WINONA, Minn. (AP) — Sherri Dick used to love hearty food.
She loved going to Applebee's or Country Steak Buffet and eating her fill. She loved pizza and breakfast food. She loved Diet Coke. She loved indulging in holiday meals.
That was before she had bariatric surgery two years ago.
Now carbonated drinks are off limits, and meat and starch only tolerable in small quantities.
So these days, the Winona woman can tell you a thing or two about crackers.
"I wish I could be the cracker tester for Premium," she said. "Most of the time I can tell if it's a good cracker or not just by looking at it."
That's because after her surgery, crackers were basically all Dick could eat.
The habit stuck.
Dick, 60, eats on average two to three packs of plain saltine crackers every day. If the crackers are burned, over-salted or any brand other than Premium, they simply won't do.
"My friends and family sometimes call me the 'Cracker Queen,'" she said.
In August 2011 the Cracker Queen underwent Roux-en-Y surgery, a gastric bypass technique, because at 300 pounds she faced complications from diabetes and an enlarged liver.
She lost 100 pounds and has kept the weight off. But the change came at a price.
"I was sick for two whole years," she said.
Most days, Dick carefully chooses one or two small meals. A single chicken taco, a quarter of a pizza, half a chicken TV dinner. Some days she has trouble keeping it down. Once or twice a week, she will become cripplingly nauseous after eating.
"I would just lay down and close my eyes and say 'Help me, help me, help me,' until it goes away," she said.
Crackers, though, don't hurt. She learned that shortly after her surgery, when she hadn't eaten for days. She and crackers have been inseparable ever since.
She almost always has some within arm's reach. Her desk, where she used to keep candy bars and Diet Coke, includes a plastic drawer dedicated solely to cracker storage. She eats crackers on the way to the doctor, who she still needs to visit frequently. She'll eat more on the return trip home.
The regular medical trips aren't new for Dick.
Her bariatric surgery and its side effects are only the latest in a long string of issues, starting when she was diagnosed with leukemia at 3 years old.
One day, Dick was playing outside and fell over. To her family's alarm, she rapidly accumulated bruises across her entire body. They rushed her to the hospital. Doctors told them if they had delayed another day, she might not have survived.
The following years would take her in and out of the hospital for blood transfusions. Doctors told her family she had three to four years to live.
Around 2004 she was back in the hospital again, this time for an abnormal heartbeat. Her heart would beat rapidly without stopping, leaving her unable to breathe. She spent 11 days hooked up to a ventilator, unconscious.
"When I finally came to, I had to learn how to walk and eat again," she said. "When you don't use those muscles, they get all rubbery."
Dick was soon back in the hospital to have a pacemaker put in to regulate her heartbeat. Dick's husband, John, nursed her back to health. The soft-spoken, bearded accountant now helps his wife recover from the bariatric surgery, sometimes fetching things for her from the store. Even during those hard two years, he seldom heard her complain.
"She's handled it unbelievably well. If it was me, I'd be complaining all the time," he said. "She's a survivor, and it's amazing."
In 2007 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent four of her eight chemotherapy treatments before her body refused to let her go further, and she finished with 30 days of radiation treatment.
Some days, she said, it was difficult to go on.
"I used to think I was strong," she said.
John and her network of family and friends again rallied behind her. Her niece, Sharon Benicke, works at Saint Mary's hospital and was there for some of Dick's hospital visits.
"She seemed like a walking medical disaster," she said.
"But she pulled out of it."
Today, Dick remains vigilant. She will have to take a blood thinner for the rest of her life for her heart problems, which has created other issues like chronic nosebleeds. She lives with the ever-present possibility that her cancer could return.
She also lives with the knowledge that her next meal will leave her paralyzed with pain.
So Dick enjoys the little things.
Peach tea, "The Voice," riding her scooter. Making bracelets and doilies and reading. Babysitting her young grandchildren.
"You got to take it like it is and enjoy what you have," she said. "Do one thing every day that makes you happy."
Like eating crackers.
"That's one thing that's been keeping me alive," the Cracker Queen said. "You have to have something you like."
Information from: Winona Daily News, http://www.winonadailynews.com