Retired civil servant and secretary of the Irish Coalition for People Living with Obesity (ICPO), Maura Murphy, remembers when she first felt bad about her weight. She was 10 and a public health team had come to her school for check-ups, which included standing pupils on a scales.
“We were learning about weights and measures in school at the time,” she says, “and the girl behind me, who saw that I weighed eight stone, said ‘Miss! Miss! Maura Murphy is a hundredweight [cwt]!’ That spread around the classroom very quickly and it was dreadful for me.”
She says that she was as active as everyone else and ate the same food as others did in the late ’60s, but she never lost what her GP said was “puppy fat”.
“You name the diets, I was on them over the years,” she says. “I could stick to them for two or three months, but that’s all. Looking back though, being diagnosed with diabetes type two in 2002 was the start of a long journey towards finding a solution.
“A rash broke out on my legs and I was hospitalised for two weeks. My whole system seemed to go into decline. There I was thinking I’m okay and then bang. It was like falling off a cliff. Suddenly I had kidney disease, diabetes type two and high blood pressure all hitting me in the one month.”
Maura was 18st in her teens and 28 stone in 2012 when she had bariatric sleeve surgery (surgery that reduces the amount of food that you can fit in your stomach). That was after being on a waiting list for four years and attending the weight management clinic in St Columcille’s Hospital, Loughlinstown, where she received non-judgmental help from the multidisciplinary team there.
“My quality of life after the surgery was amazing – I was able to do so much more, but in 2015 my husband died and I struggled again. Even after bariatric surgery your body is still trying to get back up to the set point that you were at,” she says.
“People say: ‘Oh she must be fixed now that she’s had bariatric surgery.’ But no, I use it as a tool to help me control my weight. I was put on anti-obesity medication in 2015 because I have diabetes type two. It is an injection once a week. I’ve been on two different kinds. The one I’m on now stops the head hunger and reduces my appetite overall, which is all driven biologically. It basically takes away the overwhelming feeling of food ruining your life.”
She considers that the medication has prolonged her life.
“I’ve more energy, more get up and go. Although the weight loss does level off, it is still helping control my diabetes.”
Maura sees taking the medication as treating a disease through science, not about a desire to have a thinner body. The day she heard a scientist call obesity “a chronic, relapsing disease” was a wonderful day for her.
“I attended a conference in Dublin that Canadian scientist Dr Arya Sharma spoke at,” she says, “and that’s how he explained obesity. I was in shock first thinking: ‘God, I’m never going to get rid of this weight.’ But then I thought: ‘If I was told I had any other disease I’d say to doctors: ‘Well, what medication have you got that can help me? I know there is no cure but what can help me manage it?’”
While she accepts no more blame and feels no more shame for living with obesity – she is past that – she is frustrated on behalf of others with high BMIs who can’t get anti-obesity medications easily (she prefers not to name the drugs she has taken).
“Letters went out to doctors and pharmacies in June saying that, because of shortages, one drug is only available for those with diabetes type two but, to us, in ICPO, that’s discrimination. It should be available to those with the disease of obesity too.”
She points out that in 1948 the World Health Organisation declared obesity a disease.
“Ireland did so in 1996 too – that far back – but it was parked and now look at the state we are in.
“Currently, HSE figures state that 60% of Irish people and 70% of those over 50 years of age are either overweight or obese. One in five children are too and one in four aged between 14 and 17.
“8% of adults in Ireland also now qualify for bariatric surgery as they have a BMI of over 40 with at least one co-morbidity [other illness].”
Maura is hoping, given the numbers with obesity, that stigma about this disease will reduce.
“Obesity is a very visible disease. Nobody knows a person has diabetes type two or kidney problems by looking at them, but everybody knows if you’re living with obesity, so it’s out there to be ridiculed unfortunately,” she says.
“Thankfully, the stigma is reducing somewhat and there is hope that there will be more medications that can help in the future.”CL
You can find out more about ICPO and its Zoom meetings and regular talks countrywide at icpobesity.org