April 1, 2023

SOMERSET — Debra Harrison was recently recognized for being the biggest loser — but in the best way.
The Somerset resident was crowned TOPS Club royalty for dropping 81.5 pounds through the weight-loss nonprofit and named its 2021 Massachusetts Queen.
“It’s the best feeling ever,” Harrison said. “When I reached my goal I literally cried because I never thought I would ever do it.”
For 52-year-old Harrison, the weight loss journey has been a rollercoaster with many ups and downs.
At her heaviest Harrison was 480 pounds, and over the years she has dealt with a slew of medical issues tied to her weight, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and sleep apnea. 
But slow and steady wins the race. After decades of struggle, Harrison has ditched her CPAP machine, is off insulin therapy and — inching toward that finish line 10 pounds at a time — has finally reached her goal weight of 230 pounds. 
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Now she sets her sights on using what she’s learned to maintain that progress, and hopefully inspire others who might be struggling on their own path to weight loss.
Harrison said she told her fellow members of TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly) that “if I could do it you guys can do it.”
The secret to her success? “Staying focused,” she said. “Don’t focus on other people and what they need. Focus on you and what you need.”
Harrison was first introduced to TOPS at 17 years old, tagging along with her mother at a meeting, but at the time she was young and going into college and not ready to fully commit to a lifestyle change.
As the years passed, Harrison said she got heavier and heavier and her weight made it difficult to do even the simplest things.
Harrison said it got to a point where stepping up on a curb was a chore. She wasn’t able to enjoy amusement park rides. It was hard to stay on her feet while she worked or just have a conversation with a friend she ran into at the store.
“If I’m standing there, in less than 10 seconds I’m looking around for a place to sit because my knees were hurting so bad or legs were killing me and I just couldn’t do it,” she recalled.
“I just finally had enough.”
Harrison said she’s grappled with her weight since she was a kid. “I remember being in second grade and having to shop for clothes for school in the husky section.. it’s been like that all my life,” she recalled.
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A contributing factor to her struggle, she said, is an underactive thyroid due to hyperthyroidism. In 2001, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer so she only has half of her thyroid gland. According to Harrison, the cancer cells are currently dormant and doctors are suppressing her thyroid level with medication to keep those cells from growing and spreading.
“Because of that, taking off weight is a struggle,” said Harrison.
She knew in order to get healthy she needed some help.
Prior to starting TOPS, Harrison said she tried many different methods of losing weight — from Slim Fast to eating salads for lunch and a frozen dinner at night per her doctor’s suggestion, even hypnotism — as well as “every fad diet you could come across.” 
“It just didn’t work,” she said.
In 2008 at age 38, Harrison, at the advice of her doctor, decided to visit Mass General Weight Center in Boston and explore her options. While a bit skeptical at first, she chose to have gastric bypass surgery. 
But the procedure, in itself, she knew wasn’t a one-and-done weight loss solution. It was just the start of a long road to healthy living that included commitment and big changes.
“The gastric bypass is not a quick fix, you still must put the work in to get the results you want. I still had to eat sensibly and exercise. The gastric bypass is a tool to help you realize when you are full,” she said.
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Prior to surgery, Harrison met with a dietician who educated her about portion sizes, emphasizing the importance of eating lean protein as well as fruits and vegetables before turning to any carbs.
She was also introduced to mindful eating, a practice of thoroughly chewing and savoring food, which in turn makes you eat slower and helps you realize when you’re full. 
On the day of her gastric bypass, Harrison weighed 464 pounds. She estimates she lost 150 to 160 during the 18 months post-surgery, but progress was slow which at times became discouraging, especially when she fell into the all-too-familiar trap of comparing her progress to that of others.
“It’s rough… for the first couple of months you sit there and go ‘what did I just do to myself? Did I make the wrong choice?’ But then you start seeing the differences,” she said.
While her TOPS Massachusetts Queen honor only accounts for her weight loss starting 18 months after her surgery, in total, from her heaviest weigh-in, Harrison has shed about 260 pounds.
Sometimes it doesn’t seem real, she said, until she spots her reflection walking by a storefront window or catches a glimpse of her now much smaller shadow cast on the pavement in front of her.
It’s hard to fully acknowledge her progress until she takes a step back. Her recent TOPS recognition helped her finally see it and seal her success story.
According to the nonprofit, TOPS royalty are women and men who, at the end of the year, have officially recorded the largest weight loss from their starting weight, regardless of the time taken to reach their goal. 
Harrison, the 2021 Massachusetts Queen, was honored for her achievement in April at an event in Woburn.
So how did she finally hit her stride? Harrison said it’s all a matter of planning, preparing and setting realistic goals.
“I set myself small goals, like 10 pounds at a time to lose, and then once I reached that I’d set another goal of another 10 pounds… and instead of rewarding myself with a treat like a food treat I would reward myself with a piece of clothing or getting my nails done so that way I felt better about myself.”
Her to-do list now includes mapping out her and her husband’s meals for the week ahead. And grocery lists are carefully curated and adhered to. Another pro tip: Never go shopping hungry.
For exercise Harrison said she does a lot of walking. As a cytogenetic technologist who does prenatal testing for Labcorp in Westborough, she gets a lot of those steps in walking at the lab. 
As far as her diet, Harrison said it doesn’t exclude any type of food, “it’s about portion control and making up for what you’re eating.” So if she decides to have ice cream, that’s OK as long as she eats more sensibly during the day. 
“The one thing that I’ve actually realized over the years is that when I’m actually craving something sweet it’s not the actual sugar that I want, it’s a fresh fruit… so if I haven’t had a fresh fruit in a long time that’s when I crave the sugar stuff,” she said.
While it’s been an uphill climb, one in which she’s faced many hurdles — including a pandemic and personal struggles like the death of her father — she’s managed to overcome adversity.
She credits her husband, Tom, her family and extended TOPS family, who have been along for the ride cheering her on and lending their unwavering support. 
Harrison attends weekly TOPS meetings at her chapter’s location at Berkley Congregational Church. She said the group sessions help her stay on track and give her the motivation she needs to keep going.
“I made a lot of friends, I met some great people and now the people in my chapter are like family… we are close with each other and we help each other through those difficult times,” she said.
“We know that if we’re having a difficult day and we want to reach for something we’re not supposed to, all we do is call and say ‘we need to talk.’”
In-person meetings involve weigh-ins, with members then sharing challenges, successes or goals, followed by a brief program covering a variety of health and wellness topics, and may conclude with awards and recognition for the week. 
“When you weigh in you have to face that scale each week and it keeps you accountable for your actions,” said Harrison. “There’s a lot of love and a lot of help and encouragement when you go to a TOPS meeting and that’s what people need.”
According to statistics provided by TOPS, Massachusetts has an adult obesity rate of 24.4%. During 2021, TOPS members in Massachusetts lost a cumulative 4,538 pounds.
Having finally reached a place where she feels comfortable, Harrison said she’s focused on her next goal — continuing “to be a better version of me.”
“Now that I am a KOPS (Keep Off Pounds Sensibly), I realize just how hard it is to keep on track, but I know that with the encouragement, love, and continued support I get from my friends, family, and TOPS Chapter M.A. – # 439 in Berkley, I know that I will continue to keep this weight off,” she said.
“I do promise everyone in my chapter, that I will always stand by your side and help you through your weight loss journey, as you have always helped me on mine.”
For a list of area TOPS chapters, visit https://www.tops.org/tops/TOPS/FindAMeeting.aspx


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