Susie Rosso Wolf, 57, is the picture of good health. She exercises daily, eats a balanced diet and maintains a healthy weight. But for years, Wolf was morbidly obese, smoked a pack of cigarettes a day, and struggled with chronic respiratory problems.
“I was literally killing myself,” says Wolf, of Three Forks, Mont. (pop. 1,869).
In 2007, while working in her garden, Wolf suddenly couldn’t breathe. “I held onto a tree, thinking I wouldn’t be able to make it back into the house. I almost had to crawl through the back door,” she recalls.
The frightening episode convinced her to quit smoking once and for all. “I didn’t think I would live through the night. I told myself that if I lived, I would never touch a cigarette again,” says Wolf, a former bartender who had smoked for 25 years.
Wolf kept her promise but noticed that her symptoms—chronic shortness of breath and repeated bouts of pneumonia and bronchitis—weren’t dissipating. If anything, they were getting worse. “I could barely walk from one room to the next without becoming breathless,” she says.
She suspected that something else was wrong, but multiple doctors blamed only her weight—more than 340 pounds.
Finally, in 2008, a pulmonologist listened carefully to her concerns, ran a few tests, and diagnosed Wolf with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, a lung disease that blocks airflow and causes breathing-related problems. Wolf soon began using supplemental oxygen every day, and doctors told her she would be on an oxygen tank for the rest of her life.
“It was the most devastating day of my life. That was the day I lost my freedom. I lost my independence,” she says. “When you can’t breathe, you are scared to death. There is no other feeling like it.”
Wolf knew that to live longer, she must overhaul her eating habits and get in shape. She made a personal commitment to lose weight. Wolf completely eschewed processed foods and carbohydrates in favor of fruits, vegetables and proteins. “I stripped my diet down to the basics,” she says. “I eat as if I were a pioneer woman living in the 1800s, with no access to modern processed foods.”
Within two months of changing her diet, Wolf lost 40 pounds and decided to introduce exercise into her lifestyle. “In the beginning, it was not easy,” she says. “At first, I couldn’t even walk to the mailbox without becoming breathless.”
She started by walking the length of her driveway and gradually increased the distance. Eventually, she was walking five miles a day while carrying her oxygen tank in her backpack.
After years of living a sedentary lifestyle, Wolf now understands the connection between exercise and managing COPD. “Every time you exercise, you are oxygenating your body, driving oxygen to your heart and lungs,” says Wolf.
In 19 months, Wolf reached her goal weight of 128 pounds—214 pounds less than she weighed in 2007—and has maintained her weight ever since. And her COPD symptoms have improved. Last July, she was able to discard her oxygen tank after tests revealed that her oxygen saturation levels had returned to normal.
“My doctor is amazed by my progress,” Wolf says. “I was told I would never be taken off oxygen, but I proved them wrong.”
A strong advocate for better communication between obese patients and physicians, Wolf says many physicians misdiagnose obese patients by failing to see past their weight. “So many doctors told me, ‘You could breathe better if you weren’t fat.’ I want that to stop,” she says. “Underneath the layers of fat is a patient who may or may not have lung disease.”