Nurses and obesity: Helen’s story

1 March 2014

When orthopaedic nurse Helen Bloomer talks to her overweight patients about weight loss, she can see them thinking “what would that skinny runt know”.

If it’s the right time and the right patient, she tells them she knows quite a bit and will share her story of going from size 24 plus jeans to size ten.

At the same time, she is also very conscious that her choice of radical private bariatric surgery four years ago is not financially or personally the answer for everybody.

But after years of dieting, exercising, and counseling to try and address her yo-yoing weight – which saw her peak at 113 kg and a BMI of 36 – she doesn’t regret her choice one iota.

She says she may have been fat but she was always fit, and apart from having high blood pressure when pregnant with her now 12-year-old daughter, her blood sugar levels were good, her cholesterol levels in an acceptable range, and she felt healthy and physically well able to do her job right up to her surgery.

“It was more emotional and psychological discomfort than physical,” says Bloomer of her motivations for the surgery.

“…the impact of society and people’s beliefs. Though in hindsight, probably physical as well.

“Talking to patients at work about being overweight was a bit hypocritical.”

Weight has been a life-long issue, though initially, it was more of an issue for Bloomer’s mother than for her energetic, active, and plump daughter. Her loving but critical mum’s comments about her body shape and eating habits started when she was just five or six.

“I can remember her dragging me along to Weight Watchers if not at intermediate then definitely at high school.”

During her nursing career, her weight continued to grow, and while she doesn’t believe nursing as such impacted on her weight, she is conscious of the research about shiftwork and scoffing your food too fast in a snatched meal break. Depression has also been an issue.

“I struggled the whole time doing Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, starving myself, micro diets … the whole lot … losing lots of weight then putting on twice as much again. Doing lots of exercise, joining gyms. So it’s been a constant until four years ago.”

That is when she decided to follow her partner (who has lost more than 65 kilos) in having a radical Fobi Pouch gastric bypass, which reduced her stomach to the size of a man’s thumb. It involved major abdominal surgery, costing about $35,000 and requiring considerable time off work, so it was not a step taken without a lot of thought by the couple.

One motivating factor was their daughter and not wanting her to be judged “because she had two fat mothers” and because, eventually, the weight would have started to have a physical impact on their health and ability to be active older parents.

Bloomer reiterates her solution is not for everybody and people need to have a BMI of over 35 and go through counseling before being accepted for the radical private surgery which leaves you only able to eat the equivalent of three cups of food a day – one cup at a time.

With research indicating that bariatric surgery is the only answer for some morbidly obese people, she thinks the government should seriously consider increasing funding for public surgery as the costs could soon be recouped by savings from reduced diabetic kidney failure, amputations, heart attacks, and strokes.*

She hasn’t looked back since her own surgery and says while her weight was never obviously an issue with her patients, and her relationship with her nursing mates is unchanged, it has made her “more visible” to some others at the hospital.

“Like the surgeons I’ve worked with for 15 years who didn’t talk to me before and suddenly they know my name and are happy to have a conversation with me,” says Bloomer. “For orthopaedic surgeons – who are weight obsessed at the best of times – I’ve become human. It’s awful but it’s seriously true.”

Having been on both sides of the fence, she is angry that stereotypes still abound about “fat” people. “I say as long as you are fit, healthy, and happy, nobody should comment or have an opinion, really.”

When it comes to whether obese nurses should be ethically expected to “walk the talk”, she says that is a hard one. She agrees with smoking research having repeatedly proven that smoking is bad for the smoker’s health; that health professionals should walk the talk and encourage others to give up.

“So if I follow that logic through, then if excess weight is having a negative physical impact on our health, then we should try to live a healthier lifestyle.”

As an orthopaedic nurse, she is also well aware that six times your weight is borne by your hip joint every time you take a step.

“Every kilo you are overweight is increasing the stress on the hip joint by six kilos … and so if you are ten kilos over, it is like carrying an extra person on your hip joint,” says Bloomer.

“I understand in a way why orthopaedic surgeons do get grumpy.

“In a way we are role models, but it’s not easy. If you smoke, it isn’t easy to give up, and if you are overweight, it isn’t easy to lose weight.”

*BARIATRIC SURGERY: The number of publicly-funded bariatric surgeries has risen from 131 in 2008 to 421 in 2013 partly due to four years of extra targeted funding. People need to have a BMI of 40 or over to be considered for public bariatric surgery.