A Seekonk Mother and Educator Enjoys a Rewarding Life after Bariatric Surgery

Michele Graf, a Seekonk mother, educator and performer, says obesity limited her life before she had bariatric surgery in 2018.

“I’m doing things I never thought I’d do,” she said. “I’m now that mother who rides the roller coaster with her children. Before, I was too heavy to sit on rides. It was so embarrassing.”

Losing and keeping off 130 pounds has not only enabled Michele to share fully in adventures with her husband and three children, it also has given the 43-year-old the confidence to sing in public again and advance professionally.

As a young person, Michele always wanted to lose 15 pounds, but that seemed minor in a family that struggled with obesity. Her late brother reached more than 500 pounds before he became one of the first bariatric surgery patients in Boston.

However, after her mother died of metastatic breast cancer in 1999 — shortly after Michele was crowned Miss Fall River — food became her comfort.

“My mother passed away on my 19th birthday,” she said. “She was my best friend and my biggest fan.”

That year she also met her husband, David, a fellow student at Rhode Island College, where Michele studied theatre arts. Today, David is an elementary school principal in Seekonk, and Michele is an Assistant Principal in Taunton Public Schools.

Michele was convinced she could manage her weight herself until she faced the ordeal of fertility treatments. That’s when her weight spiraled out of control. Diet pills, Weight Watchers and heavy exercise didn’t help, so she decided to take action after she gave birth to her youngest child six years ago. She was 310 pounds, only five feet one inch tall, and suffered from sleep apnea and other conditions related to obesity.

“I had a loving husband and three beautiful children,” she said. “I had no choice. I had to do something or I could die.”

Dr. Felicia Barreto, Michele’s primary care physician with Southcoast Health, referred her to Dr. Patrick Fei, a Southcoast Health bariatric surgeon. The fact that Dr. Fei is a musician and songwriter helped Michele connect with him and put her at ease.

“A musician knows how to use his hands, and that’s the doctor I want taking care of me,” she said.

She opted for gastric bypass surgery, which creates a small pouch from the patient’s stomach and connects it to the small intestine, bypassing the rest of the stomach. Patients tend to lose a higher percentage of weight and suffer less indigestion in comparison to other procedures, she explained.

Once she made the decision, Michele entered into a three-month program of workshops and visits with a nurse practitioner, dietician and psychologist in preparation for surgery and the post-procedure changes — physical, social and emotional.

“I worried about how I would cope with life without going for ice cream,” she said. “I used food to dull emotional pain.”

Michele embraced the challenge, despite her fears. In the first year after surgery, she focused on changing her eating habits, tracking every morsel she ate and calling the Southcoast Health Weight Loss Center when she needed psychological support or nutritional guidance.

“I had to get used to a new life,” she said. “I always tell people the first year is very challenging.”

Five years after surgery, she still checks in with the nurse practitioner at the Southcoast Health Weight Loss Center and sees Dr. Fei annually, but otherwise she relies on the “saving grace” of her husband’s support to help keep her on track. She works out at 5:15am. She participates in weightlifting and other athletic competitions. While she initially sang only at weddings and funerals, she plans to start auditioning again and is considering joining a band.

Michele is thankful for the compassion of Dr. Barreto, who has supported her no matter her size, and the skill and patience of Dr. Fei, who carefully explained the procedure to her and answered all her questions. Bariatric surgery is no quick fix, she says, but with hard work and discipline it can be a door to a richly rewarding life.

“I now have the inner self-confidence to be the person I really am,” she said. “It has given me the ability to apply for jobs I would have never gone for and the confidence to speak up. I hold my head up more when I walk into a room. I’m just happy!”

For more information on the Southcoast Health Weight Loss Center, please visit Weight Loss Doctors MA & RI | Southcoast Health.