Gig Harbor woman battles weight, overcomes multiple surgeries to race

Pierce Transit bus driver loses 176 pounds in path to active life

Staff writerJuly 16, 2014 

At 346 pounds and just over 50 years old, Pierce Transit bus driver Sylvie Pelesasa knew she needed to make a lifestyle change.

Her weight made routine movements difficult.

“I could hardly walk,” the Gig Harbor resident said. “Structurally, I was having problems. When you’re that heavy, it makes it very difficult. I couldn’t even stand up out of a chair. Everything was excruciating.”

In addition to the physical limitations, Pelesasa’s weight prevented her from enjoying life.

“I’d get invited places but wouldn’t go cause I’d be afraid I’d break the chair, or be an embarrassment,” she said.

Desperate and looking for an answer, Pelesasa turned to bariatric surgery. In short, bariatric surgery works by reducing the size of the stomach, limiting appetite and intake. The surgery, coupled with healthier eating habits, produced drastic results.

“I lost 176 pounds,” Pelesasa said.

The weight loss gave Pelesasa, 57, a newfound appreciation for life.

“I started having a new life — you’re kind of reborn,” Pelesasa said. “You can sit in an airplane seat, you’re not spilling out. I kind of reclaimed my life.”

The weight loss was only one step to Pelesasa’s recovery, as she battled other injuries as well. Over the next eight years, she would undergo seven more surgeries in total: three ankle surgeries, two left knee surgeries and two spine surgeries.

Her moral support throughout the process came from an unlikely source: her insurance company, Cigna. Cigna assigned her a vocational rehabilitation counselor, Karen Franz, who was a comfort to her in terms of adversity.

“She called me and asked if there’s anything I need: a seat cushion, back cushion, better shoes?” Pelesasa said. “I was thinking, ‘Wow, that’s kind of odd.’ Insurance companies are usually trying not to give you anything. She was so motivating.”

Cigna reimbursed Pelesasa for shoes and other items. Franz also motivated Pelesasa to get active and live with a purpose.

“It’s part of our mission statement: To help them be all they can be,” Franz said. “In my experience, as people gain physical strength, they gain confidence. Personally, I get a lot of joy out of seeing people do well.”

Cigna connected Pelesasa with Achilles International, a nonprofit organization that helps people with disabilities participate in mainstream athletics. Achilles had a race coming up in New York City, and Franz wanted Pelesasa to participate in it.

So she started training, walking the streets around her Gig Harbor home with her 6-year-old granddaughter, Kiawna. Throughout her training, Pelesasa could always lean on her counselor.

“Karen was always calling me up; she was so positive,” Pelesasa said. “I always felt like someone was on my side. You get to a point where you feel like you’re by yourself. She was always right there.”

Pelesasa, a huge Seahawks fan who has a home decorated with Seahawks crafts that she works on in her spare time, was volunteering at the Russell Wilson Passing Academy two weeks before the race, when she encountered yet another setback.

“My knee tweaked, (and) I was toast,” Pelesasa said. “I couldn’t even walk.”

But she was desperate to walk in the race, and with the help of a doctor who gave her some pain medication and a knee brace, she left for New York City, unsure of whether or not she’d be able to finish the June 29 race.

In a Achilles International Hope & Possibility Race in Central Park, which had about 5,000 participants, she kept a steady pace throughout the five-mile course. She fought through the pain, and when she approached the finish line, members of Cigna and Achilles International were waiting for her, cheering her on. With her “12th Man” Seahawks flag in hand, she crossed the finish line.

“I broke down in tears,” Pelesasa said. “I couldn’t believe I did it.”

Franz unfortunately could not attend, but was proud of her nonetheless.

“It’s such a joy to me,” Franz said. “That’s part of the reason I love what I do. Seeing people get better and achieve their goals and have these kinds of opportunities is just wonderful.”

Now she’s hooked. Over the weekend, she walked the Color In Motion 5K race with her granddaughter. She plans to do the Achilles race again next year. While her life will likely never be easy or injury-free, she battles the pain with an optimistic approach.

“I’m not without some aches, but I have a story to tell — I did my first race,” Pelesasa said. “Attitude is everything. Get up, get moving. Just do it.”

Jon Manley: 253-358-4151 Twitter: @gateway_jon

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