It was her first plane trip, but Marqkria McMiller was more concerned about fitting through the aisle on her flight to New York for an appearance on "Good Morning America" in January.
Although she lost more than 300 pounds in 4½ years after a doctor warned her she was in danger of dying from health problems associated with obesity, she still had moments of doubt about her self-image.
As she boarded the plane, she held up the line of passengers when she paused and stared down that aisle. Then she glimpsed at her reflection in a stainless steel cabinet -- and she was reminded of the new Marqkria.
She walked down that aisle with pride.
"They were looking at who I am," she said. "Look at me now!"
Marqkria, a 29-year-old IV technician, has gained a new life through losing her old weight.
Marqkria was 13 pounds at birth and predisposed to being overweight, as obesity runs in her family.
"It's not looked at as a problem," she said. "It's mainly looked at as, 'You're big-boned' or 'You're just heavy.' But nobody got as extreme as me."
At age 5, after fainting while riding her bike, she had surgery to correct a narrowing blood vessel in her heart. Then her mother restricted her childhood activity.
"She was very, very scared, so she didn't want me to do anything," Marqkria said. "I just basically ate."
Her mother also enabled her unhealthy habits, she said. She would buy Marqkria whatever food she put on the shopping list.
"She never questioned it," Marqkria said, "and I never asked her why."
After moving with her family from Pennsylvania to Columbus when she was 13, she was teased at Blackmon Road Middle School, where she weighed about 270 pounds, and Spencer High School, where she weighed about 300 pounds before graduating in 2005.
"It was very, very hard," she said. "One of the biggest things was PE, not being able to do a sit-up. Now, I can do 100 sit-ups."
She also was teased for not wearing trendy clothes. While her classmates squeezed into tight tops and jeans, she tried to cover up with loose sweatshirts and sweatpants. Her size ranged from 3XL to 5XL.
"I didn't realize that they actually made me look bigger," she said.
She said she couldn't even tell her dress size back then because wearing such clothes seemed impossible.
"I was just so deep in depression that I didn't care," she said.
So her idea of high fashion was wearing a pair of men's jeans with a 56-inch waist.
When she ate larger portions than she should, Marqkria's family didn't stop her.
"My mother and everyone in the household at the time ate really bad," she said. "I was putting on weight faster than everyone because I ate extra. It was not a practice in the house to eat healthy. It was just, 'What buffet are we going to?'
" I always wondered why nobody stopped me when it was getting out of control. The main thing they did about it was, 'Oh, so-and-so is coming over, so let's hide this food.' They knew I would eat everything in sight."
And even out of sight.
"Secret eating," she calls it. "My room was filled with a lot of bad food. I hid a lot of my eating. I was in a state where, mentally, I felt I deserved what I had gotten as a teen as far as being traumatized and my heart condition and my weight. I was less than everybody else. So when I was eating, that was my comfort. That was my best friend. Food became my everything."
Food didn't question her. Food didn't judge her. Food didn't dismiss her.
Food loved her -- physically, emotionally, mentally.
"It always filled that empty spot," she said. "That is what I craved every day."
At age 19, she weighed about 340 pounds. She was taking medications to control her blood pressure and cholesterol, and she was having trouble breathing while she tried to sleep. Her physician, Dr. Joseph Surber, told her she was borderline diabetic and would need a respirator at night. Worse, he continued, if she didn't immediately make a dramatic change in her lifestyle, she could die before she turned 21.
"I was very concerned about her," said Surber, who was doing his residency then and now is a hospitalist in Columbus and Eufaula, Ala. "When I walked away, I didn't know if she understood the severity of her condition."
Marqkria said although she weighed a lot, she didn't understand it.
"I was so depressed, I didn't see it," she said. "Even though I was heavy, I didn't feel heavy, if that makes any sense."
She said she wanted to lose the weight, but she didn't know where to start. She also couldn't follow the directive for too long because she soon became pregnant and ballooned to her heaviest weight: 470 pounds.
After her second daughter was born, however, Marqkria got serious about her health.
She tried appetite suppressants, but the side effects were too risky for her weak heart. She researched diets online, "but they were so confusing," she said.
So she took a nutrition class at Columbus Technical College. She learned about food groups and the food pyramid, healthy eating and portion control and exercise.
And she didn't go cold turkey or set unreasonable goals.
"My biggest thing was I didn't deprive myself of what made me happy," she said. "I didn't cut out anything; I just controlled what I ate."
Her most devilish food addiction: Little Debbie cakes. Instead of eating one box per day, she whittled the number down until she weaned the snack out of her diet.
Marqkria's aunt Bernice McMiller said, "Any time you gave her money, she went and got those cakes. That was her friend, them cakes. She was happy when she was eating."
'Moderation, not depravation'
When she started her weight loss journey, Marqkria dropped 20 pounds each month by simply walking only 15 minutes per day at Lakebottom.
"I swear to you, that's all I did."
She incrementally increased her daily walk to 30 minutes and then a full hour.
"The reason why I was losing the weight so fast in the beginning was because a lot of it was water," she said. "Then you hit that plateau, and I've hit a bunch of plateaus."
But she pushed through.
"If you're losing weight, your body chemistry changes," she said. "So maybe I increased the amount of working out I was doing or decreased the amount of calories I was eating. The key is to burn more than you take in."
She dropped to 253 by the end of the year. By her 22nd birthday, she weighed 207 pounds.
Each weight goal she achieved, she celebrated with a strawberry shortcake at Ruby Tuesday.
Little Debbie snack cakes? She insists she hasn't had even one in the past "six or seven years."
"Never say never," she said. "Never say you're not going to have something, because you're going to set yourself up for failure later. Those cravings are going to get you, and you are going to sabotage that whole diet."
Instead, her mantra is, "Moderation, not deprivation. If you eat it, enjoy it, but don't have too much of it and learn how to control your proportions. That comes with self-control and self-discipline, and that's what I had to learn."
In 2008, when she got down to about 166 pounds, she shifted her focus from losing weight to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Now, at 5-foot-4 and 147 pounds with a 26-inch waist, her dress size is 7-8 or 9-10, depending on the cut.
"I'm pretty fit," she said. "I work out, I live a healthy lifestyle, and I plan to keep doing it."
Her daily workouts at home last only 30 minutes Mondays through Fridays, then she walks at Cooper Creek Park with a group of women on the weekends.
No marathon exercise sessions.
"It's consistency," she said. "That's the key."
Her focus isn't fixated on a number on a scale anymore.
"My goal is to pick up a little more muscle," she said. "I've done a lot of toning with P90X. I don't want to necessarily lose more weight; I just want to tighten."
And she hasn't had any surgery to do the job.
"I have considered it and had a consult," she said, "but the scars and complications of going under anesthesia with a heart condition scared me away."
She calls her stretch marks her "tiger stripes. They remind me of where I came from."
Dr. Surber noted Marqkria lost her weight in a healthy way.
"The problem with our culture now is that they look for easy fixes for everything," he said. "They want a pill, but she understood she needed to do this through exercise and diet for lifelong and sustainable health."
She did it without professional help, but she acknowledged not everyone can.
"I knew I was ready," she said, "but some people aren't ready when they get started. Me being so scared I was going to die, I didn't have a choice."
She also was working at Burger King -- which sure tested her self-control -- and she figured she didn't have enough money to pay a weight-loss expert.
Dr. Surber advised, "Certainly close contact with a physician is warranted. The best way to do it is in conjunction with a physician and a nutritionist who can set up a plan for you."
Except for doctor appointments, she weighs herself only monthly now.
"It's definitely about self-control and having that self-discipline," she said. "Some people jump on the scale every day, and it controls how they feel."
Marqkria said her inspiration to keep the weight off comes from her mother, who died from cancer in February at age 55.
"My mom was my biggest inspiration to keep myself healthy," she said. "Once she found out how dangerous my weight was, she helped me the whole way to get to a healthier me."
National media outlets have been attracted to Marqkria's story. Black Weight Loss Success, an online magazine, was the first with a piece last year. Then it was People magazine in January, followed by appearances on TV shows "Good Morning America, "Inside Edition" and "Extra." When the Ledger-Enquirer interviewed her last month, she was finalizing plans to be on "The Dr. Oz Show" and "The Today Show."
"I've gotten so many people who tell me that my story helped them so much," she said, "and that's an inspiration to me."
She said she got a sponsorship offer from fitness wear company Fabletics.
"Email has been crazy," she said. "I'm reading through all this stuff."
She has a manager screening the mounting proposals.
Dr. Surber and her aunt Bernice gush about her transformation.
"What she did is just unbelievable," Dr. Surber said. "The dedication and commitment it takes to make such a huge lifestyle change is unreal. She should be an inspiration to millions of people."
Marqkria keeps a photo of her former self in her bedroom.
"The first thing when I wake up," she said, "I remind myself this is where I used to be. I know I'm not going back to that old person."