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.
For more information on TOPS or to find a local chapter, visit www.tops.org.Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nu...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5100.