Her Profile In Courage

The photograph clinched it. The woman in the photo smiling back at Christine Wilshire weighed more than 400 pounds. She was pre-diabetic and on a collision course to a raft of other health problems if she didn’t do something about it.

That woman was Christine. The photo was taken in 2010 while Christine was on a trip to Palm Springs, California, to celebrate her 50th birthday with her sister. She could barely walk a few steps without getting out of breath. Back pain racked her body making exercise impossible. This was not at all where the mother of two wanted to be.

“I was in a really bad place,” she says. “My father was overweight and pre-diabetic and I just found out that’s where I was at.
I didn’t want to die.”

Chris had struggled with her weight since high school. “I wasn’t getting enough exercise, I was eating the wrong things. I also have an under-active thyroid.”

The battle included losing and then gaining 100 pounds twice. “I had a black belt in losing weight,” she jokes.

Chris explored gastric bypass surgery and was told she couldn’t get it done until she’d lost 10 percent of her body weight. That goal brought her to Good Shepherd Physical Therapy – East Greenville in August 2010, determined to make some big changes.

“My quality of life was terrible,” she says. “It was do or die.”

Karen Long, a physical therapist assistant and site manager, remembers how difficult it was for Chris to walk even a few steps. “We came up with a plan of care to break her out of that cycle of pain she was in,” says Karen. “We knew she needed exercise for weight loss and that would be the springboard for surgery.”

The therapy plan, which included a high protein diet, started with something pretty fundamental – walking. Karen and Pam Cubbage, a physical therapist, met Christine at 8 a.m. several mornings a week, and together they began walking the length of the strip mall. Each step took every ounce of Christine’s willpower. Everything hurt; her knees, her ankles, her back.

“Do you know how much courage that takes?” says Karen.

Family support from husband Jay and sons Alex, 20, and Patrick, 27, had a lot to do with Chris’s motivation to succeed. “Jay was definitely there for me the entire time,” says Chris. “And my kids too, of course were my biggest supporters.”

Gradually, Chris’s walks got longer, eventually progressing to circling the entire mall. “It felt like climbing the summit of Mt. Everest,” she recalls.

By February 2011, Chris had lost 80 pounds, far exceeding the 10 percent requirement needed for the weight-loss surgery, which she was finally able to get. Chris returned to her home in Pennsburg but the surgery was just one more step in a demanding recovery process.

Chris’s physical accomplishments were remarkable but after years of pain and the psychological chains that came with being a prisoner in her own body, Chris had some mental hurdles to overcome too.

“When I first had the surgery, I was afraid to walk outside,” she says. “So I just started walking up and down the upstairs hallway for 15 minutes at a time. Then I went down the stairs and through the house.”

Chris’s weight struggle was not the only thing that’s tested her mettle over the years. Fifteen years ago, lightning hit the family home causing a devastating fire. Fortunately, no one was home.

“I lost all my pictures, my wedding gown, everything,” says Chris.

A few small things weren’t destroyed – some dime-store angel sculptures, First Communion candles and a toothpick sculpture of Jesus on the cross. “If I never believed in angels or protection, I certainly did that day,” says Chris. “I really believe someone was watching over us.”

Chris and Jay rebuilt a beautiful new home and today count their blessings. Grateful for Chris’s extraordinary achievement, the couple celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary on June 8 by renewing their vows at St. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Collinsville, Ill., where they were married.

“This was something to celebrate,” says Chris. “It was really, really fun. Very emotional too. It was a little bittersweet at the end because my dad’s been gone a couple of years. He would have loved it.”

The joyous occasion was shared by their original best man and maid of honor, as well as their youngest son, Alex (Patrick was unable to attend). They even had the same photographer.

And although the Good Shepherd staff couldn’t be with Chris and Jay at the ceremony, there were very much there in spirit. “Karen and the staff at Good Shepherd are like family to me,” says Chris, who asked Karen to help her shop for a wedding gown to show off her new figure after losing 262 pounds. “There was so much encouragement from the therapists, fellow patients and volunteers. I could never have achieved what I did without their support.”

Chris continues her workouts at East Greenville and loves taking walks.

“I am so proud of Christine,” says Karen. “Her determination has been remarkable and inspiring.”

Emily Eider contributed to this story.