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From despair to helping others: Alexandria woman organizes weight-loss conference

Betty Haskins performs leg exercises on a rotary hip machine in the cardio room at the Nelson Wellness Center last Friday. (Lowell Anderson | Echo Press)1 / 3
Betty Haskins weighed 494 pounds when she started preparing for weight-loss surgery. She now weighs 180. (Contributed.)2 / 3
Betty Haskins shows the size 6X pants she used to wear before weight-loss surgery.3 / 3

When Betty Haskins teetered on the rail of a California pier, willing the surfers to move so she could jump to her death, she could not envision that someday, she would use her suffering to help others.

"Are you OK?" a stranger asked her.

"I'm fine. Just looking," she replied. Far below, the surfers didn't budge, waiting for just the right wave. Concluding the plunge might not work, she walked away.

It wasn't her first suicide attempt. Haskins was in her 40s, morbidly obese, weighing over 400 pounds. Her joints hurt. Her soul hurt. Looking back at her old self, she describes her despair as a spirit of suicide that came over her, willing her further into self-destruction.

Now in her 60s, Haskins has gone through weight-loss surgery, losing hundreds of pounds. She lives in Alexandria, where she grew up. In 2014, she started a support group for those who have also gone through bariatric surgeries.She is organizing a conference at Arrowwood Resort from July 21-23. Called "Max Out Your Loss," its goal is to address issues important to bariatric patients, such as whole-family fitness, pregnancy and addiction.

"This is a patient-driven conference," she said. "This is put on by patients. It's not put on by a company that's trying to get rich. It's a conference to get the bariatric patients healthy again."

Though still trying to raise the remaining $15,000-$20,000 to finance the conference, she has rounded up some notable speakers, including two physicians, other health-care professionals and a social media entrepreneur from Texas who develops recipes for bariatric patients.

Morbid obesity drives up health care costs, she said, and she believes that the conference could help address the problem in Douglas County and beyond.

Her own story began as a big-boned child who grew into a size 18 teenager. When boys rejected her, she turned to food, believing it was her friend, she said. People hounded her about her weight; food brought comfort. A boy she liked told her he would take her out if she lost 50 pounds. She felt degraded.

She drank too much and started smoking up to four packs a day, all aimed at keeping others at a distance. Eventually, her weight strained her joints and she developed bone spurs and diabetes. She had to start using a walker to get around.

Weight loss surgery helped her drop back to her high school weight, 180 pounds.

Haskins said she no longer feels suicidal. She believes God gives everyone a purpose, and that hers is to help other people struggling with the same issues that tormented her. In Minnesota, 26.1 percent of adults were considered obese in 2015. A person is considered obese when body mass index is 30 or higher. Haskins notices obesity wherever she goes.

"It's not to pass judgment, because I was there," she said. "Something needs to be done. ... I don't want any more kids going through what I went through."

Weight-loss surgery ended her diabetes symptoms. But it also upended her lifestyle.

She can't gulp water anymore — her tiny stomach pouch won't let her. She can only sip. And she has to keep sipping, or she'll get dehydrated and end up in the emergency room. She says she ends up in the ER at least monthly.

Beverages are a huge deal. She can't drink a half hour before or after a meal because the beverage will fill her up and she won't absorb nutrients from the food. Carbonation is off limits. So is French dressing, which contains an oil she can't tolerate.

She's also had multiple plastic surgeries to remove excess skin.

And despite the trauma of weight-loss surgery, she knows many bariatric patients who have regained their weight.

"People have this idea that we're taking an easy way out, that this is a quick fix and it really isn't," she said. "It's more intense than most people think."

Conference topics include nutrition, joint pain, addiction, plastic surgery, pregnancy after bariatric surgery and relationships.

Since obesity often runs in families, the conference is designed to help families, not only the bariatric patient, Haskins said. There will be childcare and children's activities, as well as group fitness activities.

Natalie Heckert, an Alexandria fitness entrepreneur, said she will teach conference participants how to regain muscle and metabolism.

"It should be a great event," Heckert said. ""We want to give people hope and make it doable and surround them with people who can help. You don't have to struggle on your own."

Conference information

July 21-23 at Arrowwood Resort and Conference Center in Alexandria.

Event registration costs $20 for a single person and $30 for a couple. Saturday lunch buffet costs $25 and the Saturday evening banquet costs $45. A dance will follow the banquet. For more information, visit amazingjourneystogether.com/.

Line-up of speakers

Twin Cities plastic surgeon and bariatric patient Adam Lokeh

Dr. Siegfried Feierabend from Heartland Orthopedics

Nurse practitioner Donna Schneider, a bariatric weight loss management specialist

Alyssa Monson, a dietician from CentraCare in St. Cloud.

Alexandria fitness entrepreneur Natalie Heckert of E-Fit

Patricia Hill, a Texan who develops recipes for weight-loss surgery patients and who has 22,500 followers on her Facebook page, My Bariatric Kitchen.

Support group

A support group for those considering bariatric surgery or who have gone through it meets at the Douglas County Hospital main floor meeting room on the second Thursday and fourth Tuesday of the month from 6:30-8 p.m.

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