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The creepy-crawlies around — and sometimes on — us

Breaking Away
Todd Anderson keeps Paralympics cyclists rolling

Tugging at Red Sleeve
In the footsteps of Apache chief Mangas Coloradas

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Las Cruces Oral History group is the talk of the town

Living Through the Droughts
Lessons from a one-eyed cowboy

A Spiritual Home in Nature
Sharman Russell's new book about pantheism

A Sense of Place
Guggenheim-winning photographer David Taylor

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Tim McAndrews
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Joseph Wade
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Body, Mind & Spirit
Anger is Your Friend

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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    August 2008

Where Losers Are the Big Winners

Area weight-loss success stories are tops in TOPS, which lives up to its acronym — "Take Off Pounds Sensibly."

By Peggy Platonos

"I get by with a little help from my friends," warbled the Beatles decades ago, providing a simple summation of the value of support groups in dealing with complex issues like addiction, grief or weight loss. And that's exactly what TOPS is, says Mimbres Valley resident Paula Norero, TOPS coordinator for the state of New Mexico: a support group — a very large support group that has grown from its humble grassroots origin around the kitchen table of Milwaukee resident Esther Manz in 1948 to an international non-profit organization with more than 275,000 members today providing support to one another for healthy weight loss in 11,000 local chapters worldwide.

Jaime Vallejo of Las Cruces won first place in division II at TOPS' recent New Mexico recognition day, with a 2007 weight loss of 24 pounds. He lost enough weight to get on a life-saving kidney-transplant list. (Photo courtesy Paula Norero)

The name "TOPS" is an acronym for a phrase that succinctly states the organization's goal for its members: "Take Off Pounds Sensibly." In local chapters, members meet regularly for official weigh-ins and to share practical information on diet, exercise and effective weight-loss strategies, as well as offering each other support through example, encouragement, friendly competition and, where appropriate, a loving kick in the butt.

Recognition of achievements has been built into the program from the very beginning, with awards handed out on both the state and international level. Local chapters are grouped into divisions, and those who have taken off the most pounds in their division within the previous year are honored as division winners. Each winner is presented with an award at an annual ceremony known as State Recognition Days, and is given the opportunity to tell his or her success story to the audience.

At New Mexico's State Recognition Days held in May in Las Cruces, no one's story was more dramatic than that of Las Cruces resident Jaime Vallejo.

Most people who are overweight know they should take off the excess pounds for health reasons, but often those reasons are like distant clouds on the horizon. Maybe they'll eventually bring a bad storm in our direction, and maybe they won't.

For Jaime Vallejo, however, the storm was breaking over his head when he finally got serious about taking off weight. The wake-up call first sounded in 2004 when the kidney disease he believes developed as a result of his exposure to Agent Orange while he was serving in Vietnam suddenly made dialysis necessary three times a week to keep him alive. It became clear that a kidney transplant was the only thing that would ultimately save his life.

"I went through a battery of tests with the VA and passed everything except the weight. I weighed 280 pounds and was overweight," Vallejo says. He was put on the National Transplant List, but was classified as "inactive," and the doctors informed him he would not be considered eligible for a transplant until he got his weight down to 250 pounds.

A Los Angeles native, Vallejo was living in northern California at the time. "I struggled to get the weight off," he says. But he managed to whittle it down only to 275 pounds. Not nearly enough.

In 2006, he moved to Las Cruces with his girlfriend, Lisa Girz, to be near his brother and other family members. He immediately enrolled at the Presbyterian Hospital Transplant Center in Albuquerque, underwent another series of medical tests, and again passed them all — except for the weight. He was given the same weight goal of 250 pounds, and continued to be listed as "inactive" on the transplant list.

That was in January 2007. A follow-up appointment was made for July to check his weight.

He launched a determined effort to lose the necessary weight, accompanied in this effort by Girz, who also decided she needed to take off some pounds. For months, the two struggled to find a diet that worked and to stick to it. They lost weight, he reports, then gained it right back again. And time was running out for Vallejo.

Finally, he says, "I decided to look for help and found a TOPS meeting just down the street. The time fit into our schedule, so both Lisa and I enrolled in TOPS the first of June 2007."

It was a turning point for him. "The support was great and the people were the best! We began to diet and found many ideas on what works and what didn't, plus the support of the group and weekly weigh-ins were invaluable. Everyone in our group was losing and losing."

The process seemed to be contagious. By the time his appointment rolled around in July, Vallejo's weight was down by 10 pounds. "The doctor was pleased with the progress and gave me until the end of the year to lose the remaining weight — approximately 12 pounds."

Vallejo settled down to serious effort. He joined a gym, started working out regularly, began following the South Beach Diet and kept going to TOPS meetings faithfully. By his December appointment with the doctor, he weighed in at exactly 250 pounds, and his status on the transplant list was immediately changed to "active."

"Four days later," he says, "I received a call from the Albuquerque transplant team that I was third in line for a kidney that had just become available. The kidney ended up being mine and I had my transplant surgery on Christmas Eve day."

Vallejo made it through the surgery with no major complications. "The support of TOPS during this process has continued to amaze me," he says. "I received get-well cards and congratulations cards from TOPS chapters across New Mexico! This support really helped me through my recovery period. I am very grateful to all of our TOPS family for their help and support in giving me a new life and bright future. It's a wonderful thing to get your life back, especially at my age."

Jaime Vallejo is 59 years old. His 24-pound weight loss in 2007 (achieved, if you recall, in a six-month period) not only earned him a life-saving kidney, but also first place honors in New Mexico TOPS' Male Division II. His story serves as an inspiration to others, and he has been invited to visit other chapters to tell that story in person.

"I didn't think it was such a big deal, really," he says. "I was just doing what I had to do for me, but if it's encouraging others, if it's helping other people — well, that's even better."

Though other TOPS success stories may not be quite as dramatic as Vallejo's, all share certain basic characteristics: determination, courage, the willingness to make fundamental changes in lifestyle, and, both before and after weight goals have been achieved, the generosity to reach out and help other people in their personal journey toward health.

Not even a near-fatal accident in her pickup truck that left her totally incapacitated for much of the year in 2006 could keep Toni Duchaine of Deming from achieving a dual-goal: reaching her target weight and being named both chapter queen and TOPS state queen. The latter honor is awarded to the woman who has reached her weight goal and taken off the greatest total number of pounds in doing so. "I had that goal in my mind — that I was going to be tops in TOPS," she says, and adds, with pride and quiet satisfaction: "I did it, and I'm real happy about it."

En route to being crowned state queen at the recent TOPS New Mexico State Recognition Days in Las Cruces, Duchaine shed a total of 62.5 pounds — an impressive feat for anyone, especially someone who had been overweight most of her life. She grew up on a farm in Vermont, where good food was plentiful and "Clean your plate!" was the rule at the table. "I can show you a picture of me when I was two years old," she says. "And I was almost as round as I was tall."

Now that she's achieved the goals she set for herself, Duchaine, age 67, is not resting on her laurels. She has already set new goals for herself: "My goal now is to keep the weight off. I'd like eventually to take off another five pounds, but I'm not worrying too much about that. In the meantime, I'm concentrating on toning down and taking off a few inches here and there."

She says she has become quite fond of turtles. A "turtle" in TOPS terminology means weighing in at the same weight as at the previous weigh-in. TOPS members who have reached their weight goal are "graduated" into a new classification: KOPS, an acronym for "Keeping Pounds Off Sensibly."

Vallejo is also setting new goals for himself, and he faces some additional challenges as a result of the transplant surgery. Among the medications he must take to keep his body from rejecting his new kidney are steroids, which cause weight gain. After bringing his weight down to 230 pounds, just 10 pounds short of his new weight goal, he lost some ground. His weight is back up to the low 250s, and he says, "Now I've found I have to work doubly hard because I'm fighting the steroids. And I haven't been able to go back to the gym yet, which is probably what I need to do."

Nonetheless, he still shows the same dogged determination and positive attitude that got him his new kidney in the first place. While waiting to recover sufficiently to start working out in the gym again, he's exercising on a stationary bike. And he now has a pool in the house. "A fellow TOPS member went to a senior exercise class recently and brought us a list of exercises to do in a pool. So we're starting to do that," he says.

Meanwhile, he has another goal in mind: "I'm hoping to start coaching baseball again next year. It's something I did for 17 years, working with kids, but I had to back off when I got sick. With less weight, a new kidney and more energy, I'm looking forward to getting back into it."

Goals, positive attitude, encouragement and support are what TOPS is all about. And Vallejo and Duchaine are only two of the many TOPS success stories in southwest and southern New Mexico, where we seem to have more than our share of TOPS honorees.

Other area TOPS members who won 2008 statewide honors for their achievements last year include: Linda Smith of Alamogordo, state queen runner-up (with a total weight loss of 59 pounds) and Division III second place winner (with a 2007 weight loss of 32.5 pounds); Patti Gennrich of Las Cruces, Division III first place winner (42.25 pounds lost); Maggie Knox of Silver City, Division IV first place winner (35.25 pounds lost); and Kathleen Lewis of Alamogordo, Division IV second place winner (32.5 pounds lost).

Of course, New Mexico's state coordinator for TOPS, Paula Norero, is another local success story — though her involvement in TOPS began in 1967 in Lynwood, Calif. "I'm five-foot-two and I weighed 191 pounds," she says. Approaching the age of 40 at the time, she decided it was time to get rid of all that excess poundage. And, in the course of three years, with the help of her TOPS chapter, she managed to do that, shedding 61 pounds and reaching her target weight of 130.

Thoroughly convinced of the effectiveness of the TOPS approach, Norero became an area captain soon after moving to the Mimbres Valley in 1971. She quickly helped to launch 10 TOPS chapters in Grant County in less than three years. Since then, she has lost count but figures the number of chapters she has helped to bring into existence around the state of New Mexico is somewhere between 30 and 40.

Now an active 80 years of age, Norero has developed a lifestyle that has stabilized her weight at a healthy level, but she knows from personal experience the discouraging "yo-yo" effect of losing then regaining weight. After dropping out of TOPS in the mid-1980s to nurse her husband through a terminal illness, she packed on 54 pounds, winding up nearly back where she started from. But when her husband died in 1988, Norero jumped back into TOPS with energy and determination, and eventually shed those pounds, keeping them off for the past decade. In 2005 she became TOPS coordinator for the entire state of New Mexico.

Her enthusiasm about TOPS is deep and infectious. She radiates pride when any member of the TOPS family is successful in creating a healthier lifestyle and shedding excess pounds. "TOPS," she likes to say, "is one place where losers are the big winners."

For more information about TOPS, visit the organization's international Web site at www.tops.com or the regional site at www.topswonders.com Or you can contact Paula Norero by e-mail at paula@gilanet.com or by telephone at 536-9433.



Mimbres writer Peggy Platonos also wrote
this issue's feature about bugs.

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