Justra's story: The will to lead a healthier life

At nearly 300 pounds, Justra chose to undergo weight loss surgery with the help of Brigham and Women's. Her decision helped her reach her weight loss goals and achieve a healthier life.

Losing more than 135 pounds in 24 months was a change Justra made to improve her life.

Justra, 57, brings warmth and energy to everything she does. She's the sort of person who moves through life at top velocity—planning music classes for small children, dance routines for friends, and impromptu fashion shows for her social media followers.

But in recent years, she had become worried about her health. The concerns, which she largely kept to herself, had become impossible to ignore, so she made a decision to put her own health first.

Now, almost two years later, she is 135 pounds lighter and firmly fixed on a new mission: to support others through their own weight loss journeys.

A lifestyle not worth its weight

Justra's own winding path has taken her from an active young adulthood on the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao, where she was "always running, jumping, swimming," to a more sedentary life in the United States and a two-decades-long struggle with her weight.

"I couldn't do fun things that I love to do," she says. "Some days it felt like I couldn't do ... anything. I just knew things had to change."

Like so many weight-loss patients, Justra's struggles did not develop overnight. She enjoyed a full life as a teacher of disabled children and adults and had an expansive circle of friends on the North Shore.

But despite her best efforts, her weight increased steadily over the decades.

Eventually, she began to feel excluded from too many treasured moments: ziplining with friends on vacation, taking long bike rides, keeping pace with her church's dance team, dressing in stiletto heels for a night out on the town.

There were also the more mundane daily inconveniences of painful joints walking up stairs and the fruitless shopping trips to the mall where it seemed nothing—not even plus-sized clothes—fit anymore.

She became increasingly fearful of her cholesterol and blood pressure levels, as well as the other health risks excess weight places on the body. By 2016, the Cambridge resident weighed nearly 300 pounds.

A thoughtful decision toward better health

Justra knew she needed a fresh approach. "You have to lose the weight because it affects you — physically and emotionally. I was worried. I thought, 'How many years can I live like this?'"

She was eager to pursue weight loss surgery but knew from experience how involved the process could be.

Years earlier, she had elected to undergo gastric band surgery in an effort to lose weight. But it wasn't as effective as she hoped it would be. Now, most hospitals no longer even perform that particular procedure due to its lack of long-term weight loss.

Afraid for her health and for her future, she sought out Dr. Malcolm Robinson, a bariatric (weight loss) surgeon at the Brigham and Women's Center for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery.

"It was hard to start again, but I was also excited because I knew I had the right team," Justra says. "I did lots of research on every aspect. They are the best of the best, the top of the line for healthcare."

In 2017, she elected to undergo a laparoscopic sleeve gastrectomy, a minimally-invasive procedure that reduces the size of the stomach and alters hunger signals to the brain. The procedure typically results in weight loss of about 25 percent of a person's total body weight.

Before she could complete the surgery, however, Justra worked extensively with her team at Brigham and Women's to understand the role surgery would play in her life, as well as the nutritional, psychological, and lifestyle changes she'd have to make to achieve long term success.

That supportive approach to care was something that really resonated with Justra. "I was part of the family, everyone knew me at the Brigham," she says.

According to Malcolm Robinson, MD, the Brigham and Women's team approach is what makes their program so special.

"It's not just working with the surgeon. It's not just showing up on the day of surgery … it's a team effort. But the most important team member is the patient," Dr. Robinson says.

Like many weight loss surgery patients, Justra found herself frequently explaining her choice to pursue the surgery to family and friends, as well as the importance of sticking to nutrition and exercise plans before and after the procedure.

"A lot of people who are overweight have been struggling for a long period of time," says Dr. Robinson. "They have tried diets, they have tried exercise, they have tried pushing away from the table, and a lot of time friends and family don't really understand how tough it is to make a decision to potentially consider surgery."

A renewed spirit

After her procedure, Justra says she feels a call to educate others about her success with weight loss surgery. "I want to help other people with their weight loss journeys. It's a mission for me."

Daniele, Justra's longtime friend and exercise buddy, says she admires how Justra has overcome many obstacles in pursuit of a healthy lifestyle. "All her friends at our church are so proud of her. She inspires everyone she meets."

In recent months, Justra has enjoyed rediscovering the fun in shopping for clothes—in a size 10. She says, "I have to put myself on a budget now!"

Most weeks, exercise is a daily priority. She bikes, rollerblades, plays tennis, performs in dance exhibitions with her church group, and sings with her toddler-aged music students at a public library.

"I have so much more confidence, and I am very grateful," she says.

Justra intends to remain close to her Brigham and Women's care team for frequent support and nutritional and health monitoring. "I have a great team supporting me. They brought me to where I am today."

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