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A Different Life for a Moment

Jacquelyn K. Smiertka, RN, Owner Beyond Change

Many years ago when a good friend of mine, Barbara Metcalf asked if I would help her out with her presentation at the IFSO conference in Spain I immediately responded positively that I would be happy to assist.

She asked if I would wear the Empathy Suit that had been shipped to the conference specifically for her to demonstrate. The suit replicates the appearance of an additional 15 Kg (33 lbs.) for women and 20 Kg (44 lbs) for men of body fat. As the information about the suit reads, “The wearer not only looks larger but weighs more and has to learn what it is like to carry out normal activities as an obese person.” So how hard could this be I thought? Besides I welcomed the experience.

I arrived at the conference center early to get into the suit before others arrived. Barb requested that I wear the suit but not put on the clothing until after I was on stage. Although the suit is flesh colored there are no “distinguishing characteristics” that would have made me feel uncomfortable to walk on stage without clothing. Once on stage, Barb discussed the purpose of the Empathy Suit with her audience then asked if I might begin to dress myself with the skirt and blouse that was laid out in front of me.

When I accepted my friend’s request I had no idea of the challenges the suit would impose. I could hardly bend over to dress myself. She asked if she could help, I refused. After all I could do this myself but I struggled. I had to walk up and down the stairs carefully and I struggled. Once I had clothing on and answered a few questions for the audience I returned to my seat where I proceeded to “position” myself into an auditorium chair. The seats were uncomfortable and very tight. I looked around for a wider chair, perhaps without arms but there were none. Whoever made the theater seats didn’t have a clue about how uncomfortable they would be “for us”.

During the next presentation I sat alone close to the stage. I was hot while others were complaining about being cold. I had to go to the bathroom but couldn’t move because if I did I would have to walk the whole distance of the auditorium and would be watched by everyone as I left the room. For almost two hours I had nothing to do but think. Is this what it is really like?

The third presentation was done by Dr. Cynthia Buffington regarding exercise and asked if I would come up on stage to help her with some demonstrations. Carefully I got out of my seat and once again struggled to climb the stairs and move across the stage. I tried putting my arms behind my head as she instructed but they were sore and I could not position them as she had requested. I moved slowly in a vain attempt to do arm movements that everyone in the audience was doing easily. When the demonstration was over I carefully and even more tired than before worked my way back to the uncomfortable seat. I would be glad when this day was over.

The brochure for the Empathy Suit reads: “In many cases, it is difficult for healthcare professionals who have never been overweight, to truly relate to the experience of what it is like to be an obese person. Though they are well aware of the health risks relating to this condition they are largely unaware of the day to day discomfort and inconvenience that their patients might experience.”

At that point in time I had worked in obesity surgery for more than twenty years and had been privileged to work with thousands of patients but until this day I had never been able to relate to their life’s experience. Just when I begin to think there is little more for me to know in this business now I know I never really had a clue about the real life our patients live. I have seen the desperation on their faces when they came into the office requesting surgery. I felt, in my own way, how they must struggle to walk and breathe and do daily activities. I could in some ways understand their anger and frustration and how their quality of life was diminished. Now in this short period of time I could feel a small fraction of how life must be for them.

Other allied healthcare participants wanted to try the suit on to know what it felt like to be obese, they put the suit on, had pictures taken then promptly took it off. They needed to walk in it, try exercising in it, attempt to get dressed with it on, they needed to really appreciate its value. At first it seems like a fun and challenging thing to do but after a longer period the suit is uncomfortable and heavy, it becomes your body, it’s not fun.

After several hours I was able to take the suit off and for a moment felt a little like what our patients must feel when they have lost weight after surgery. It was sad. Sad because I realized I still didn’t have a clue. I had not lived in this “body” for a lifetime, only a few hours. There were hundreds of thousands of experiences I would never have. I would never have been a child on the play ground having other kids make fun of me because of my size. I would have never driven in a car with the steering wheel tight against me or buckled a seat belt on an airplane with the extension. I would never have been passed up for a promotion because of my size. I would never experience the lifelong physical and emotional struggles of those who suffer with the disease of obesity. My only experience was short-lived not lifelong.

When I walked into our last support group meeting I looked into the faces of those who had worn the real bodies not the suits. It was an emotional moment because what I really understood for the first time was that I could appreciate their bravery. I could appreciate why they came into the office with the look of desperation and hope on their faces, they needed our help. They did what I often wonder if I could have been brave enough do and that is to trust a stranger with my life. I realized the struggles that I had experienced for the few short hours in the suit but in front of me were those who had the real life experience. I, after all, was struggling with just the thought of living life obese those in front of me had struggled just to live.


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