it feels like to be fat and be very empathetic, and then also to recognize that I'm okay now.

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What advice would you share with others that are considering surgery?
Oh boy, think real carefully. Make sure you have all your ducks in a row, mentally. Don't make it a snap decision. Do all of the research that you can. Go through all the steps. Be sure you understand why you want to do it. It is life-threatening in the fact that any surgical procedure can go wrong. Most of them don't, but you need to remember that.

And talk to people who have had (the surgery) and have been successful. You can have surgery and drink malted milks all day long and it's not going to make any difference. What's going to make it successful is how you use that surgery as a tool to change your life.

Click here to read a poem Rosie wrote while deciding on surgery.


Learn more about bariatric surgery

American Society for Bariatric Surgery: www.asbs.org/

Columbia University Department of Surgery: www.columbiasurgery.org/divisions/obesity/

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