Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. is a Gynecologist, Director of the New York Menopause Center, Clinical Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Weill Cornell Medical College, and Assistant Attending Obstetrician and Gynecologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. She is a board certified fellow of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Dr. Allen is also a member of the Faculty Advisory Board and the Women’s Health Director of The Weill Cornell Community Clinic (WCCC). Dr. Allen was the recipient of the 2014 American Medical Women’s Association Presidential Award.

By “Pamela”

Pamela is a 54-year-old woman who had given up hope. She went to work without complaint.  She was exhausted for a great part of every day. Under multiple stressors, she ate foods that were quickly metabolized and caused her energy to go up briefly then crash again. Her many musculoskeletal problems were worsened by her significant weight. At 5’4″ and 219 pounds, she had chemical diabetes and was at risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.

Pamela had an “ah-ha” moment that she describes below, and was finally ready to look at how to live instead of just living to eat. She began an arduous journey of self-exploration through the process of weight loss, and  found the courage to learn why she had lost her capacity to control food intake. She learned to look at food as fuel, not as a reward or a survival tool for more energy. She did what all of us must do when we choose a new way of living: she learned to be prepared, to be mindful, and understood that she could prevent her mood and energy swings through choosing the right foods and the right portions.

This was not an easy process for a woman who had not put herself first for decades. Self-awareness and self-care created the right environment for Pamela to become healthy. Now, she is no longer in the diabetic range and her risk for cardiovascular disease has decreased significantly. Most of all, Pamela has become the woman she wanted to be.  She has energy, hard-earned self esteem and a new life, all in a few intense, focused months.

— Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D.

Less than two years ago, I was a master special education teacher, floundering in a long-distance marriage, and feeling that I might be dying. I was also obese. If I try to remember what it was like back then, I envision drowning in an ocean of rough waters, my head bobbing up to catch a moment’s breath before being covered once again by the salty, churning waves of a vast sea.

But now, a year after a Pap smear result that rocked my world, I have surfaced—from a lifelong series of incorrect habits, an accumulation of injustices, and a remarkable familial history, all of which contributed to my condition just eight months ago. I live differently, eat differently, and am about to move across the country. I now fit into a size 8 instead of a size 18. And most important, perhaps, I no longer have this recurring dream that I am suffocating.

In the spring of 2009, a routine Pap smear gave both negative and positive readings and led to a brief hospital visit for a surgical LEEP procedure to remove abnormal cells (known as dysplasia) from my cervix. Next came an abnormal mammogram result, requiring more tests. I began to realize that over the past 25 years, I’d routinely scheduled my annual mammography never having met the radiologists who have interpreted my films. But this time, after a biopsy was suggested, I quickly found myself commuting from New Jersey to a New York City radiologist who’d come highly recommended by a family member with other breast issues. The new doctor told me I had two perfectly normal breasts; that the calcifications the mammography had picked up required monitoring, not biopsy or surgery; and that it was time for me to take charge of my health. He recommended a new gynecologist, who he said was ”Excellent, but will also be all over you.” I instantly knew what that meant. She would overturn and uncover whatever was required to get and keep me healthy, no matter what was found, or what I didn’t want to hear.

I knew that I was very overweight and had an unhealthy life style. All other attempts to lose weight had succeeded for a brief time only; I always fell back to my old ways. I felt stuck in a vicious cycle—of events, of my own bad habits—able only to row in circles, each time ending up where I started. This time, I needed to let go, trust, and follow the steps that were necessary to keep me from drowning in that deep, dark sea.

The new gynecologist was able to see me on a day when my husband, an Army officer, was able to accompany me. After taking a detailed family history of every possible physical and mental contributing factor, she performed a thorough examination, including additional blood work; a new Pap smear; a colposcopy; a bone density test; and a sonogram of abdominal and pelvic organs. She made an appointment with a breast surgeon for additional consultation and follow-up. In addition to obesity, my family history was significant for stroke, heart attack, diabetes, and cancer.

Another revelation: it was long past time for me, at age 54, to stop taking the birth control pill I’d been on for over 20 years, which was acting like an anabolic steroid, making my weight gain worse. I was immediately taken off the pill, placed on a patch, and gradually weaned off the hormones in a way that caused no symptoms. Then she explained that I had to deal with the emotional issues that were making me eat.

The stressors were many, including an intensely demanding job; a toxic relationship with a mentally ill mother; and a long-distance relationship with my own husband, from whom I had been intermittently apart for the past seven years.

About that last: After the attacks of September 11, experiencing the trauma of 9-11 directly and being in the Reserves, my husband had been mobilized and then assessed into the regular Army to serve his country full-time. These events have added layers of stress to our family dynamics, and affected me. Although I pray each and every day with my husband when he is far from home (usually on the phone at 5:30 in the morning), and he has tried to assist me in my decision to become healthier and maintain a positive mindset, the challenges of a long-distance relationship are often emotionally draining.

In addition to the morning conversation with my husband, I also emailed my gynecologist every day. I told her what I was eating; she shared test results and gave me guidance, suggesting different vitamins and supplements along with a very strict diet. I did each step each day like an obedient soldier. It worked.

My test results—blood work, blood pressure, pulse, sonogram, and Pap smears—are all normal. My follow-up mammography has shown no change in status, but will be monitored again in six months. And I’ve lost 85 pounds.

I gave away all my clothes, one size at a time, as I shed pound after pound. I now have a new life to look forward to. I no longer feel tired. I no longer have to take a nap in the late afternoon and then have trouble sleeping at night. I am no longer on a sugar roller-coaster, causing metabolic depression. I take pride in my appearance and newfound positive attitude and good health. I have rowed out of my rut, my bad habits, and addiction to carbohydrates. Unless you’ve experienced this kind of inner light for yourself, it may be hard to understand that feeling good can be a part of daily living.

I’ve even found the courage to take some risks: to retire from my job, pack up and move from our home of 25 years, and join my husband at his new duty station. My husband and I have made some promises and gone through the work of starting over and rebuilding our relationship.

Wearing a dress that my husband bought for me on Cape Cod during our honeymoon 30 years ago (which I saved for some reason, and which fit better than it did when I first wore it), I was thrilled to join him for dinner at a special steak and oyster house in the upstate New York college town where we’d met, attended university, and fell in love. We plan to renew our vows soon.

There are those times in life when one needs to hit rock-bottom or sink to the deep, dark abyss of life’s vast ocean, before being able to spring back up off the floor and reach up toward the surface for a breath of clean, crisp air. This feeling of renewal, freedom, and the chance for a fresh breath doesn’t come along easily unless one is ready and open to receiving it.

Very few people have the chance to start anew, to redo their lives, and embark on a new venture. We are blessed to have the chance, this challenge—and a gift of a lifetime.

I am sharing my story to benefit others who are drowning, unable to get themselves out of the vicious carbohydrate cycle, the bad habits of a lifetime, and inadequate medical care—to help them regain the hope, a positive mindset, and the kind of success that I have achieved. I didn’t do it alone. And if I can inspire just one woman to take the first step, then I will feel completely gratified.

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