Bernadette Furlong had always struggled with her weight and at just 4ft 11 tall even a few extra pounds showed on her petite frame.
Originally published: 23 May 2008
But the chef gradually piled on so much weight that by 34 she weighed 40st and was told by doctors it was killing her. It was only when Bernadette, now 36, was told she was too fat to work that she was finally forced to diet.
Although chubby as a child, Bernadette didn’t start piling on weight until she moved to the UK from her native Ireland with partner Ron Brent when she was 24. She steadily gained about two stone every year, scoffing up to six packets of crisps a day and huge amounts of cheese. Within 10 years Bernadette grew from a size 16 to 38.
Bernadette says: “I never ate breakfast, but I’d eat lots of sandwiches and crisps and I’d smother everything in butter. I realised I was putting on weight so I tried all sorts of diets but never stuck to them. I always cheated and working with food as a chef certainly didn’t help because I frequently tasted more than necessary.”
Over the years, Ron, 46, an engineer, encouraged her to get fit by buying her a treadmill and urging her to eat healthily, but nothing could keep her from her favourite fatty foods.
By 34, Bernadette tipped the scales at almost 40st, struggled to breathe, could barely walk and had a bad back. Doctors told her she was at risk of early death as her Body Mass Index had soared above 100 (a healthy BMI is between 18 and 25). But it was only in March 2006 when worried canteen bosses carried out a risk assessment and concluded Bernadette was too fat to work.
“They were worried I’d fall over and not be able to get back up,” says Bernadette. “They signed me off and told me to lose weight. I was furious with them and disgusted with myself.
“My GP told me the NHS wouldn’t fund stomach stapling surgery to help me lose weight so I vowed to get it done privately.”
'They signed me off and told me to lose weight. I was furious with them and disgusted with myself'
But after the op, Bernadette received the shattering news it had failed.
“I’d spent all that money for nothing and I was only entitled to a refund of £1,000 because the problems were unforeseen.”
Devastated Bernadette realised she had to go on an extreme diet to get back to normal. “I had to lose weight the hard way, so I slashed my food intake,” she explains. “I limited myself to 1000 calories a day. I cut out all bread and potatoes, and lived on salads, couscous and raw vegetables.”
Incredibly, within just nine months she lost 14 stone. Eventually in January 2007, weighing 26st, she returned to her job as a chef at a factory in Slough, Berks. Whenever she felt tempted to sample her cooking she’d brush her teeth to put her off eating.
“Everyone at work was really supportive. The first few months were the hardest, but I soon got into a routine and I had a whole new attitude to food,” she says.
Bernadette has continued to lose weight and now weighs just over 17st and is a size 18. But her extreme weight loss left her with a deformed belly. “I carried all the weight around my middle,” she reveals. “My legs and arms were relatively slim but my stomach was a hard lump.
“Now it’s like an empty sack and no matter how much weight I lose I’ll never shift all that excess skin. Gravity has taken over and the skin hangs down just below my knees.
Unable to wear trousers and hiding her embarrassment under huge floor-length skirts, Bernadette’s fleshy apron has put her legs and knees under huge strain. She’s suffered a series of bacterial infections as she struggles to keep the area under her saggy skin clean.
Remarkably, Bernadette is incredibly upbeat and says her size never affected her relationship with Ron. “I don’t like to have the lights on in bed,” she admits. “But my stomach doesn’t get in the way of our relationship. We’ve never wanted children and Ron’s always been incredibly supportive and sees past my size.”
Bernadette is due to undergo massive life-changing surgery at Wexham Park Hospital in Slough to remove the huge lump of flesh around her belly.
Consultant plastic surgeon Rajan Uppal is expecting to cut away up to 2st of flabby skin in the four-hour op. “This case is one of the worst I’ve ever seen,” he says. “It’s major surgery and there are risks but it will give her a whole new lease of life.”
The NHS is funding the £10,000 operation because Bernadette’s excess skin is the result of huge weight loss – which she achieved under her own willpower.
The surgery will mean Bernadette will be able to wear trousers out for the first time in eight years and go on long walks without feeling her saggy skin slapping against her legs and tiring quickly. She’s also vowed to stick to her healthy eating regime until she reaches her ideal weight of 10st.
“I’ve got no excuse except that I overate. But that’s all in the past now and I’m determined never to pile on the pounds again.”