Teays Valley woman maintains 300-pound weight loss, gains national recognition
TEAYS VALLEY, W.Va. -- A decade ago, Jo Cooper decided she wanted to live.
Cooper, a Teays Valley resident, had been obese her whole life, but it wasn't until after more than 20 years of struggling with her weight that she said she realized accountability could mean the difference between life and death.
"The weight came on, and honestly, I grew up thinking I could do anything; weight to me wasn't an excuse," Cooper said. "It took me a while to really realize -- even though I knew I was heavy, I still did things."
Cooper has always struggled with her weight. At her heaviest, she weighed 520 pounds and suffered from high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes.
Today, she weighs in at about 190 pounds, the lightest she has been since early middle school, and was recognized last month by the organization that helped her achieve her success as its first member to lose more than 300 pounds and maintain her target weight.
Take Off Pounds Sensibly, or TOPS, is a nonprofit weight loss organization that focuses on group support and individual responsibility as a way to lose and maintain weight reasonably. Cooper was recognized at TOPS International Recognition Days held in Calgary, Canada, in July as its first-ever Three Century Award winner for her total weight loss.
Cooper began attending TOPS meetings while in high school, and joined a chapter of the organization while attending Glenville State College. After graduating in 1983, she spent several years away before rejoining the organization in 1991 and helping to found a new chapter in St. Albans.
It wasn't until 2001 that Cooper realized her success would require more than yoyo weight loss without a true goal. She had lost and gained weight during that time, but knew she needed to make a lasting change if she wanted to be healthy.
"I knew I would have been heavier than what I was without TOPS, but I still didn't see it," Cooper said. "They were advertising bariatric centers in Ohio, and at the time, there was nothing like that in this area. My father finally said, 'Jo, what's more important, your life or TOPS?' I was worried about it being TOPS and what people thought.
"I finally decided that I wanted to live."
Cooper underwent duodenal switch surgery, a weight loss procedure where doctors remove part of the stomach and reroute a portion of the intestines, in October 2002. She reached her first goal weight of 268 pounds in December 2003, and has maintained her weight loss since.
"A lot of people think, 'wow, surgery. That's the answer.' It took me a long time to accept the kudos from people, because I felt like people just looked at it like, 'oh, well, it was the surgery. That's why you lost weight,'" she said.
Cooper said TOPS' former obesity and metabolic research director, Dr. Ahmed Kissebah, said surgery was only effective for 12 to 18 months after the operation without lifestyle changes before patients regained weight. Cooper lost 24 pounds last year and 34 pounds in 2011 and has consistently maintained her weight loss since her surgery.
Barbara Cady, a Fairmont native and president of TOPS, said the organization is unique in its approach to weight loss because it is primarily a support organization -- TOPS encourages people to develop their own diet and exercise plans based on doctor recommendations and helps people stick with it through a local support network.
"Losing weight just doesn't happen one hour a day one day a week. It's a 24/7 choice," Cady said. "In a day's time, you probably make 200 choices as far as food is concerned -- whether to eat it or not eat it, to eat something else instead, to go for a walk in place of eating, or simply stressing about food."
Cady, who has been president of TOPS since 2005, said she joined the organization as a young woman who wanted a family but whose weight prevented her from having a healthy pregnancy.
"The doctor said that if I ever wanted to have a successful pregnancy that I needed to lose weight," she said. "My primary motivator was to be healthy enough to have children, and it's something I look back on with great fondness."
Cady now has three adult sons and said her motivation and the commitment of members like Cooper are what make TOPS an important weight loss tool for people around the world.
"For every person, it's a dedication to the goal," she said. "[Cooper] never gave up, she always stayed true to what she wanted to accomplish, and I think it's that focus that helps any of us be successful in any area of life -- the willingness to do what you need to do to get to where you want to go."
Cooper, who serves as the TOPS area captain for Kanawha, Boone, Lincoln, Logan and Clay counties, said that although surgery carries risk -- a severe vitamin A deficiency caused by her procedure made her temporary blind in 2005 -- she believes her choice was unavoidable and the best decision for her wellness, and that TOPS has helped maintain that wellness.
"I don't want to be a has-been," she said. "I'm going to be an 'I am.' I want to be able to say 'I am,' and be able to look back 10 years from now and say, 'that was great, and look where I am today -- I'm still there.'"
TOPS has 117 chapters in West Virginia and 2,060 members who collectively lost 11,218 pounds last year. West Virginia ranks No. 2 in the country in the number of obese residents; 32.5 percent of the adult population in the state is obese.