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Suicidal at 575 pounds, she now weighs 165

After decades of unsuccessful attempts to control her weight, 575-pound Tammey Burns was in such despair that she attempted suicide. But she survived and went on to lose 410 pounds without surgery. “Food was my drug of choice,” she said.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

When she hit 575 pounds, Tammey Burns tried to commit suicide. The attempt didn’t work, leaving the Missouri woman with no other choice but to finally lose the hundreds of pounds of fat that had robbed her of her life.

It took seven years and a journey deep within herself, but today the newest member of the Joy Fit Club weighs in at a trim 165 pounds.

Burns showed off her new figure and shared her story with Joy Fit Club founder Joy Bauer and TODAY’s Matt Lauer Monday in New York. To illustrate how much fat she lost, huge buckets filled with 410 pounds of lard were piled on risers on the stage. Next to them stood three TODAY interns — two women and one man who together weigh as much as Burns did before she lost all that weight.

The Joy Fit Club consists of men and women who have lost and kept off 100 pounds or more. All of them have done it by diet and exercise; none by surgery. Burns is the 72nd member of the club — but none of her predecessors has lost as much weight as she has.

A life of limits
“Food was my drug of choice,” the 50-year-old woman told Lauer and Bauer. It took the failed suicide attempt to force her to discover that.

At the time, the list of things Burns couldn’t do was endless. She couldn’t visit friends for fear she’d break any furniture she sat on. Couldn’t get in a car. Couldn’t go to the movies. Couldn’t attend to her own hygiene without help.

She couldn’t pick her foot up high enough to climb even one low step, couldn’t take more than two or three steps without gasping for breath. Just standing for more than a couple of minutes caused severe pain in her hips and back.

Even sleeping lying down was a near impossibility.

Burns was going through five liters of oxygen a day. She had hypertension, restrictive lung disease, sleep apnea, respiratory insufficiency, obesity hypoventilation syndrome, venous stasis insufficiency, diabetes. The right side of her enlarged heart was failing.

For years, Burns had tried every fad diet without success. But, she said, the secret to finally taking control of her body and her life came down to “working from within — from the inside out.”

Walking a long roadIt didn’t happen overnight. In the letter Burns sent when she applied for membership in the Joy Fit Club, she recounted how she began losing weight by dieting alone. That took her down to 403 pounds by December 2006.

But she was still finding it very difficult to breathe. Her doctors implanted a tracheotomy tube in her throat and told her that she would have to live with it the rest of her life — unless she lost at least another 120 pounds.

“The trach was my wake-up call, as I did NOT want to have a trach tube sticking out of my throat for the rest of my life,” Burns wrote in her letter. “I knew at this moment it was ‘do or die.’ ”

Burns realized that she couldn’t just diet to get rid of the weight. She had always imagined herself as an athlete, but despaired of ever becoming one. But she joined a health club, the CoxHealth Meyer Fitness Center, where she met Colleen Young, a walking coach.

She started by water-walking in the center’s therapy pool, and worked her way up to an exercise bike. Then Young challenged her to walk four days a week.

“She never discussed weight loss,” Burns wrote. “She kept the focus on being dynamic. And the possibility of being part of a sport like race walking appealed to me immensely!”

Eating to live
Not thinking about losing weight turned out to be key.

“I started making choices that would enhance my performance, and those choices included the fuel I need for speed and endurance,” Burns wrote. “For the first time, I thought of food as fuel for my body, and NOT my drug of choice. I used to ‘live to eat,’ and now I was ‘eating to live.’ It was a VERY exciting discovery and the weight started coming off and staying off, and the trach was removed.”

“Once she got that positive attitude, she was able to do anything,” Bauer said on TODAY.

Along with the weight, Burns’ health issues began to disappear. She could breathe and sleep; her heart recovered. In all, nine serious health issues cleared up.

Burns still takes thyroid medicine, she told Lauer and Bauer, and she remains diabetic, although she controls that without having to take insulin. She is considering surgery to finally remove all the excess skin left over after her weight loss.

“My perspective on life is positive and healthy,” Burns wrote. “God is taking me on an amazing journey to give hope to others.

“I am preparing for my certifications as a personal trainer and wellness coach,” she added. “I am training to be competitive in race-walking events. I cannot imagine returning to my formal dismal state, because life is an amazing adventure ... if you let it be.”

“I don’t even know you, and I’m proud of you,” Lauer said with emotion. He asked Burns what advice she has for others who have despaired of ever losing massive amounts of weight.

“Quit the fad diets,” Burns replied. “Make it a healthy lifestyle change. Work on your emotional issues, and combine exercise with a healthy lifestyle change.

“And focus on your goals — not the struggle,” she concluded.

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