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A Dive Master's Journey To Finding Her True Self


A Dive Master's Journey To Finding Her True Self

Felicity Cohen: Hello, I’m Felicity Cohen. I’m so excited to introduce you to my wellness warriors podcast. For over 20 years, I’ve been a passionate advocate for helping thousands of Australians find solutions to treating obesity and health-related complications through surgical intervention and holistic managed care.

My podcast is dedicated to all the people. Past, present and future who have helped shape my journey and continue to inspire me to work consistently to achieve a healthier Australia in both adults and future generations. I hope you enjoy it.

Welcome to my wellness warriors podcast, Heidi Stepanoff.

It’s an absolute pleasure to have you here. I’m very excited to, to see you now. And haven’t seen you for such a long time. I first met you when you came to weight loss solutions Australia as a patient and as we were chatting briefly before it was around about 2011.

Heidi Stepanoff: Yep. That’s right. Yep. Been a while.

Felicity Cohen: So let’s just go back to that beginning of your journey and hopefully you’ve still got some memories that far back. What were some of the things that led you towards looking to a surgical solution for you as far as your weight was concerned then?

Heidi Stepanoff: it was a trip to my doctor actually. And, we actually went to the same gym so she could see how hard I was trying to lose weight.

The weight crept on at first, very slowly. And then, just sort of snowballed from there. I tried every diet, every magical cure could imagine everything on the internet. and I went to see her. We tried diet pills and, I went back. I was, I took a few weeks for me to build up the courage to go back and see her again.

Cause I’d actually gained weight through the whole process. And she talked to me about surgery and at first I dismissed it because I thought it was something reserved for people much bigger than I was at the time. But she really sort of sat me down and said, well, actually you’re morbidly obese and this is what the consequences are. You’re pre-diabetic and this is a real option for you. And she actually put me in touch, with your information session. And I went along and I think I raced to the counter to be the first person to sign up for the consultation.

Felicity Cohen: I actually think you did.

Wow. That’s an incredible story and memory. And you know, the information nights for me have always been a powerful opportunity to connect with people and hopefully inspire them to make those decisions that are really the tough ones. And what I love is that your GP, even back then 11 years ago, was so encouraging and supportive and, and took you down that road.

Because I think that’s one of the hardest communities from our perspective to have educated, guided and, you know, to see them grow in how they support patients. Because there was obvious, you know, there was a mentality for so many years around, you know, you need to lose weight, you know, what to do.

And most GPS would still back in 2011, not of kind of being the referring doctor to suggest it because it was also a little bit taboo to raise the subject or suggest to a patient that surgery was the option.

Heidi Stepanoff: Yeah. Yeah. She was really positive. it was actually the way she spoke about it too. Like it wasn’t, the big, scary thing I’d imagined, she was really positive about it.

She knew patients that had gone through, both banding and vertical sleeve gastrectomy and she just really positive things to say about it. I actually felt left the meeting with the doctor feeling really positive. And it surprised me because I was, I would naturally have been quite skeptical.

I’ve always taken quite natural approaches to things and believed in just, you know, but, yeah, after years and years of putting myself through everything and coming out bigger, this felt like the right solution.

Felicity Cohen: Fabulous. What kind of surgical procedure did you have?

Heidi Stepanoff: I had a vertical sleeve. gastrectomy. Yeah. And that was, where they removed a portion of your stomach. Yeah, and it’s worked.

Felicity Cohen: Amazing. I can see, it’s just incredible and so much to uncover and, and to tell about your story and what’s happened over the 11 years following your surgery.

What were some of those initial changes? And what were some of those first highlights for you when you started to lose weight? How did you feel?

Heidi Stepanoff: At first, and it happened quite quickly for me. The obvious changes were just feeling more energy. I actually hadn’t realised how weighed down I felt, and heavy and tired until I started to lose the weight.

And I’d had my daughter in 2007 before the surgery and that was a big wake up call for me because I now had a little person watching, you know, what I was doing and the way that I was living my life. And I obviously wanted to be around for as long as possible for her and, and do things with her.

So being able to be more of an active mum, and feeling confident about myself, definitely had an impact on the way I mother as well. So, it was more the confidence, the energy. And, I guess, feeling more myself than I’d felt in a very long time. I really didn’t identify every time I saw a photo of myself, I thought, I was shocked. I didn’t feel like it was me before I lost weight. And then as I started to lose weight, I felt like I was more myself. Yeah.

Felicity Cohen: Almost like stepping into yourself and who you were meant to be. I think that powerful, positive parenting message is really huge. And for so many people, I think they feel like they’re disconnected a little bit from their daily activities with their children, because they just don’t feel that they’ve got the physical competence to engage, to do the things that their children want them to do.

And they’re missing out on so much of living life with their kids and engaging with them. So there’s so much going on there it’s that, you know, the positive influences that you guide and educate your own children through. But also being actively engaging and involved in doing whatever they want to do with you.

It’s family lifestyle.

Heidi Stepanoff: Yeah, definitely. And, and even things like, photographs. Like I have so little photos of myself with my daughter between when she was born to when I’d started to lose weight and it was because I just didn’t feel, and it’s not so much the way I looked. It was more I didn’t feel me and I didn’t like myself in photos. I would go to the beach and, you know, I would covered up and watched her play rather than sort of more interacting with her. So those are the things that like once, you know, I realised, and we have all these wonderful photos and memories now, but yeah, it was, it really did impact on being a parent and, the enjoying life with my kids. Yeah.

Felicity Cohen: Quality of life is huge. It is everything. So you’ve got two children.

Heidi Stepanoff: Yes, I have. My son was in 2012, so not long after I’d lost all my weight. And that pregnant, it was really good compared to the one before. And yeah being a mum with two kids,

I don’t know how I would’ve done it. If I hadn’t lost weight. It was, you know, it’s a big job as you know, you’re a mum too.

Felicity Cohen: Yeah, absolutely. So your second child and the second pregnancy, do you feel that the weight loss contributed to a much healthier pregnancy?

Heidi Stepanoff: Definitely. So when I fell pregnant with Alara, it was a bit of a surprise and, I was researching options to have my child. And, kept reading that anyone my size was considered a high-risk pregnancy. And I felt awful. I felt like straight out of the bat, my daughter hadn’t even been born and I’d put her at risk. It felt awful. I didn’t feel great through the pregnancy, you know. Especially like active time at, you know, you can be, feel really big and heavy, but I felt especially, tired and, you know, sort of dragging myself through the nine months.

With Alex, I was much more active. Yeah, it felt like, and even just the birth itself I felt better with. So it was definitely something I wish I’d had the opportunity to do earlier on, before it got to the stage it was. But yeah, much better.

Fantastic. I think that’s such a strong message because so many people are fearful around not just falling pregnant and being able to fall pregnant, but carrying a healthy pregnancy to full term.

Felicity Cohen: I think that’s a really important message. And also having a, you know, relatively easy birthing process as well, that’s a big part of that whole story. It’s not just about, can you actually fall pregnant? And for us in this patient population, we’re dealing with lots of people who have struggles with falling pregnant.

So the surgery is a means to an end for so many of them. But, you know, look at the bigger picture, it’s all the way through the nine months of pregnancy and having a healthy birth that’s uncomplicated at the end is so, so valuable. So great. And I’m sure your recovery as well was awesome.

Heidi Stepanoff: Yes, much better.

Felicity Cohen: Energy energy is such a big concern that for so many overweight people and morbidly obese patients, and I don’t think people actually understand or really can imagine what that feels like to suddenly have more energy.

Heidi Stepanoff: That’s right. It’s so underrated. And you don’t realise because especially if the weight’s crept on how much of a toll it takes, but it’s like walking around with a massive heavy coat on every day.

You know I’ve always, I was always an active person before I put the weight on. And when I got to over a hundred kilograms, I really pulled back from everything. I doing, you know, downward dog at 125 kilograms is difficult. It’s not relaxing, it’s not enjoyable. But it’s something I do now to relax.

I’m always outside. I love diving. I love, you know, any sports that I can participate in. So it’s difficult to know the difference. It was something of a bit of surprise, I guess, as I started to lose weight and think, I thought this was me and it, and it really was just the weight holding me back.

Felicity Cohen: Having the opportunity to lead an active lifestyle as well. What so many people don’t actually understand is the more active you are, the more energetic you actually feel. It actually energises you. So not only do you have the energy to go out and do more, but you’re actually getting more energy and gaining more from that whole engaging opportunity. Do you feel that that’s true?

Heidi Stepanoff: Absolutely. Yeah. So a vicious cycle, and once you’re sitting in, you’re withdrawal from friends, you start to spend more time alone at home. And it becomes that kind of circular situation. But with, you know, being out and about now, you’re naturally more social or you do more.

I think it’s, it’s really difficult to identify how isolated you become until you start to realise there’s something else and feeling the, you know, once you’ve out and about and doing stuff is a lot easier when you’re more confident about the way you feel, you’ve got the energy to do it. It’s difficult to push yourself out of the couch, initially. But, I lost most of the weight without doing much exercise in the beginning.

And as I started, because it wasn’t a pleasant experience for me prior, but then I started to do it just because I thought I’d better start doing some walking and want to turn up. And I realised how much easier it was. I enjoyed it. It was social. So there were so many benefits to living a more active life.

Felicity Cohen: Amazing. I think that social isolation. Story is very common for so many people. Once they reach a point where they’re uncomfortable with their weight, they’re lacking in self-confidence and they start to retreat into not actively socialising with their family and friends as much as would be nice. That’s a real problem.

And you know, so nice to see that you moved on from that. And that you can have this much bigger world around how you socialise. I think it’s so important that we’re, especially in this day and age now that we’re not socially isolating, that we’re looking for ways to connect even more. So you must really be enjoying those relationships more than ever before.

Heidi Stepanoff: I am. Yeah. I love it. Yeah, I’m really into my diving now, I’m a dive master. So I get to, it’s basically an underwater tour guide. So I get to lead other divers on dives now. And that’s something I’m really proud of because getting that certificate as a 40 year old woman, who had been on the inside sitting down, very solitary lifestyle for such a long time. It’s quite a physically demanding activity.

And yeah,

Felicity Cohen: the only thing is so taxing and I was just about to get into that, but I know it’s your passion and you couldn’t wait to take the time. Super excited to talk about diving. That’s your thing. It’s your passion.

You’re a dive master. You do underwater photography. Yeah. Just it’s a hobby. Yeah. Which is fun. That’s awesome. I love that. You’ve got to be a good diver to be able to. Take beautiful photographs at the same time. So I think that’s spectacular.

and I remember you saying that, you know, you would never have put on a wetsuit to go out diving and you wouldn’t have been comfortable on that dive boat with all those people around you.

to be able to experience that. Tell me, why did you go to and start diving? What led you down that.

Heidi Stepanoff: I’ve always loved the ocean. and when I was a teenager, I wanted to be a Marine biologist. I loved surfing. I love sailing. I love swimming at the beach, so it was always a big passion of mine. And when I put on a lot of weight, I stopped surfing.

I stopped going to the beach. I didn’t enjoy buying swim suits or putting swim suits on. Everything looked like it was designed for a grandmother that fit me. And it never occurred to me that I could be a diver. And when I lost weight, I actually got a gift certificate and I thought, you know what, I’m going to give it a go.

So I signed up for an introductory course and never looked back. I just fell in love with it. But putting a wet suit on is intimidating when you’re, you know, a plus size, because it’s difficult to move, et cetera. And now I have to put on a wetsuit on a moving dive boat on the way to a dive site and I don’t think twice about it. So it’s good.

Amazing. I love it. Where are some of your favorite dive spots close by? Where do you go?

The solitary islands and Coffs Harbor. That’s to me it’s the best spot and it’s right on our doorstep, but just a bit of everything. You get the warm water currents coming down and the cold water currents coming north.

So there’s a mix of all the tropical stuff. And then the cold pelagic stuff. It’s really cool.

So you get the tropical fish and beautiful things to look

at down there

and all the sharks, we get a lot of grayness. that stay around year round at Coffs Harbor. So they, move up and down the coast, but we always see them there.

Yeah. It’s really, really special place. And I’m really feel at home underwater. It’s sort of at my meditation. I love showing people around and seeing their enjoyment in the site. yeah, it’s amazing.

Have you ever done any diving outside of Australia?

I have I’ve dived in Fiji. I went to see the tiger sharks over there.

I’ve dived in the Solomon Islands. and I’ve done around Indonesia as well. So yeah, a few spots, but so much more to see.

Felicity Cohen: What’s your favorite spot so far?

Heidi Stepanoff: Well, I have to say across Harvard, but it, Fiji was pretty special too. the tiger sharks are just mesmerising to watch. They’re like huge buses underwater.

They’re massive, but, very or inspiring you feel how little you really are. In the ocean, when you see one of those cruise past,

Felicity Cohen: I love that. And I love diving. I’ve actually done a lot of dive on myself and I don’t think I would ever have married my husband if I wasn’t able to be a diver. I think I got pushed under water the first time. but it’s a wonderful experience. I really love it. I’ve had a couple of challenges diving myself once, in Egypt, actually in Sharmila. There’s there was some incredible tides and I got swept away from the group and I didn’t actually know whether they were in front of me or behind me. And so I was parallel holding onto a rock.

Oh, go lucky for me. They were behind, they were behind me. So yeah, I wasn’t left down there with the sharks. Thank goodness. so yeah, I lived to tell the tale, have you had any scary moments down there?

Heidi Stepanoff: Maybe not so much. we did in Fiji, one of the it’s shark dives that we did, we’d watched the tiger sharks.

We’d all been mesmerised by the show. And then they tap on their tanks to let you know everybody it’s time to go because the food’s running out that they, they do, bait, fish heads, they feed them and once they run low, they like to get everyone out of the water. So the sharks don’t get curious, I suppose.

and we headed back to the boat, only that one of the sharks decided to follow us up to the boat. and it came up behind one of my dive buddies. And, it was one of those moments where you like. Let’s not panic here, but we’d also heard that the week before that a tourist had, one of the sharks had missed out on their tuna heads and had come around and decided to give him a bit of a shake.

He was actually okay. but it, yeah, it was a little bit sort of, oh, I’m not sure we know what to do here. And we’re all trying to remember what to do or if it approaches you, what do we push it down or push it up? I can’t remember. So it was one of those, and I’ve never seen so many divers scramble onto a boat as quickly as I have that day.

But, yeah, I haven’t, I’m pretty comfortable under water. I am a bit of a, a safety freak, so everyone’s pretty well briefed and I make sure everyone feels safe. But, yeah, it’s, it’s definitely, another experience altogether.

Felicity Cohen: Oh. And I love that that’s become a passion for you that has evolved through, you know, postsurgical story.

And I think, you know, one of the things to highlight, you know, we could talk about diving for ages cause I love it. But I think the important thing here is so much you can actually go out and achieve all of these things. And these dreams that you might’ve had that were never, your reality can suddenly become your story and you can really go and do whatever you want to do in life.

and that’s what you’ve done. You’ve embraced this whole new hobby. That’s become a passion and obviously a really big part of who you are in your life now. I think it’s spectacular.

Heidi Stepanoff: Thank you. It is. It’s it’s good to feel like I’m living the life that I was meant to.

Felicity Cohen: Beautiful. Love it. Let’s talk a little bit about relationships and the reason why I want to talk about relationships, this it so often when we’re talking to people before surgery, there’s this concept around in a relationship where my partner or my significant other, whoever that is and what that looks like, they love me no matter what.

And there’s less of a focus on health aspects, when it comes to talking about why you, you know, how love looks that we associate it with size and wait. And I always try and break that down and talk to people about how this, there shouldn’t be any association. And then we’ve also got this story where relationships evolve, change so much post weight loss surgery.

And even in terms of how friends respond to you. Maybe there’s friends in your network that didn’t like that you became the beautiful looking gorgeous Heidi that you became after surgery and that your partner or your husband maybe responded to you differently. Tell me about some of the changing dynamics in relationships that you’ve experienced over time post-surgery

Heidi Stepanoff: I think, I was. Lucky in a way with friends, they were generally really supportive. There were some people, that suggested I should have done things in natural way. And I said, well, do you use a washing machine or do you do, you know, what’s your clothes, the natural way down the river, it’s a tool.

and it, and then my success kind of spoke for itself and the enduring success. So not just losing the weight, but keeping it off. So I think anyone who may have been sitting on the sidelines, wondering whether I’d made the right decision is, is pretty, confident in ideas as well. Our relationship I was married when I had the surgery, and he was very, my husband at the time was very supportive of it. For me.

I think it’s difficult to be in a relationship when you’re not fully living the life that you were being true to yourself or living your truth. And for me, that was, very much the case. I wasn’t confident enough to look at making decisions that were in my best interests. and I was very much felt stuck in my life.

I dealt with difficulties in the relationship by eating, and. When we separated, my partner actually got a job overseas, so he was gone for long periods of time just after my son was born. And I realised for the first time that I actually felt okay, I was really confident as a mum. It was tough. It was hard work.

I was a working mum of two kids, but I realised I could do this. And I felt like I was really feeling into my side, developing into this person, that felt like me and I felt stronger than I’d ever felt. and it was really tough, a very difficult decision. but I’ve moved forward separately. I’m a better mum and I’m a better friend and I’m a better ex partner, I think for it.

I think it’s. Probably about living your truth, people say, but that’s really what it is for me.

Felicity Cohen: Beautiful. Absolutely. Love it. And congratulations for all that you’re achieving in life in general. I think it’s spectacular. What was for you? Any of the downside? Cause I know people always want to know, well, what are the risks and what are the complications?

What was the downside for you when it comes to thinking back to post-surgery or, or anything that you live with? Long-term. That you see as a downside to having gone through the surgical pathway?

Heidi Stepanoff: gosh, I, I do have to watch my nutrition. I don’t think that’s a bad thing though. I think that’s probably something I should have been doing anyway.

And, I really do pay attention to making sure I get, Nutritional balance in the food that I’m eating, because I don’t need as much as I did before. I do have low iron and B12. I have to watch occasionally, but I’ve also got friends who haven’t had weight loss surgery who were also struggling with those.

So I’m not sure how much relates to that. I honestly can’t think of any downsides. I’d make the decision a hundred times over if I had to.

Felicity Cohen: I love that. Yeah. People worry about, hair loss and the reason I’m raising that is because you’ve got luscious, beautiful, gorgeous hair

did you ever lose any hair after surgery? Never.

Heidi Stepanoff: When I was pregnant, I would come out and hear falls for, obviously it doesn’t matter. I’ve got a lot, but, it didn’t come through out with the surgery. So I’m a bit surprised I was expecting it. but yeah, not for me. I was lucky

Felicity Cohen: lucky. Yeah. Tell me a little bit about what the future looks like for Heidi stepping off where to next and what, what are your hopes and dreams for the future?

Heidi Stepanoff: well, I think I’d like to continue writing. I write in my spare time just fiction. I’ve never had the confidence to send anything away, so I hope that I can send something off. I want to continue diving. I want to continue being active. I want to be that active grandma one day who takes the kids, takes them diving.

I really just want to grab life and live it to its fullest. That’s it. So I feel really lucky that I have this chance to live this life as actively as I do. And I’m going to take every opportunity that comes my way.

Felicity Cohen: Fantastic. I love that. We’ve had an opportunity to, first of all, for me to see you here 11 years after surgery, because I do have such strong memories of your early journey.

So yeah, reconnecting 11 years later, it’s just, it is a wow moment. And I love that we get to still connect and see patients who’ve had this amazing story and journey longterm. And I think for many people seeing longevity of outcomes and the future direction, I think is right. Such a lovely story for, for you to be able to share with people who are listening today and watching your story evolve is beautiful.

And I hope one day that, you know, we’ll be reading your book. So yeah, we can’t wait. That’ll be lovely. Thank you. I have one last question for you that I like to ask everybody who comes on the podcast. so Heidi, what does wellness mean to you?

Heidi Stepanoff: Wellness is, for me, it’s very much the feeling of being healthy and active. I think if you’re able to live an active life and you’re feeling confident and feeling good, that’s wellness to me.

Felicity Cohen: Beautiful. Love it, please. Thank Heidi Stepanoff.

Heidi Stepanoff: Thank you.

Felicity Cohen: Thank you for joining the wellness warriors podcast. It’s been a pleasure to have you online with us. If you enjoy the series, please leave your review, subscribe and follow it.

And we look forward to sharing many more stories with you in the future.

Nutritionist & Dietitian

Meet our team


Chealse Hawk

Nutrion Leader Coach

Isabelle Cole

Nutrion Coach

Joshua Chambers

Nutrion Coach

Laura Barrett

Nutrion Leader Coach