After a series of health issues, April Lawrence decided it was time for a major change.

In 2005, she weighed 285 pounds with an A1C of 10%. Now, she weighs 195 pounds and has an A1C of 5%. How did she do it? We have the details on the success April Lawrence had after facing major adversity in the wake of Huricane Katrina.

April Lawrence smiling with a handweight
Credit: Nick Burchell

The Situation

After Hurricane Katrina, everything changed for April Lawrence. It was 2005, and she and her family had just moved to Atlanta from New Orleans. "I was existing in total survival mode," says Lawrence, who escaped the storm with her mother, grandmother, and 11 other family members, all piled into two cars. "I was an emotional wreck and was emotionally eating. It seemed like meals were the main ways our family connected. We were surrounded by food—all the time."

Soon after the move, Lawrence developed a yeast infection. She also felt tired and lethargic all the time, so she made an appointment with her grandmother's doctor.

"I had bloodwork and, before I could leave, my doctor told me to meet him across the street at the hospital," says Lawrence, 40, who works in health care and still lives in Atlanta. It turned out that her potassium levels were low and her blood sugar measured a high of 405 mg/dL.

"I had never been hospitalized before," says Lawrence. "I found out I [had diabetes] when a nutritionist came into my room, told me the news, and explained that I would need to fill an insulin prescription."

After a five-day hospital stay, Lawrence left without any real sense of how to manage her diabetes. "It was 'here's the pamphlet, get the medicine, learn how to do the insulin injections, there you go,'" she says.

She spent the next few months winging it. "I was confused," she says. "I was literally feeling my way around. For example, people would say 'don't eat two slices of cake, have a little.' Even with the insulin, it was hit or miss—I wasn't taking it all the time."

A year later, after her yearly physical, she was again admitted to the hospital due to high blood sugar levels. Over the next four years, Lawrence continued to struggle with managing her diabetes and her weight. She tried every fad diet that she could think of, but her blood sugar levels kept zigzagging.

The Challenge

What helped her break this cycle was a challenge. In January 2010, when she started dating her then-boyfriend, they challenged each other to lose 10 pounds in a month. "I'm very competitive, so I made it a goal to beat him," she says with a laugh. She tried a lower-carb diet that cut out processed foods, favoring "safe foods"—fruits, vegetables, and other unprocessed foods that she cooked herself. That included scrambled eggs and Canadian bacon for breakfast; tuna fish for lunch; and chicken, broccoli, and cheese for dinner. "I tweaked everything so that it would all taste good and not affect my sugar levels as much," she says.

By May of that year, she had lost 25 pounds. But when she became pregnant, her health worries returned. During her second trimester, she had parathyroid surgery because her calcium levels were high. She was put on bed rest before delivering at 37 weeks.

Managing her health was challenging as a single mom, especially when she enrolled in night school for health care management while working full-time. She found that she didn't have the time to work out or eat right and was losing and gaining weight within a 5-pound window.

In 2017, she started experiencing sleep apnea. Then, after an incident at work when she felt like her heart was skipping a beat, she was sent back to the hospital for an overnight evaluation to make sure she wasn't having a heart attack. She knew something had to change.

"I decided to have bariatric surgery and began calling surgeons myself," she says. While her primary care doctor wasn't initially supportive, she was determined to have the procedure.

In December 2017, she had the surgery. By April 2018, she no longer needed her diabetes medication, and by September 2018 she had lost 85 pounds.

She credits the surgery for teaching her discipline. "When you're winging diabetes on your own, you can adjust your rules for how you feel that day," she says. "The surgery gave me more structure and forced me to follow the rules—there's no choice."

Still, Lawrence is quick to point out that bariatric surgery isn't without its challenges. "The surgery wasn't a magic pill," she says. "I tell people that this is an everyday struggle. I have to work at eating right and exercising every day."

These days, Lawrence is vigilant about what she eats and how often she exercises. She's become a big believer in meal prep and spends part of every Sunday sketching out her food for the week. And she now considers exercise to be fun, especially if it involves her daughter, now 8. "I love being active with her, whether it's taking walks with her on the trails behind the house or walking with her while she rides her bike. She's my little motivator."

Lawrence has also become an advocate for staying healthy. "I tell people to make this their journey," she says. "You can't go by what someone else does but, instead, you need to make your own path." And take it one day at a time.

What Worked for April

Develop a daily menu. "Breakfast is an egg-white omelet and a protein, lunch is a turkey or chicken lettuce wrap, and dinner is salmon or a chicken breast with Caesar salad or cauliflower ricotta. I eat fruit around lunch—I stick with berries or apples. For a snack, I have dried cranberries and almonds and some cheese. Most days, I don't really deviate!"

Find a balance. "Do I eat cake? Sometimes. But I believe in everything in moderation. You still want to live life but you should know you can't have that pizza slice and then have cake too. You have to find a balance. Also, you can't beat yourself up if you don't have a perfect day. Move on and try to do better at the next meal. Once you do that you'll feel so much better."

Do your homework. "I'm lucky to have a doctor who's part of my support team. I always tell people: get together with your doctor, come up with a game plan, and really figure out what works for you. Ask if a new medication you've heard about is right for you. And research—use Google. It's free, so research until you can't research anymore."

Find fun ways to exercise. "I do a lot of cardio and I work out three to four days a week. I love spinning class and working out outside—something I never thought I'd want to do. My best friend and I go out every other Saturday and do a 3-mile blend of walking and jogging. We try to jog as much as possible, and we get to spend time together too!"