Larry LaRue

Changing life at age 50 — and a weight of 352 pounds — saved Gig Harbor woman

The first 50 years of her life, Sylvie Pelesasa’s mind betrayed her — and her body nearly self-destructed.

“In high school, I started gaining weight. My self-image was so bad, I’d tell my friends, ‘I’m Shamu’s twin sister,’ ” she said.

And that was well before the serious weight gain set in.

“I look at pictures of myself then, and think I looked pretty good.

“You get angry at your mindset. It’s crazy how the mind works.”

Eight years ago, Pelesasa approached her 50th birthday as a Gig Harbor single mom and bus driver for Pierce Transit.

Weight had long been an issue, but that year the 5-foot-5 Pelesasa hit 352 pounds. The weight was destroying her body and her life.

“I was getting more and more isolated; my mobility was becoming more and more limited,” she said. “I was in constant pain, I was depressed. I was about to lose my job — I couldn’t fit in the seat.

“I thought, ‘I can’t turn 50 in a wheelchair.’ ”

Diets had failed her for decades. She’d lose weight only to gain it back.

“If I hadn’t had a son, I might have committed suicide,” Pelesasa said. “But I wasn’t going to let someone else raise him. And I’m a fighter.”

So in 2006, she went on the Internet and began researching weight-loss surgeries. What she needed, she knew, was a life-altering, dramatic change.

“I looked at gastric bypass, lap-band surgery, a whole list of them, and read the pros and cons for each,” Pelesasa said. “I knew I needed something that would be permanent.

“If I were disciplined in the first place, I wouldn’t be in this situation. I had to look at all of that.”

She came up with a Kennewick surgeon and underwent major surgery.

“Most of my stomach was cut away, part of the upper intestine was cut away,” Pelesasa said. “From day one, it changed how much I could eat.

“I can eat about half-a-saucer-sized portion now and I’m full.”

Pelesasa doesn’t recommend the surgery for everyone – or anyone, for that matter. Each person’s situation is different. But in her case, she believes she didn’t have a choice.

“For me it was life or death. In my mind, I was existing.”

The first year after surgery, she lost 100 pounds. By the end of year two, she was down 176 pounds. Since the operation, she’s had seven surgeries to repair her ankle, knee and neck problems.

For Pelesasa, however, it was worth it. She now has a life, and a 6-year-old granddaughter, Kiawna.

“I love being a grandmother, and I’m good at it,” Pelesasa said.

She and Kiawna walk everywhere – a few weeks ago they crossed the Tacoma Narrows Bridge – and have taken part in organized 5-kilometer walks.

She and son, Justin, who lives in Tacoma, are Seahawks season-ticket holders and members of the fan group South Sound Seahawkers.

When quarterback Russell Wilson had a passing camp last month, Pelesasa volunteered to help. The payback? A photo taken with a smiling Wilson that now adorns her Facebook page.

Pelesasa’s life isn’t exactly normal and probably never will be, but since her weight-loss surgery, she said, at least she has one.

“I’ve probably got 20 pounds of loose skin that would take $20,000 to get rid of,” Pelesasa said with a laugh. “I’d love to wear shorts, but that’s not a pretty sight, so I don’t.

“There are days if I wake up and my knee or ankle or something hurts, I get through it.”

She drives her bus at night between Tacoma and Seattle. And she’s turned a hobby into a small business making Seahawks jewelry and sandals. (Check out 12th Woman Bling and More on Facebook.)

Mostly, however, she has rediscovered the joy of living.

“I went to the Gig Harbor Maritime Festival and parked up the hill and took a shuttle downtown,” Pelesasa said. “Waiting for the shuttle to go back up later, I challenged myself to walk up the hill.

“I thought, ‘Let’s see what I can do,’ and I got to my car and thought, ‘Wow! I just walked all the way up this road.’ ”