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Diversionary Tactic Changes Life of Former Champion of the Stout

Times Staff Writer

Joyce Rue was fat.

Very fat. The kind of fat that precludes activities that most people take for granted, such as sitting in an airplane seat, going to the movies or being able to see whether your shoes match your dress without using a mirror.

But that was OK with her. Even though Rue had tried every imaginable method to lose weight, from hypnosis to stomach stapling, by 1981 she had come to terms with her body. That was the year that Rue founded Abundantly Yours, a San Diego support group for the chronically Rubenesque.

Rue, vivacious and personable even at 300-plus pounds, encouraged others to embrace their fatness, to accept themselves and find joy in life. In its heyday, Abundantly Yours had 2,700 members, and there was talk of opening chapters worldwide.

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Then the trouble set in. In 1987 Rue blossomed to 392 pounds and learned firsthand why obesity is considered a life-threatening condition.

“I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t sleep--I’d wake up gasping for breath because of the weight on my lungs,” she said in a recent interview.

‘Life Wasn’t Worth Living’

Out of desperation, she went on a 700-calorie-a-day diet--but still kept gaining weight. By that summer, Rue’s mobility was so severely restricted that she was clinically disabled and collecting Social Security because she couldn’t work.

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“I was a mess and it just kept getting worse,” she said. “My life at that point wasn’t worth living.” She figured she was about six months away from being confined to a wheelchair.

Something had to be done. Something drastic. Something, as it turned out, that not only changed Rue’s body but her mind as well.

Despite the fact that an earlier attempt at gastric stapling had proved a miserable failure, Rue decided to go under the surgeon’s knife for a second time, in June, 1987. This time she chose a relatively new procedure called bilio pancreatic diversion, in which the intestines essentially are shortened, in effect preventing the patient from digesting fats and starches.

212 Pounds Lighter

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Two years later and 212 pounds lighter, 46-year-old Rue now espouses bilio pancreatic diversion with the same missionary zeal she once applied to Abundantly Yours.

“My whole life has just changed so wonderfully and dramatically,” she said. “It’s the best thing I ever did.”

In fact, Rue now works in the office of the surgeon who performed the procedure, Dr. Wesley G. Clark. A former operating room nurse, she counsels obese patients who are considering having BPD surgery and helps them through the post-surgical and weight-loss process, coaching them on proper eating habits and offering emotional support.

At 180 pounds, Rue is still overweight, but now fits easily into the normal-size world. Formerly a size 62, she now shops in regular department stores for size-16 clothes.

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Rue underwent a “tummy tuck” June 27 to remove the leftover flesh hanging around her midriff. The skin was then donated to a national burn center to be used for grafts. By the time she’s fully recovered, Rue figures, she’ll be another 30 pounds lighter.

“I’ll never be a size 10, but that’s OK,” she said recently. “I’m doing things now I’ve never been able to do, like cross my legs at the knees. I can walk up and down the aisle of an airplane, and fit in a restaurant booth.”

Surprising Discovery

She can play miniature golf now because, for the first time, she can bend over to retrieve the ball. She also thrills at the simple act of being able to wrap a bath towel all the way around her waist--and being able to pick the towel up off the floor if she drops it.

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“I was lying in bed one night after I lost the weight and I felt a bump on my body--I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got a tumor!’ ” Rue said. Then she realized there was a matching bump on the other side--she was feeling her hip bones.

“Those are things most people just take for granted, but everything is new to me. I would never have dreamed it possible!”

Clark, who was listening in, nodded toward Rue and said with a smile, “This is a pretty typical reaction.” Most of his patients, he said, had given up on having fun, until their weight loss provided them with a new zest for life.

“Most seriously obese people live lonely, isolated lives,” Rue said. “They don’t care how they look.” She paused, then rolled her eyes. “I swear, I’ll never wear another muumuu as long as I live.”

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Rue is clearly delighted with her new body image, and dresses the part. Having sworn off muumuus and tent-like skirts with expandable waistlines, she wears sleek clothes in bright colors and dangling, fashion-statement earrings. A delicate gold anklet calls attention to her legs, which she repeatedly crosses and uncrosses while she speaks.

Rue looks back fondly on the days of Abundantly Yours and what it stood for--acceptance of yourself, imperfect body and all. But she doesn’t miss her fat days one bit.

During the peak of popularity of Abundantly Yours, Rue did a tour of talk shows to promote the group, and was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey and Geraldo Rivera, among others. She found that her natural flair for dramatics and her bachelor’s degree in marketing and advertising came in handy for promoting the group.

Despite the hype, Rue still wanted desperately to lose weight. She tried “every kind of diet known to man,” from the Atkins to the Zebra (only black and white foods allowed). Over the years, she figured, she had lost 2,200 pounds--and gained it all back.

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She tried having her stomach stapled in 1981, but the surgery did not agree with her. The procedure, which essentially reshapes the stomach into a tiny pouch, allows the consumption of only a few tablespoons of food at a time. While it works for some, “it created a surgical bulimic out of me,” Rue said, adding that she had a hard time keeping food down. She initially lost 48 pounds, then regained it, then developed a host of medical complications and finally decided to have the surgery reversed.

Abundantly Yours dissolved after Rue had her second, and ultimately successful, weight-loss operation.

“I feel real grateful that I had the inspiration to start it, because it helped a lot of people feel better about themselves, regardless of their size,” Rue said. “But sometimes I feel very sad that I couldn’t make it survive on my own.”

She still occasionally gets together with some of the group’s members, a few of whom followed her lead and had weight-loss surgery. Other former members, she said, have become distant and some friendships have disappeared.

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On the flip side, Rue has found that some people who ignored her when she was fat are friendly with her now. It sometimes angers her, she said, that friendships have been won or lost simply because of the size of her body.

Rue has endured prejudice many times in her lifetime of obesity, and the bad memories started early.

“It’s very painful, especially to be a fat child. I started feeling it around 4 or 5 years old, when I saw the other kids’ dads could easily carry them,” she said. “My parents kept taking me to doctors and they kept saying it was just baby fat and she’ll lose it.”

By the time she was 11 years old, Rue weighed 230 pounds. At 16, she weighed 345.

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“When you’re a little kid and you’re different, you’re rejected,” she said, tears welling up at the memory.

To compensate, she became an overachiever, a class clown, and tried singing and dramatics--anything to gain acceptance by her peers. She finally got her chance to sing a class solo, but ended up having to sing it from behind a curtain.

“They said it was because I didn’t have the proper clothes to wear. That was pretty humiliating.”

She believes, as her doctor does, that obesity is often genetically inherited, and that diet and exercise just don’t work for the seriously obese.

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“Yet most people view obesity as a kind of moral issue,” Rue said, “as if fat people somehow lack discipline.”

Because of that, the obese often work for less money than they are worth because of weight discrimination, Rue said.

“Employers think that when you’re sluggish in body, you’re also sluggish in mind,” she said. “But if they had the insight to hire and promote fat people, they would find people who work their butts off to overcompensate for the inadequacy they feel.”

Rue married at 29, but her husband died three years later. “It wasn’t the best relationship,” she said. “I married him because I felt it was my last chance.”

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Rue said she gave up on romance. “The men I met who had a preference for fat women were too kinky or weird, so that’s the way it’s been for a lot of years.”

But since she has lost weight, she said, “my motor’s running. . . . I’m real open to the idea of having a man in my life.”

Rue’s plans include a return to acting as well as learning how to roller skate, ballroom dance, ride a bicycle and hang-glide.

“Every day,” she said with a grin, “is kind of like an adventure.”

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