Heather Gum has a secret.
She hides her secret in girdles, under baggy clothes, tucked away from public view.
“I try to hide it but every night the truth comes out when my clothes come off,” Gum said.
But she will expose her secret on national television this week on an episode of “The Doctors,” entitled “Your Skin: Feed it, Fix it, Tuck it.” The medical talk show will air locally at 11 a.m. Wednesday, March 20, on ABC.
On the show, Gum reveals how she struggles daily with the 25 pounds of extra skin she’s stuck with after losing more than 170 pounds in the last two years.
“It’s weird to think I’ll be on national TV,” Gum said, “and everyone is going to know what’s going on underneath my clothes.”
What’s going on underneath her clothes is a constant reminder of the woman she used to be, and the fact her insurance will not pay the estimated $35,000 for the plastic surgery for her to have it removed.
Gum finds it ironic that she struggled for two years to get her weight down and get healthy – she no longer has high blood pressure, sleep apnea or any signs of diabetes, in effect saving the insurance company money – but the company won’t pay for her to shed her 25 pounds of skin.
“It’s no more cosmetic than helping a burn victim or a child with a birth defect,” Gum said. “The excess skin is as mentally debilitating as the excess weight was mentally debilitating.”
For more than 30 years, the Readyville resident struggled with her weight. She topped the scale at 367 pounds and had a 55 1/2-inch waist until Valentine’s Day 2011 when she decided to start loving herself enough to change her life for the better.
“I needed to learn to love myself ... That day is symbolic of love,” she said.
But what really inspired her to make a change was her job as a UT/TSU Agricultural Extension assistant agent where she teaches with the 4-H program, which teaches life skills to students.
“I was a 4-H’er ... It really helped me as a child and to actually work here is such a blessing,” Gum said.
But what bothered her most was the 4-H pledge, which says “I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, and my health to better living for my club, my community, my country and my world.”
Gum said she felt uncomfortable and a little embarrassed about her own weight and lack of a healthy lifestyle, while getting children to pledge their “health to better living.”
“I was not the best example,” she said. “That was partially what inspired me.”
Now Gum’s transformation is an inspiration to the entire Agricultural Extension office, coworker Family & Consumer Sciences Extension Agent Pat Whitaker said.
“She shows us daily what a joy it is to be healthy and how good healthy food can taste as she prepares it in the break room,” Whitaker said. “She truly walks the talk and it shows.”
Gum’s walk took her to the Metabolic Research Center, the support group TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly) and to the Internet with her blog on the website “3 Fat Chick on a Diet.”
With this support system, she shed the pounds and kept them off this time after countless attempts to get healthy.
“(In the past,) I would lose and then stop and go back to bad habits,” she said.
“I had tried to fit into something, or go somewhere, or anything and it didn’t work,” she explained her struggles with weight loss in the past.
“About 30 pounds in, I started blogging. It was like therapy and made me accountable to myself,” she said, adding she had to give herself permission to be selfish enough to be successful.
A key part of her success was blogging, which in turn led her to California for a taping of The Doctors.
After her October 2012 trip to the plastic surgeon where she learned her health insurance will not pay to have her excess skin removed, she took her disappointment to the Internet.
She turned the blog into a letter to TOPS headquarters where it was discussed and she was asked to be the face of the problem.
“Nobody tells you, you’re going to be stuck with sagging, flappy skin,” Gum said. “When I found out insurance wouldn’t pay for this, I thought I had done this for nothing. But then I realized that I hadn’t done this for nothing because I can now do things I could never do before.”
She said the leftover skin is the biggest secret of weight loss and she can’t justify taking the money away from her two daughters.
“It would be too selfish. To lose weight and focus on yourself is selfish,” she said. “I feel worthy now, but I can’t take that money away from my family.”
This is what she explained in the letter she sent to The Doctors, who found merit in her struggles.
“It was very humbling ...” she said about being invited on the show. “If this can help somebody make a healthy choice for a meal, for a day, for a lifetime, that’s the reward.”