The display on the scale read “379.”
“I cried when I saw that number,” said Debbie Gerardi, of North Apollo, who was in the hospital for back surgery in February of 2018. “I thought to myself, ‘How did I get here?’ I was so big that the nurses had trouble finding a vein in my arm for an IV so they had to put it in my neck.”
That situation became a life changing moment for Gerardi.
It motivated her to get moving, she said.
“When I saw that number (on the scale) my husband said ‘You look sick. Are you worried about the operation?’ I was, but I was more worried about the number,” she said.
She turned that worry into lost pounds — 173 of them.
Her path to a healthier lifestyle came after healing from the back operation.
Making a change
After making a few calls, her primary care physician recommended Allegheny Health Network’s Bariatric and Metabolic Institute. Gerardi said AHN is planning on creating a campaign about her journey.
“AHN Bariatrics are so supportive,” she said. “They educate you about your options. It has not been an easy road, but it’s been worth it. I hope people reading my story will be inspired to take control of their health and make time for themselves. It is OK to ask for help with weight loss, and it is never too late to change your life.”
Gerardi had gastric bypass surgery on Aug. 15, 2018.
The operation involves reducing the size of her stomach, dividing the small intestine and attaching the bottom end of the small intestine to the newly created small stomach pouch, according to AHN. People are eligible for the surgery if they have a body mass index, a measure of body fat based on height and weight, of 35 or higher.
“I was about to turn 40, and this was my present to me,” said Gerardi, the mother of son Anthony, 14, and a daughter Sophia, 11. “I was ready to do this. It was a wakeup call. I had my whole life ahead of me.”
The weight loss surgery, along with regular exercise and a diet of more lean protein and limited carbohydrates, allows Gerardi to do things she never could before. She walks two miles a day and does the elliptical for 45 minutes three times a week.
She can ride bicycles with her children and isn’t fearful of not fitting in the seats on rides at Kennywood Park, like she had been when she was bigger.
“I am putting my health first so I can do things with my family,” said Gerardi, who takes vitamins to help her get additional nutrients.
Courtesy of Debbie Gerardi
Debbie Gerardi (left) of North Apollo with her son Anthony, 14, daughter Sophia, 11, and husband Chris.
Gerardi is a role model and example of how not to succumb to being overweight, said Dr. George Eid, system chair for Allegheny Health Network’s Bariatric and Metabolic Institute, who performed her operation. “To not just accept it and live with it, but to empower others and lead by example. Debbie lives in other peoples’ shoes. Some will say this is the easy way out, but it’s not the easy way out, it is the effective way out.”
Eid said there are misconceptions about being overweight. The number of obese people has doubled in the past two years, he said. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2019 Pennsylvania 33.2 % of adults were self-reporting obesity.
“We need more awareness,” said Eid, who has performed more than 7,000 surgeries in his two decades of medicine. “We need to take care of this problem and improve lives.”
He said Gerardi did, and still does, the work to change her life. She embodies the message that he is trying to get across that there is no shame in asking for help.
He compared obesity to being like a person who has fallen into a hole. They most likely can’t get out by themselves, but if they are given help with something such as a ladder they can climb the steps to reach the top.
With medical advancements the operation is safer. It requires small incisions. Many patients go home the following day. There can be side effects, but being overweight can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, he said.
Obesity is a chronic disease. It’s not like smoking where a person can stop cigarettes. People need food to live. He also said in addition to the physical healing of the operation there is a patient’s mental and emotional sides that AHN also considers and works with patients.
Gerardi, 42, said when she looks back on her life she was active as a teenager. But as an adult she worked crazy hours and wasn’t eating right.
She ruptured three discs in her back when she was pregnant with her daughter. Gerardi had emergency surgery at 23 weeks pregnant in 2009.
So when the second back surgery came up in 2018 she knew she had to do something about her weight.
Losing the weight helped her gain confidence, so much so, that when friends suggested she compete in a pageant, she went for it. Her most recent competition was in June in Georgia at a pageant once called Ms. Reigning American. It is now called National United International Elite.
She said she loves the pageant messages of equality, empowerment and empathy.
In her pageant interview, she said she would choose empathy first because “society is too busy arguing about our differences and not listening to each other.”
She won both Ms. Supermodel and Ms. Top Model categories for ages 25 and older out of 17 contestants. Her prize package included $5,000 and a cruise to the Bahamas. It’s about more than the money, trip and crown to Gerardi, she said.
She has been posting her weight journey as well as pageant progress on Instagram and Facebook.
She said she especially enjoys the volunteering side that goes along with the mission of winning a pageant. She is involved with organizations such as Lasagna Love, The Knead Community Café, Play it Forward Pittsburgh and Read Across America.
“I am not a pageant person,” said Gerardi, who works as an accountant for Giant Eagle. “It was not something that wason my bucket list. But it has helped with my courage to put myself out there. And being able to give back through volunteering is important to me.”
She, her mom Nancy Anthony of Kiski Township, and Sophia attended the pageant for a girls’ trip. They along with her husband Chris Gerardi and Anthony have been there for her every lost pound of the way.
“My husband keeps me grounded, and tells me he loves me for who I am,” she said. “My children are always telling me to follow my dream like I tell them all the time. And my mother has been my rock through all of this. She is an amazing woman. They have all helped me with this second chance at life. And I want to be there for them.”
She said the most important thing is to stay positive.
“I try to drown out the negativity,” she said. “It takes willpower. It’s a lifelong commitment. I can give up ice cream and I am OK with that. I look back at all those old photos and I realize every day is a gift.”
One of her most memorable moments of the weight loss journey was when her son hugged her.
“My arms can reach around you when I hug you,” she said her son told her. “That put it all into perspective. Yes, there were tears, reminding me the importance of health and my family and never wanting to see the number 379 pounds on the scale ever again.”