Camas woman determined to complete tough weight-loss journey

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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photoLaina Harris holds a photograph of her family on a vacation to Disneyland. Harris has few photos of herself as she often tries to avoid the camera due to her weight.

(/The Columbian)

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Laina Harris wasn't always 420 pounds.

At age 18, she weighed 150 pounds, slim for her 5-foot-11-inch frame. In the next decade, she got married, launched a full-time career as a pharmacy technician and had her first child, now 13.

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Follow Laina Harris' weight-loss journey by visiting her blog; or by following her on Twitter.

By 2000, the then-28-year-old's weight had climbed to 240 pounds. She had two more children, now 8 and 10 years old, and took time off from her career to raise her kids.

Several years later, when Harris' husband lost his job, they decided to swap roles: Harris would become the breadwinner while her husband stayed home with the kids.

BMI by the numbers

Body mass index is a measure of body fat based on height and weight.

Underweight = <18.5.

Normal weight = 18.5–24.9.

Overweight = 25–29.9.

Obese = BMI of 30 or greater.

Find your own BMI using this online calculator.

Then came the startling reality: Harris' weight, for the first time, would impede her ability to work.

She had reached the point where she could no longer stand on her feet for eight hours. She couldn't even stand for four.

"It was so humiliating," said Harris, 40. "I was so good at my job, my livelihood, and I couldn't do it."

So she got a desk job running the pharmacy program for a local health insurance company. But all of the sitting led to a herniated disc in her back, one that doctors couldn't operate on because of Harris' size.

At that time, in the fall of 2009, Harris weighed 420 pounds, making her body mass index score 58.6. A BMI of 25 is considered overweight; 30 or greater is obese.

She joined her company's Weight Watchers program and brought her weight down to 401 pounds before quitting her job to care for her mother in 2010.

Then, last March, Harris' mother died. The loss made the mother of three realize she wasn't living her life.

She hadn't been on a plane since 2002 because she couldn't face the humiliation of not fitting into one, or even two, airplane seats. When her family took a vacation to Disneyland, Harris watched as her husband and kids enjoyed the rides. She was too heavy to ride. During trips to the beach, Harris watched from her chair as her family enjoyed the water and played in the sand.

"I was watching my life. I wasn't in life," Harris said. "I wanted to step out and feel my life."

After spending her entire adult life dieting to no avail, Harris decided to pursue weight-loss surgery.

But to qualify for the outpatient surgery, as opposed to the more costly and intensive in-patient procedure, Harris needed to lose some weight on her own. So she adopted some simple recommendations from her doctor: eliminate caffeine, refined sugars and starches; eat one lean-green meal a day; and exercise at least 20 minutes a day.

Through those changes, Harris got her weight down to 389 pounds. Then, the financing for her procedure fell through.

Faced with the choice to give up or continue the weight-loss journey on her own, Harris chose the more difficult route.

She's continued following the doctor's diet recommendations -- a way of life she's confident she can sustain. She's modified her favorite recipes so she can eat with her family, as opposed to eating premade diet food in a box.

Harris has also continued to exercise. Some days she walks a 1-mile loop around her downtown Camas home in the morning and evening. Other days, she goes to the gym and walks on the treadmill for an hour.

Today, Harris is down to 367 pounds.

Despite all that she's done, Harris knows she has more work to do.

She's been fortunate not to develop medical issues often linked to obesity, such as hypertension and diabetes. She knows that luck will only last for so long.

Harris wants to lose enough weight to reach a normal, healthy body mass index score. She'd love to see the scale read 150 pounds again.

She wants to be able to play soccer with her son. She wants to prevent her daughters from making her mistakes.

To get there, Harris knows she'll face obstacles.

She expects to hit a wall, when the weight will come off more slowly. But she looks forward to the day when she can lift weights to tone her muscles, have the strength to do push-ups, and be able ride her stationary bicycle without the motion pinching her tummy.

She knows she will have to continue to endure the critical stares and whispers of others. She feels the eyes as she sits down for a meal with her family at a restaurant. She hears the comments about her size when she walks by.

So she wears sunglasses and headphones when she goes on her daily walks. It makes the hurtful behavior easier to ignore.

Everyone has shortcomings, Harris said, her shortcoming is just more apparent. But like others' failures, Harris' weight doesn't define her.

"I'm more than a size," she said. "I have a brain. I'm smart. I have more to offer than my size."

And she's ready to leave the burden of her weight in the past.

"I pretty much thought I would be that way for the rest of my life," Harris said. "It's exciting to take a hold of it and move forward."

"It'll be a different life," she added.

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health;http://facebook.com/reporterharshman;marissa.harshman@columbian.com.