Diana L. Martinez-Hernández struggled with morbid obesity all her life, but now she is hitting her stride. On March 20, with tears of joy and near disbelief, the 54-year-old newlywed sat at the kitchen table of her El Prado home and recounted her four-year journey to losing 300 of her 479 pounds collected over five decades of frustration, misery and sorrow.
“I’m a survivor,” Martinez-Hernández said. “I’ve been emotionally and physically abused for being a fat girl. So this is a lifetime culmination of overcoming a very hard childhood.”
The bullying of a fat child, she described, is brutal. She used to hide in the girls' bathroom to eat lunch to avoid all the name-calling and ridicule. All through Enos Garcia Elementary, Taos Junior High and Taos High School, her close friends used to carry a table and chair for her from class to class because she couldn’t fit in a desk.
“When you see somebody who is so morbidly obese, think what they’ve been through to get to that in their life,” she said in pleading tones. “Think what it’s like to be in diapers, in a walker, in excruciating pain and trying to live a normal life. I was in the prison of my body and, finally, I couldn’t get out of bed.”
Getting her on the road to weight loss was Dr. Alfredo Vigil of El Centro Family Health Clinic in Taos, who “planted the seed,” she recounted. Four years ago they discussed bariatric surgery, but she said it wouldn’t help because her knees were shot. “He said, ‘Lose the weight, Diana, and we will get you new knees.’ And that’s what did it. I had hope.”
Then began the rounds of weight-loss clinics she and her family checked out. On the internet she found Dr. Duc Vuong of Loveless Health System in Albuquerque, a weight-loss surgeon renowned for creating the “ultimate gastric sleeve” and helping thousands of bariatric surgery patients make successful transitions from morbid obesity to a normal-weight life.
Originally based in Houston, it was because of Hurricane Katrina that this former Vietnamese refugee uprooted his practice to New Mexico and into Martinez-Hernández’s life. To qualify for surgery, she had to get her Body Mass Index (BMI) below 60, so she began exercising, which meant struggling to get out of bed, carrying hand weights and walking back and forth from her bedroom to her living room, around and around.
This was a major change, given that she had resorted to fast food drive-up windows six days a week, because she couldn’t bear the looks people gave her as she pushed her nearly 500-pound mass backwards down grocery store aisles — she was too heavy to pull herself forward in her walker.
In the year it took to lose 100 pounds pre-operatively, she went to Vuong’s weekly nutritional and weight-loss support groups in Albuquerque. Her starting BMI of 69.44 is now 29.69.
Maybe Martinez-Hernández’s work history explains some of her success, where other family members have not yet succeeded. She has been a counselor at Río Grande Treatment Center in Embudo, and also worked with Community Corrections and Community Against Violence in Taos. She also sees Taos therapist Dr. Rebecca Muller, and can’t imagine how survivors of obesity could go it alone.
“I believe my eating disorder has manifested out of emotional abuse,” she said. “Meaning, food was love. Food was comfort. Eating became my life. Food was a constant companion. Now I’ve learned how to deal with social situations. Cooking now consists of baking, grilling, steaming. I stay away from fried foods as much as possible.”
Slowly but surely, with the assistance of her 31-year-old high-functioning autistic son, Lawrence Martinez, she went from not being able to walk 20 steps from the car to the Taos Community Auditorium’s park bench, to being able to walk around that park. She now works out for an hour or two daily — when possible — at High Altitude Fitness gym and spa, just up the road from her house.
“I started eating veggies and fruits. Then I started food logs to become aware of what was going in. And all through this process I would see Dr. Vigil once a month.”
In November 2013, she had her first bariatric surgery consult in Santa Fe and transferred to Dr. Vuong. On July 21, 2015, she had her two-finger-by-two-finger gastric sleeve operation. As she was being wheeled to the operating room for the sleeve surgery, she remembered she prayed, “God let me die if this isn’t going to work, because I don’t want to do this anymore. Or, let me live and be fruitful.”
She feels she would not have been able to hang on if it wasn’t for her son, who is also morbidly obese and who needs her. “I was his role model. And now he’s learning the basics of healthy food choices. I have to show him what’s healthy and unhealthy. I pay him money for calories he burns on the treadmill at the spa.”
Perhaps the darkest chapter in her story is the fact that she “died” after becoming septic post-op from a hip-to-hip panniculectomy, not the tummy-tuck mommies get to look better in a bikini. “I got sepsis and flat-lined, I coded in ICU.”
She said her new bridegroom of four months, Felipé, never left her side through it all. She remembers how his wedding band shined as he changed her bandages once she was discharged home. He calls her twice a day just to see how she is feeling — explaining the phone call that interrupted our interview.
“I used to wake up every morning and wish I was dead," she confessed." Now I ask how I can be of service. God has given me so much, how can I not give of myself more?”
Martinez-Hernández also emphasizes that surgery is just a tool, it doesn’t fix the “fat person,” only the individual involved can make that life change. “We need to get real and honest” about what is going on.
“Never, ever give up on yourself,” she implored forcefully, eyes piercing and intensely bright. “Even when you’re at your darkest, don’t you ever give up. Because miracles happen every day. But you have to work for them.”
Martinez-Hernandez runs a private support group on Facebook called Taos Bariatric Support. Friend her at Diana L. Martinez-Hernandez and she will put you in the group. Facebook photos bear witness to her weight-loss journey, just one part of this amazing woman’s life, which should be made into a movie.
Rock on, Diana. You are hope, faith and courage personified.