Inspiring Wellness Stories

Have an inspiring wellness story to share? Maybe you’ve recently met an elusive fitness goal? Have you conquered your long-standing struggles with food? Perhaps you’ve quit smoking for good. Or maybe you finally have your chronic condition under control. We would love to hear how you have triumphed over your wellness challenges. Send us your story today!


Alexandra MaysThe Love Run Half-Marathon

Alexandra Mays is a Judicial Court Clerk for the Criminal Division/Drug Court for the Judiciary in Burlington County. She recently contacted NJWELL to share her personal story of achievements. In November 2015, Alex began to run with a running group and started training for her first half-marathon. She wanted to take control of her life and trained all winter long. In addition, in March 2016, she decided to quit smoking COLD TURKEY and celebrated 205 days of being nicotine free on October 12. In April 2016, she ran The Love Run Half Marathon in Philadelphia, which was her first half marathon of 13.1 miles, which is the farthest she’s ever run. Alex has also participated in the Broad Street Run, a 10 mile course, for the past 5 years, always finishing in around 2 hours. This year she ran and beat her personal record by shaving off 18 minutes! Alex reports that “today I feel GREAT!!” And we sure can see why.

Congratulations Alex!  Your story is inspirational.  Here’s to your good health!


Ray Zirilli

Ray’s story: Air Force Veteran Turns Life Around with Gastric Sleeve Surgery

Raymond Zirilli is a US Air Force veteran who lost 90 pounds with gastric sleeve surgery. Here he tells his story and how he resists temptation now, a year and half post-surgery.

When I was in my twenties, I was recently married and had just entered the US Air Force. Married life with my family was very different from the life I had running with my single friends. I became very sedentary on my time off from work and began to see the results of that inactivity. At six-feet tall, my weight rocketed from 165 pounds to 210 pounds in four short months during my USAF basic and technical training.

The military had weight standards. The maximum weight standard for my height was 205 pounds; however, the only time I recall weighing as low as 205 pounds was on weigh-in days. Mandatory weigh-ins in the military are conducted every six months, and in order to make weight, I’d begin a crash diet a month before. After making weight, I’d spend the next five months, mostly sedentary and eating as I pleased.

Of course, I gained even more weight. It fluctuated between 215 pounds and 255 pounds over the next 18 years, and then it ballooned to 285 pounds after leaving the military, where it remained for the next 20 years.

At 57 years old, and with weight-related high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, I decided I had to do something. I was tired of yo-yo dieting and dealing with weight-related health issues. I learned about bariatric surgery at Penn Medicine, and after meeting with my surgeon there, I decided to have gastric sleeve surgery.

Bariatric Surgery: Not the End-All Cure

I had my gastric sleeve surgery in December of 2014, and the procedure itself was easy. I was up and walking the morning after, released from the hospital after a short two-day stay, and recovering at home for just four weeks before returning to work.

After reaching my goal weight of 195 pounds, complacency set in as I began to drift back to my old eating habits, especially in the winter months. Instead of going to the gym at night, I’d sit and watch my favorite TV program and eat things that weight-loss surgery patients typically don’t eat.

I recognized I had a problem when I stepped on the scale and saw I had gained back 15 pounds. The honeymoon was over, and it was time to get back to work.

How I Turned My Life Around

I quickly got back to the support groups at Penn, where someone suggested I reboot and get back to the basics. It was a great reminder, and something I needed to hear. One of the things I learned during this time is: when no one is watching, you can get away with bad habits.

Today, I’m back on track thanks to some wonderful help and support from my friend Lou, the Penn staff, and the awesome folks in the weight management support group.

I stay busy chasing my grandsons (I can keep up with them now!), I walk more and faster than ever before, and I recently started riding my bike again. I am no longer on any medications for type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure. I feel great.

My Suggestions to Pre- and Post-Op Patients

  1. Attend support groups. They’re the reason I’m back on track, and I learn something new at every meeting.
  2. Reach out to other patients in the support group and become Facebook friends with as many folks as possible, so they can look after you. I use Fitbit and My Fitness Pal, so I can add friends who can cheer me on when I make progress. It holds you accountable, not only to yourself, but to others who also share your struggles.
  3. The Penn Bariatric Surgery staff, along with the post-surgery patients, have a wealth knowledge and experience and can provide advice and guidance to overcome obstacles to losing or maintaining weight. Use them.

Lou Schopfer

Lou’s story: Department of Education (DOE) veteran makes life-changing decisions

Lou Schopfer, a 15-year DOE veteran (almost 29 years with the state) who currently works in the Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance, had bariatric surgery in July2014. Since then, he has lost more than 120 pounds and has discovered new activities to keep fit. He previously shared this story in a publication produced by Penn Medicine, and agreed to share it with colleagues and friends at DOE.

Due to my inactivity and unhealthy eating habits, I was heavy. I suffered from high blood pressure, high cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes and sleep apnea. I tried every diet and was in a constant cycle of losing and gaining weight. The quality of my life just started to decline.

One of the turning points for me was when I went to “back to school” night at my daughter’s high school. I couldn’t fit in a school desk and finally felt: I needed to do something. My brother became very ill with cancer. During that time, we’d talk about my weight often. He told me to “live life like you’re dying.” I had thought about bariatric surgery, but it wasn’t until I went to an informational session in Cherry Hill that I seriously considered the procedure. At the time I was 363 pounds, and I knew I needed to do something drastic to change my life.

That was August 28, 2013, and I decided to go through the medical weight management, not knowing if I would have the courage to go through the surgery. By going through the process and being fully prepared on what to expect, I found I did.

In July 2014, at 344 pounds, my gastric sleeve procedure was performed. And by the end of the year, I really started to believe I had a second chance at life. I am more than 120 pounds lighter. I am off all of my diabetes medications. I have ditched my cholesterol medications and significantly lowered the dosage for my blood pressure medications.

There are a lot of people and activities that really helped me get to where I am today, especially my surgeon. In addition, I had the privilege of training at a local facility in South Jersey and in a program called Fitness Now, sponsored by Penn Medicine, where I attend monthly support meetings. I swim four days a week at the local Y, take four exercise classes a week and power walk at least five days a week. I keep to a 1,000 calorie diet a day and continue to have the support of my beautiful wife, Jan, of 28 years and my great kids, Elizabeth and Matt.

I want people struggling with their weight to know that you don’t have to live like this. I hope my simple story helps and encourages you.

- Lou Schopfer