Pet weight-loss program saves lives


A weight-loss contest sparks unlikely friendships ad gives this veterinary technician a new perspective on life and her job.

Sea lions don't normally board with us, but what I saw in our first kennel run two years ago sure looked like one. Of course, it wasn't really a sea lion, but rather a very portly yellow Labrador retriever with his front legs folded underneath him. His cage card said his name was Chevas. I greeted him with a, "Good morning," and, in return, I got a slightly blank stare from his large brown eyes. I consulted his chart and discovered that he weighed a whopping 111 pounds. But he wasn't visiting us to lose weight. Instead, he was staying with us until his owner, Kim, who had recently adopted him, got her allergies under control.

Technician Stacey Sortor (top left) and pet owner Kim (top right) are all smiles with their “biggest loser,” Chevas. Before joining the weight loss program, the Labrador retriever weighed 111 pounds.

One thing was clear: Chevas intrigued me. Pet weight loss is one of my passions, and I often see pet owners loving their cats and dogs through food. As for Chevas, I was curious why he was so large. When Kim came to pick him up, she was full of life and joy and just radiated happiness—unlike her pet. After she left, I wondered how she and Chevas had ended up together. I just knew that behind his slow gait and lifeless eyes there was a story to tell. What I didn't realize is that I would embark on a special life journey with both Chevas and Kim.

Shedding pounds, sharing stories

I lost track of the pair until about a year later, after my co-worker and I presented the idea of running a weight-loss contest to the veterinarians in my practice. The show The Biggest Loser had inspired us and we wanted to call our contest "Lookin' Fine In '09." Once our bosses gave use the green light, Kim was the first person I called. She was immediately on board and her enthusiasm was contagious.

The first month Chevas lost 7 pounds, 7 ounces. When he weighed in with these great numbers, I shrieked right there in our reception area, Kim beamed, and Chevas even gave a slight tail wag. As the months went on, Chevas continued to lose weight and was leading the pack. Kim was the driving force behind his success, sticking to his eating and exercising plan and being honest about their successes and hurdles.

Around the fourth month of the six-month contest, Kim opened up and explained how she and Chevas had ended up together. The story goes like this: Kim had lost her first dog—which she had for 13 years—and was overcome with grief. She had also been having some personal and health issues (she's a cancer survivor) and was really depressed. She finally called the adoption program to inquire about getting another dog, but she was told they had only one—a 3 year old who had been in a kennel his entire life and wasn't considered adoptable. He was too jumpy and afraid of noises. But Kim is a woman of faith. She believed he was for her, so she prayed about it and went to see the dog the next day. The people running the program saw Kim's commitment to Chevas so they allowed her to adopt him.

Turns out Kim and Chevas had a lot in common—he was a nervous dog and she was an equally apprehensive owner. They got off to a rocky start. She said it took a long time and much patience to acclimate Chevas to living in a home. The dishwasher scared him, as did the telephone and even raising the blinds. Then Kim developed a mysterious allergy to Chevas. She would break out when she touched his fur. Finally, her doctor pinpointed the allergy to an Evergreen tree in the backyard that Chevas would rub against. The day I first met Chevas, he was boarding with us so Kim could get that tree cut down.

Life-changing connections

Kim continued to share with me during the contest. She told me how heartened she was by my commitment to her and Chevas, and she wanted me to know this experience was about more than weight loss. In fact, the contest had forced her out of the house to exercise Chevas and, as a result, she met people she may not have otherwise. Her neighbors took an active interest in Chevas' progress and would frequently stop Kim during her and Chevas' walks to ask how he was doing. I could see that as much as Kim was helping Chevas, he was helping her.

As our weight-loss program came to an end, we decided to celebrate everyone's success with a party. Getting ready for the festivities, it hit me: Chevas was our biggest loser! He had lost 31 pounds in six months. I barely remembered that sea lion in the kennel, as Chevas had evolved into a peppy, happy, much healthier dog. While I was proud of my work with Chevas, I was saddened that my weekly contact with Kim would come to a close. She had really shown me what perseverance, commitment, and strength were about. At the party, I announced the biggest loser, and I had to choke back tears as I watched Chevas bouncing around, wagging his tail. The look on Kim's face reminded me why I do what I do.

Kim and Chevas' story didn't end with the contest, as Kim was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer two months later. But Kim is fighting it with a positive attitude. She and I keep in touch via phone and I still see her for Chevas' monthly weigh-ins. She recently told me that because of her walks around the neighborhood with Chevas, her cancer support group has grown. She has more friends and more help.

Today, Kim is still doing well and her cancer is in remission. While there is a 30 percent chance of a recurrence, her spirits are up and she is optimistic about her future. She's even planning on throwing a party this summer called "A Celebration of Life." Kim, please accept my RSVP. I wouldn't miss it for the world! As for me, what began as a weight-loss program turned into a personal gain. I walked away with a new appreciation for life and what I do for a living. I pulled Chevas and Kim's success and their ability to find joy, even in the darkest hour, into my own life and job. And for that I am forever grateful.

Stacey Sortor is a veterinary technician at Ellisville Veterinary Hospital in Ellisville, Mo.

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