For Jamie Smith, Losing Weight Meant Finding a New Life

Photo by Alicia Frese-Klink

Jamie Smith loves going out to eat, shopping for clothes and playing with her grandkids. Five days a week, she drives a school bus for the Fayette County schools. The rest of the time she drives a Ford Expedition with the seat pushed all the way forward. She enjoys hiking. On vacation, she’s the first one up, urging everyone else out the door to DO something. If you met her on the street or in a store, you would think she was an average, everyday kind of person. You’d think to yourself, “what a nice lady,” and keep shopping.

But while Jamie is, indeed, a nice lady, she’s anything but average.

Four years ago, Jamie hated going to restaurants and had no energy to play with her grandchildren. A trip to the clothing store was devastating and she could barely walk to the mailbox, let alone take a five-mile hike through the woods. The reason? Jamie was overweight. And not just in an I-splurged-too-much-over-the-holidays kind of way. Four years ago, Jamie weighed almost 350 pounds.

At that weight, her appearance was the least of her issues. Her health was deteriorating and everyday activities had become a major struggle. She was on the verge of needing custom-made clothing and going out to eat meant choosing a table because she couldn’t fit into a booth, then worrying about whether the chair would hold her. On vacation, she stayed at the hotel while her family enjoyed activities, afraid she would slow them down.

The Expedition was purchased solely because it was the only vehicle she could comfortably fit into; even then she had to drive with the seat all the way back, her feet barely reaching the pedals. She considered an Explorer, but the full-sized SUV just wasn’t roomy enough. The world, it seemed, wasn’t made for people like Jamie.

Jamie four years ago

Looking back, Jamie recalls that weight was always an issue for her. Pictures as early as third grade show a heavy child. In adulthood, back-to-back pregnancies added more pounds. A lifetime of unhealthy eating habits and lack of exercise loaded on even more.

By the summer of 2006, Jamie was at the end of her rope. Over the years, she had tried every fad diet she could find, but nothing seemed to work. Some of the so-called miracle plans actually caused her to gain weight. She had accepted that bariatric surgery was the only possible option for her.

Yet her friends and family had concerns over what many consider to be an extreme measure. Would the surgery be safe for her at her weight? Could she achieve the pre-surgery weight loss that many doctors require? Was there really no other way?

Then, Jamie’s younger daughter Amanda decided it was time to do something about her own post-baby weight. After evaluating the available options, she chose Weight Watchers and tried to convince her mother to come with her.

“I was really worried about her,” Amanda explains. “She’d have to stop and rest after one pass through the grocery store.”

Jamie resisted at first. She’d already decided surgery was her only hope. But Amanda persisted, and after many such conversations, Jamie finally relented a bit. If you go, she promised her daughter, and it works for you, then I’ll try it.

Jamie at Pigeon Forge, TN, in October 2006. Jamie had started Weight Watchers just two weeks earlier and had already lost 17 lbs. at that point.

Amanda did go. And it did work. Within just a few weeks, she’d dropped almost 20 pounds. Her weight loss was proof enough for Jamie. In October 2006, mother and daughter attended their first Weight Watchers meeting together.

For Dori Talbot, Jamie’s friend and Weight Watchers group leader, seeing Jamie at that first meeting was an emotional experience. Dori was already a big fan of “Miss Jamie,” who drove Dori’s young special needs son to school and back each day.

“She was always so sweet with my son,” Dori explains, “and I wanted a chance to do something for her. I’d been trying subliminal messaging for a long time, wearing my Weight Watchers cap every time I went to the bus stop. Two years later, when she finally started coming to meetings, I was so happy because I just knew we could help her. I want to help everyone that comes in my door, but with Jamie, it was really something special.”

Jamie’s journey had begun. That first week, she struggled with portion control, fought to manage her cravings and spent a lot of time reminding herself why she was working so hard. It was stressful, it was difficult and she really didn’t think she was going to lose any weight.

She approached the scale at her second meeting with apprehension, hoping to lose a pound or two. When she finally looked at the number she was shocked; she’d lost nearly 10 pounds in just one week.

Jamie was hooked. First, she focused her energies on changing her eating habits. The program’s system of tracking points worked well for Jamie. She found it easier than trying to count calories.

On a family vacation in Pigeon Forge, TN, in October 2009. At the time this photo was taken, Jamie had lost 182 lbs.

“Portion control was the hardest thing,” she admits. “I was a big eater before. I mean a really, really big eater. I could put it away! Cutting down those portions was tough, but it got me where I am.”

When she reached her first milestone, 10% of her total weight loss goal, she began incorporating exercise into her daily routine. Initially, she could walk only 10 minutes a day.

“I didn’t get very far at first,” she says with a laugh, “but I did it anyway.”

And she kept on doing it. Before long, she was walking three miles and the weight kept coming off. It was a long journey, and there were plenty of ups and downs.

“People need to know that it wasn’t always easy,” says Jamie’s husband Jimmy. “It took a whole lot of will power. There would be weeks she’d gain a little weight even though she stuck to the plan and weeks when she’d maybe backslide a little and gain a few pounds back, and those were hard for her. But the next week she’d be right back in there, setting new goals and sticking to the plan.”

Angela McLain, Jamie’s long-time friend and family member, agrees. “Of course it wasn’t easy,” she says. “But Jamie just bit the bullet. She decided that this was what she wanted and this was what she was going to do and that was the end of it.”

Jamie with her Weight Watchers Leader, Dori Talbott, in October 2010.

It took three and a half years of willpower, but in April of 2010, Jamie finally reached her goal weight of 168 pounds. All told, she had lost a life-changing 182 pounds.

And her life did change – drastically.

Today, Jamie doesn’t hesitate to get down on the floor to play with her young grandchildren or head out for a meal with friends.

Her daughter, Jennifer, is thrilled. “She used to be ok with not going along on outings. Now she’s the first one out the door and telling everybody to hurry up. Going shopping was the worst. I used to hate going shopping for clothes with my mom, not because I was embarrassed – that’s important, because you always hear about overweight people and how their kids are embarrassed to be seen with them. We were never embarrassed about her, not even when we were teenagers. No, the clothes thing was so hard because she was always so sad when nothing fit right and it made me sad, too.”

Not anymore. Jamie lights up when she talks about what it’s like to shop for clothes now.

“I love new clothes,” she says. “It felt so good the first time I walked into a regular store and bought normal-sized clothes! My husband likes to tease me about it. We’ll go into a department store and he’ll stop at the plus sizes and ask if I want to try something on and I can just laugh. It feels good to say ‘Nope, that’s not my section anymore!’”

Her family and friends are eager to explain the differences and to express how proud they are of her. They say she smiles more, laughs more and is more open with other people now, though Jamie admits she’s still a bit shy and doesn’t like speaking in front of crowds. Over and over, people close to her point out the difference in her confidence level.

The 50th Anniversary celebration for Jamie’s parents, June 2006. (L-R.) Jamie’s parents, Helen and James, with their daughters Theree, Rene, Jamie, Gayla and Pam. (Jamie’s sister Missy is not pictured.)

“My mom has always been a very happy person,” says Amanda. “She was happy with her family, her home, her job – every single thing except herself. And now that’s right, too.”

She’s also less tired and much more active. She still walks three miles about three times a week. She loves hiking around Georgia with her husband, who claims he now has to work to keep up with her on their adventures. She also likes to visit Angela, whose property offers plenty of hiking opportunities.

“She’ll come down to see me,” says Angela, “and the next thing I know, we’re tramping through the woods, crawling over logs, climbing up creek banks – climbing creek banks! That never would have happened before. Never.”

Jamie’s journey has changed her life, but it has affected other lives as well. Her journey inspired Jennifer to pursue her own weight loss goals. Three of Jamie’s sisters have lost a combined 200+ pounds. Jimmy’s aunt changed her eating habits and joined a gym. Jimmy even lost few pounds, too. Each has chosen a different path in terms of program and process, but each cites Jamie as a major inspiration.

She’s been a huge inspiration at Weight Watchers, too.

“Members come and go,” explains Dori Talbot. “They get frustrated and they quit and then maybe a few months later they try again. Jamie had a huge impact on people because for three and a half years, she never quit. So people would leave and when they came back, Jamie had lost another 20 or 30 pounds. They’d look at her and they’d say ‘Oh, wow, why did I give up? Look what I could have done by now!’”

Jamie is adamant about giving credit where credit is due, both to the folks at Weight Watchers and also to her family.

Jamie with her grandchildren in November 2010. (L-r) Delaney, one month old; Luke, 11 months old; Addison, 5 1/2 years old.

“My family made all the difference,” she says. “Especially my husband and daughters. They were behind me 100%. They cheered me up when I got discouraged. I couldn’t have done this without them.”

So what advice would Jamie give to people trying to lose weight? Stay active. Remember that you’re changing your lifestyle, not going on a diet. Be positive. Have an open mind. Keep fresh fruit around if you have a sweet tooth. Don’t be afraid to talk to yourself, encourage yourself and tell yourself you can do it – every single day. And never let yourself get really, really hungry, because that’s when you’ll eat way too much.

Jennifer adds: “And if you think you can’t do it, look at my mom. If she can do it, you can too.”

Jamie does have a few wishes (she refuses to call them regrets). She wishes she had started sooner because the obesity damaged her leg veins so badly that she will probably have to wear compression stockings for the rest of her life. She wishes she had a walking partner. The best time for her to walk is between her bus routes and no one she knows is available to walk then. Mostly, she wishes she could have plastic surgery. Like many people who lose an extreme amount of weight, Jamie was left with excess skin, particularly in her abdomen. And like most insurance plans, hers will not cover the expensive surgery needed to remove it.

But, overall, she’s ecstatic.

“I have a whole new life now,” she says. “I don’t even feel like the same person. Every day I wake up and I know that I’m going to be able to do everything and anything I want to do that day. That’s the best feeling ever.”

Photo by Alicia Frese-Klink

Maggie Worth

Maggie Worth is a freelance writer and consultant with a PoliSci degree and 15 years in project management and marketing. An avid mystery reader, co-founder of the Southside Scribes writer's group and member of BWFC, Maggie lives in Fayetteville with her husband, Shane, and their "kid," Rowdy.