Rebecca Brusuelas-James was a trim, athletic kid. She played volleyball and skated competitively. Her entire family — a sprawling Latino family of 12 aunts and uncles and 89 first cousins — was into sports.
Her sports activity tapered off, however, after she was diagnosed with hemolytic anemia as a teenager in 1991. The next year, doctors removed her spleen in hopes of curing the autoimmune disease that had been killing off her red blood cells.
“Twenty-seven years later, I’m thankfully still in remission,” says Brusuelas-James, now 46, who is associate dean for finance and clinical operations at UCI School of Medicine and chief of staff for UCI’s vice chancellor for health affairs. “After that, I just found myself gaining weight steadily.”
‘The heaviest I’d ever been’
By the fall of 2014, she’d gained 100 pounds. “It was the heaviest I’d ever been.”
“I told my primary care doctor at UCI that I didn’t feel good,” she recalls. “The weight didn’t keep me from doing things, and I didn’t have any chronic conditions like high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Still, he said, ‘You don’t want to carry that extra weight into your 50s or 60s.’”
He referred her the UCI Health Weight Management Program, and Brusuelas-James didn’t waste any time getting started. She dedicated herself to the weight-loss program, shedding 70 pounds over the next year. Disclaimer ›
Starting in November, just as the holiday season got underway, made it even more challenging since “most of our holidays are rituals of eating,” she says.
“Suzan [Varga, a health educator for the program] was texting me to stay strong that Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Brusuelas-James recalls.
“My husband is a gift from heaven, and he said, ‘We don’t need Thanksgiving this year.’ That was hard, but it was encouraging and liberating.”
‘Keeping it off is the hard part’
When a torn rotator cuff required surgery, Brusuelas-James found herself unable to continue the low-calorie weight loss program. She switched to the maintenance phase of the program and managed to drop another 30 pounds over 12 months. She has maintained that 100-pound weight loss ever since and still attends monthly classes.
“Losing it is easy, but keeping it off is the hard part,” she says. “In the maintenance phase, you go to classes a couple of times a month, learn why you’re eating what you’re eating, and you realize that you really do have to change your whole lifestyle.”
Brusuelas-James learned strategies for dealing with how to eat healthy even when her busy career keeps her in all-day meetings, when work and home demands conflict, and while eating out or traveling. She took to heart lessons about eating mindfully, such as knowing when she’s eating because she’s hungry or because she’s stressed or bored.
“You do fall down,” she says. “But in this program, there’s no shame, you just get back on track.”
‘I rekindled my inner athlete’
“The best part is that I rekindled my inner athlete,” Brusuelas-James says. “It’s fun being an athlete in my 40s. I started it to lose weight and look better. Now, I like the feeling of being strong.”
She began running, winning 15 medals so far for 5Ks, Turkey Trots, anti-cancer races and half-marathons. At one event, she even ran four 5Ks back-to-back.
Although she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis not long ago, she’s not letting that slow her down. She’s all about perseverance.
In fact, she recently started biking and swimming and plans to compete in San Diego’s Mission Bay triathlon in May.
She also gives credit where it is due.
“Four and a half years later, I’ve kept the weight off, despite surgeries and an autoimmune disease,” Brusuelas-James says. “I know I did the work, but the program’s support system was second to none.”