Patient: Leslie Sutton, Boca Raton, FL
Clinician: Kathryn Martin, M.D., Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA
Specialty: Reproductive Endocrinology
At 5’6” and 135 lbs., Leslie Sutton, 41, doesn’t look like someone with an obesity problem. But Leslie’s current weight loss maintenance and positive attitude are the result of hard work and a 12-year partnership with her endocrinologist, Dr. Kathryn Martin.
Leslie has polycystic ovary syndrome or PCOS. PCOS is a hormone disorder characterized by irregular menstrual periods, a high level of androgens, or “male” hormones, and the presence on ultrasound of multiple small cysts on the ovaries.
Women with PCOS are often labeled with obesity, may have unusual or excessive hair growth (also known as hirsutism), and are at increased risk for insulin resistance, diabetes,and fertility problems.
For Leslie, the problems began with her first period. “I was 12 or 13 when I got my first period and my whole body just went wacky,” she says. “I was gaining weight. I had horrible acne and was growing this hair and getting really depressed. It was awful.”
Unfortunately for Leslie, her condition began at a time when little was known about PCOS. She recalls one of her first physicians explaining that her problem with PCOS was hormonal, but that was all the information he was able to provide. Without answers, Leslie spent the next decade struggling with weight loss issues and spiraling self-esteem. By the time she graduated from college and married, she was desperate for help.
“I grew up in New York and was very involved in theater. In the years after my periods started, I went from being this outgoing, warm, intelligent girl to a very shy, overweight woman with an eating disorder. I lived in a cloistered world. I couldn’t go on auditions. It was all so overwhelming.”
Encouraged by her family and friends, Leslie started to seek out doctors who could help. By her own estimate, she saw nearly 20 different doctors in her search for answers. She had physical exams, psychiatric evaluations and saw a series of specialists. According to Leslie, early tests showed slight differences in her hormone levels, but the science at the time was not yet honed enough to detect PCOS.
Then, as a young wife struggling to conceive, a fertility specialist finally put a name to her condition. For Leslie, learning she had PCOS was just the beginning. She still needed information on how to manage PCOS.
“My heaviest weight was 240 and five years after having my twins, I still weighed around 200 lbs.,” she says. “So, I went back to the endocrine experts at Massachusetts General Hospital and they sent me to Dr. Martin.”
“Leslie really wanted answers,” says Dr. Martin. “Although fertility was no longer an issue, she was very concerned about her weight, acne, and hirsutism.” According to Dr. Martin, Leslie’s obesity also put her at risk fordiabetes and other problems high cholesterol , hypertension, thyroid disease. Together, Dr. Martin and Leslie began to address her medical problems and weight loss treatment needs, and Leslie also found some much needed understanding.
“PCOS is so personal for women. You almost don’t feel like a woman. You have facial hair and you feel fat and ugly and no one seems to know what to do with you,” she says. “Finding Dr. Martin literally changed my life. No other doctor knew what Dr. Martin knew back then. She was awesome. She listened to me. She stays up on the research and enabled me to have a comprehensive plan for my recovery. For me that’s what it was, a recovery.”
While she considers her PCOS and obesity situation a “recovery,” it’s important to note that polycystic ovary syndrome is a life-long condition that needs constant attention. In fact, Dr. Martin coordinated a team of specialists who helped Leslie address her obesity, skin care and emotional needs. Leslie worked with dieticians, psychopharmacologists, dermatologists and her Ob/Gyn. Together, Leslie and Dr. Martin also reviewed new research, evaluated options and tried alternative approaches to managing and treating Leslie’s PCOS and obesity issues.
“At first, Leslie was more dependent on my advice, but over time she became her own best advocate,” says Dr. Martin. “She does research and participates in support groups, and she’s worked very, very hard to manage her weight. She looks absolutely wonderful.”
Leslie joined Overeaters Anonymous, saw a dietician, and took medicines to control her hormones and other aspects of PCOS. This combination of approaches worked. Leslie was successful in her weight loss efforts and is now at a clinically healthy weight and has avoided typical PCOS complications like diabetes and high cholesterol.
“Obesity and PCOS are related – so managing the obesity made it easier to deal with Leslie’s care of her polycystic ovary syndrome,” says Dr. Martin. “There’s no single answer for every PCOS patient, so it’s important that women see a specialist, an endocrinologist, who has experience treating the disorder.”
Today, Leslie is a healthy, happy mother of two who devotes much of her time volunteering as a mentor to young women who, like her, have struggled with weight loss and body image. She says having a daughter has only reinforced her belief in how important it is to be healthy and to work with the right kind of healthcare team that helps to approach difficult problems head on.
“Dr. Martin and I have a relationship. She is kind, gentle and passionate. Her supportive energy and knowledge of PCOS really helped me.”
Despite having left Boston for the sunnier climate of Florida, Leslie still sees Dr. Martin regularly, although it now requires a plane ticket to make her appointments.