DOVER — At the lowest point of his life, Scott Hamel penned his goodbye. The physical and emotional pain of his obesity, weighing between 400 to 600 pounds, was just too much to bear.
Or so he thought.
Hamel took a step back and eventually made the life-saving decision to have bariatric surgery at Wentworth-Douglass Hospital.
“I had completely forgotten about it (the letter) because my life is just so good now and I want to live forever just so I can feel this good,” he said.
Hamel was overcome with emotion when he recently came across his un-used suicide note while going through some old things. And instead of throwing it away, he decided to share it in a private Facebook group that’s become an essential tool for patients at Wentworth Douglass’ Center for Weight Management and Bariatric Surgery.
The Facebook group was established in June 2019, over a year after the hospital’s first bariatric surgery, as an online community for patients going through the bariatric program at Wentworth-Douglass.
It has over 800 members and has developed into a support group, after-hours resource, personal story forum, and extended family for current and past patients.
The group was established by Lead Bariatric Dietitian Emily Thompson and Program Administrator Brenda Fritz. Thompson says the group has evolved beyond her imagination.
“We really just thought it would be this small group. I think at the time we didn’t know that our program would have the potential that it had,” Thompson said.
Fritz says that while bariatric surgeons and staff are in the group and interact with patients and answer questions about surgery and post-surgery lifestyle, it’s sometimes beneficial to just sit back and let the patients interact with each other.
“They hear it from their dietitian, they hear it from the nurse practitioner, they hear it from the surgeon, they hear it from me, but hearing it from real people who lived this, I think is so powerful,” she said.
Hamel, and Merrie Marks, are two of the groups most active members and strongest advocates.
Marks had sleeve gastrectomy surgery in 2018 and a revision to Roux-en-Y gastric bypass in 2021, while Hamel had Roux-en-Y gastric bypass surgery in 2019. Both say the Facebook group has played an important role in helping them maintain healthy lifestyles.
Supporting a healthy lifestyle
On a typical day, the Facebook group will contain questions about exercise, nutrition, and concerns about lack of weight loss, and weight gain.
“You have a huge sounding board, it’s kind of like calling your mother or your brother for advice,” he said. “A lot of the posts that we get are ‘the scale is not moving and I’m at a stall’ and you just kind of reinforce that it will happen, don’t live your life by the scale, just go with the flow and just keep moving.”
Hamel says the interactions on the group are also educational, because they reinforce the idea that the surgery is only part of the bariatric journey and it’s ultimately the commitment to a new lifestyle that leads to people accomplishing their weight loss goals.
“The stereotype that this (the surgery) is the easy way out, that’s starting to go by the wayside,” Hamel said. “It’s actually the harder way out because you have to change your whole mindset, your whole lifestyle. What you eat, when you eat, who you eat with, it’s crazy.”
Marks said she particularly likes it when people share healthy food ideas and recipes, because it positively reinforces the post-surgery lifestyle.
“You’ve got to live this lifestyle because it’s (the surgery) not magic,” Marks said. “Yes, it’s an amazing tool, but you must commit to this lifestyle for the rest of your life. It’s a lifestyle, it has the word life in it.”
Marks said that even in cases where posts start out negative, the group usually works it out through education, and most conversations end on a positive note. Marks added that while the group always tries to be positive, you sometimes must be stern to hold people accountable.
“It’s not sugarcoating, it’s giving the truth, this is hard work and you need to make sure you’re ready,” she said. “We’re given a tool (the surgery) and we need to treat it with respect and do everything we can to keep that intact and treat our bodies with respect and dignity.”
Marks said one of the reasons why she’s so active on the group is because the surgery has been life-changing for her and she wants to share her experience with others.
Hamel cried when he found the suicide letter that he wrote three months prior to coming to Wentworth-Douglass. Even though finding the letter made him emotional, he still felt it was important to post on the Facebook group to potentially help others.
“Just the fact that you’re on the page and somebody reaches out to you with a question, or they see your story and tell you that you inspired them, that just does something to your heart. It motivates you,” Hamel said. “When I tell anyone about how I lost my weight, I tell them about the program and how it literally saved my life. I wouldn’t be here today without all these wonderful people.”
Fritz says Hamel’s story made everyone emotional and that she continues to be impressed by how patients are willing to open up to each other in the group.
“Our patients have shared some very personal stories, and I think that it’s so brave sometimes what people are willing to share,” Fritz said. “I think the result of that is people get so much encouragement and they feel like they’re not alone. They feel like they’re part of this family.”
Marks says she loves it when people post about their personal transformation stories, with before and after photos.
“When you see those hearts and thumbs up for someone’s transformation photo, or their face-to-face photos, you sometimes say, ‘that’s not even the same person,’” Marks said. “You build friendships out of that with people that you never would’ve met otherwise.”
Keeping it fun
Not every post on the bariatric Facebook group must be serious, in fact having fun is encouraged.
Many group members like to use hashtags in their posts to pay tribute to the doctors and staff. There’s #bodybydima (Dr. Dmytro Havaleshko), #thompsontribe (Emily Thompson), and #poweredbypacuilli (Dr. Cynthia Barbarits), to name a few.
Another popular activity of the group is posting pictures of themselves enjoying the activities they couldn’t do before losing the weight, including hiking mountains, running 5Ks, marathons, and other outdoor activities.
Hamel was ecstatic to post a picture to the page of him at the top of Mount Major in Alton, because it was the first time since he was 12 years old that he was physically able to climb a mountain.
“Climbing that mountain again, I actually got to the top and I had tears in my eyes,” he said. “I posted a picture and I thought this would be great if we had a sign that said where we came from, the bariatric journey.”
Hamel shared his idea with Thompson, who then commissioned special signs saying #WDNewMe. Members of the group are being encouraged to post photos on the group using the sign.
Hamel said he’s looking forward to posting photos all summer, but is particularly looking forward to the fall when he hopes to accomplish his goal of climbing Mount Washington.
Marks said that being able to share all these experiences, the good and bad, is ultimately what makes the bariatric Facebook group so special.
“I think a way of life is to surround yourself with like-minded people, who have like-minded goals and personalities. I think the group allows us to do more of that,” she said. “I know I have minimized interactions with people in my life who were not a positive reinforcement and upped my interactions with other people and I’ve formed a couple pretty amazing friendships with people in this group.”
Learn more about the Center for Weight Management and Bariatric Surgery.
Aaron Sanborn is a Communications, Public Relations and Social Media Specialist at Wentworth-Douglass Hospital.
This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: Wentworth-Douglass bariatric patients build a community of support on Facebook