25 June 2018
Two days after competing in the 2015 Horse of the Year Show, Amanda Firman was having a gastric bypass operation in a desperate bid to lose weight not only for her own health but for the sake of her horse. Two years later, she is eight stone lighter, riding five days a week and pinning her hopes on qualifying for the Horse of the Year Show next year.
“When I took part last time, I weighed 20 stone which I didn’t feel was good for my horse’s back – I even had to have my riding jacket made specially as I was a size 22,” she says.
She was also permanently exhausted and constantly in pain with arthritis in her knees and ankles. Mucking out the stable took two hours instead of the usual 20 minutes, and husband Colin says: “She looked like an old lady when she tried to climb the stairs.”
“I was taking pain killers five times a day and having steroid injections – it was like self-inflicted pain because my weight was causing it. I kept trying to diet but gave up. There were too many temptations in the way and I had no will power, so I would put the weight back on again.”
Amanda started gaining weight 10 years ago when she was diagnosed with ME (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis).
“People don't realise what a debilitating condition it is. I struggled to put one foot in front of the other and used to cry in the shower just because I was so tired.”
She sought out food to give her energy, choosing cakes and biscuits because “a banana just wouldn’t do it.”
“I ate the wrong things - chocolate, fizzy pop, cakes, biscuits - anything sweet that would give me a kick for a while.”
Working at a nursing home meant she was surrounded by boxes of biscuits, and at home, the keen cook admits she was terrible at portion control and would serve up huge dinners for her and her family.
“Eating became a problem and the more tired I became the more I needed an energy boost to get me through the next hour or so.”
She was stuck in a vicious circle, reducing her working hours to part-time in order to cope, and swapping her manual car for an automatic because driving was too painful. She could only ride her horse for a few minutes at a time before exhaustion kicked in.
“I kept trying to diet but my fatigue always got the better of me so for my health and the health of my horse – I was always worried I was too heavy for him - I decided to have surgery.”
Amanda opted for a gastric bypass – a bariatric procedure which reduces the size of the stomach and reroutes the intestine – as it gives more guaranteed and sustained weight loss. But before she could have the operation, under the care of bariatric surgeon Mr Simon Monkhouse, she had to undergo a strict 800 calorie a day diet for two weeks. The pre-op diet reduces the amount of fat around the liver to make surgery safer.
Despite being a size 22 when she competed in the Horse of the Year Show just before her operation, Amanda says she was lighter than she had been in a long time because of the pre-op diet.
Two days after surgery, Amanda was discharged from hospital and was back to work the following week, and riding a few weeks later.
Her weight dropped off quickly as she could only eat small portions, gradually increasing to a tea-plate sized meal at dinner time. She takes daily supplements because her body absorbs fewer vitamins and minerals following the gastric bypass and is careful not to eat rich food which can lead to nausea. However, Amanda says she is no longer bothered by cakes and biscuits and happy to eat a varied and healthy diet, with nuts, dried fruit, cheese and grapes for snacks.
“I can still eat anything I like, but much smaller portions and now what I eat is more valuable. I make sure it is the right thing, but I am not a total saint and will have a piece of chocolate or a biscuit, and occasionally love a duck wrap.”
By June last year, nine months after the operation, Amanda had lost eight stone and the pain in her joints had disappeared. Losing weight gave her the confidence to find a new job as a care coordinator at a local GP surgery. She and Colin moved to a new house and bought their own land with stables and an outdoor school. And Amanda treated herself to a new horse, a handsome hunter called Johnnie The Fox, on which she hopes to start competing in qualifying rounds for the 2018 Horse of the Year Show.
“I have had to learn to ride slim,” she says. “Before, I was so fat, I just sat there. And now, not having pain in my ankles and knees, has made a huge difference - I have the determination to do more.”
Now a size 10 to 12, Amanda also enjoys shopping for clothes. In the past, she only derived pleasure from buying handbags and scarves, and refused to look in a mirror – even banning mirrors from her home “because I didn’t like what I saw”. It is also hard to find any 'before' photos of Amanda as she hated having her photo taken.
She is still living with ME, but the tiredness is no longer aggravated by joint pain and excess weight. She is up at 5am to head to the stables, and can ride up to 40 minutes at a time, ME permitting. She makes sure she eats protein before doing any activity, and her lorry contains a stash of snacks for when her energy levels plummet, although these days this is fruit, nuts or healthy cereal bars rather than biscuits.
“At first, I was embarrassed to tell people I had gone to this length to be a proper healthy size, but the operation has given me my life back in so many ways,” she says.
“I now have a quality, pain-free life which is something I haven't had in a long time. I have been asked if I regret having the operation done - no way! I only wish I had had it done sooner.”