There are so many things I could write about concerning my weight loss surgery story. And while having the surgery was one of the best things I’ve ever done, this is going to be a brutally honest account of what led me to and what happened after the surgery.
Why Did I Choose Weight Loss Surgery
While I was severely obese, my weight loss surgery story did not start because I was fat. It started because at night I was coughing up stomach acid, sleeping more than two hours a night due to the pain. I sought help for my heartburn and after a lot of tests, I was referred to a surgeon to treat a large hiatal hernia.
Putting aside my stomach problems though, at the time my journey began, I was miserable. I had recently escaped from a severely abusive marriage and though I was madly in love, the abuse had really messed up my head. I was always sick and in pain. I couldn’t walk from the car to the grocery store without stopping to catch my breath no matter how close I parked. I felt physically repulsive. Somehow my best friend had fallen in love with me, and as we were planning a wedding, I would have nightmares because I was so fat and ugly in comparison to the other women in Kevin’s family. I honestly felt like I didn’t belong. There were many nights that I would cry myself to a restless sleep, only to wake up as I gagged on stomach acid burning my throat, sinuses, and lungs.
But on the day of my appointment, the surgeon turned me away. My hiatal hernia was bad and needed to be repaired, but I was so fat that any fix would be undone within months. I had to lose weight, and I had to lose weight fast. I argued with the surgeon that I had been trying so hard to lose weight for years and nothing worked and that there was no way I’d lose weight when I was struggling to breathe. I was sobbing huge tears of frustration.
He told me that his colleague did bariatric surgery and it really was my best option. I didn’t want to have weight loss surgery, I thought it was too extreme. But I was so sick. And I was sick of being sick. My fiancé convinced me to have an open mind, but I would have to wait two more weeks to meet with the bariatric surgeon.
The Process of Getting Scheduled for Weight Loss Surgery
When I met with the bariatric doctor, she was willing to do the surgery. But, I had to go through 6 months to a year of counseling to get ready for the surgery, even though I was a self-pay patient. I couldn’t be sick for another 6 months. That would mean going without work for 6 months and still suffering every night. I was getting married in 2 months and didn’t want to be sick like I was around my wedding. What was I going to do? She had convinced me that weight loss surgery was a good option, but her timeline wasn’t going to work. On what I believe was a spiritual prompting, I reached out to the doctor that did the surgery for a friend. I was in tears looking for an answer and they told me that they could help. I scheduled an appointment around three weeks later and went home and researched, researched, researched for more options..
I’m going to skip the next three weeks of waiting. I’m a web developer by trade and always on the computer, and in the time between appointments, I obsessed and learned everything I could about weight loss surgery and life after this major change. I was dead set on the Gastric Sleeve, but I read that I would lose a lot less weight and I’d lose slower. I prayed and researched and on the day of my appointment, I really hoped that I would have an answer. I almost canceled my appointment because I didn’t really believe anyone would help me. I was hopeless and with my family’s health record, I believed I was destined die early. My fiancé had to drag me to my appointment.
The appointment with Rocky Mountain Associated Physicians was a group appointment. Informational, covering all the different surgery options. The options were Gastric Sleeve, Roux-en-Y Gastric Bypass, Gastric Band, & Duodenal Switch. Each has their positives and their drawbacks. RMAP’s website has a list of all the weight loss surgery procedures with more scientific information on their site. After the informational appointment, I met with Dr. Smith. He went over my medical history and my goals. He explained that the Gastric Sleeve is great, but when someone is having extreme GERD (heartburn) like I was, gastric bypass was my best option. A lot of people don’t know that in extreme cases, gastric bypass is actually a treatment for heartburn.
I’ll talk briefly about the financial aspect of the surgery. This is a major surgery and it is not cheap. If it weren’t for the charity of my mother, I would not have been able to do it. She took out an enormous financial debt to save my life. I will never forget that. My mom has been my rock throughout this entire process and it has definitely brought us closer. In the end, the surgery was just under 20,000 dollars. Being self pay, I was guaranteed a month of free ER/hospital visits, in case of complications, and a year of free doctor’s visits with my RMAP doctor. If there was an emergency, the surgeon was covered for a year, but anesthesiologist would not be covered. And that’s an expensive part of surgery. The surgery also included hiatal hernia repair & gall bladder removal, if necessary.
Blood tests, a psychological quiz, and another group meeting to go over what to expect after the surgery and the next thing I knew… it was surgery day. I was scared to death. I cried from anxiety that I’d die on the table and my children would be left without me. I asked my fiancé time and time again if it was the right decision. We prayed together. I knew it was right, but I was scared and tried to talk myself out of it up until the very last minute.
Prep for surgery was normal. I had to wait a few hours til it was my time. I was in a weird paper gown that had heaters. My fiancé was exhausted and kept falling asleep. He had to work and would leave for work while I was still in surgery. Gotta love companies that won’t give time off for things like this. They wheeled me back and the nurses were fantastic. They put me at ease and reassured me. I was laughing and they told me I was their favorite patient that day. Once they gave me the anesthesia, I was out cold before I could count to three.
When I woke up, I thought something had gone wrong and they hadn’t done the surgery. It took the nurses showing me my incisions to prove that I actually had surgery. I wasn’t in pain almost at all. I had a hard time keeping my heart rate down and the stupid monitor went off constantly. Burping and hiccups hurt so bad. Don’t even get me started on sneezing.
My first meal was warm chicken broth. They give you these 1 ounce medicine cups and you literally would measure out one ounce of liquid. And you had to learn to sip. Old habits die hard and if you ate (or drank in this case) too fast, the pain was excruciating. And if you ate too much, the hiccups would start. Sugar-free jello was allowed as well, but only in 1 ounce portions. And you had to sip water constantly. When your stomach is the size of an egg, getting the all important 64 ounces of water in was not easy.
After three days of sitting in a hospital bed and getting up and walking as much as possible, I was able to go home. This would not be my last visit to the hospital. I would get to know the staff at St Mark’s quite well over the next month.
Weight Loss Surgery Complications
My biggest struggle after the surgery was hydration. Learning to sip water and get enough down was a problem. And if you ate something that didn’t agree, which often felt completely random what worked one day to the next, you would vomit all day. And throwing up is not fun after the surgery. It is a full-body experience. Your body doesn’t produce enough bile to have much liquid, so throwing up is basically dry heaving while little chunks of food come up with this weird foam, almost like you swallowed dish soap. A couple of times I inhaled the foam and ended up in the hospital because I got pneumonia from breathing in my own vomit. Every time I was hospitalized, hydration was a huge issue and they were dumping two bags of IV fluids into me at a time.
A couple weeks after weight loss surgery, nothing would stay down. I was vomiting constantly, after every meal. I dreaded eating. I was admitted to the hospital after getting pneumonia from breathing in my vomit again. After three days, they did a endoscopy and found a common weight loss surgery side effect called a “stricture”. A stricture is basically when scar tissue has closed off the opening between your stomach and your intestines. It is treated by inserting a balloon into the remaining passage between your stomach and intestines and stretching the opening, widening it so food will pass through again.
I regretted the surgery every day for a while. I was losing weight fast, but I was miserable. I couldn’t eat and I missed food. I had no energy and despite the doctor’s instruction that I walk 30 minutes a day, I wasn’t even able stay awake most days longer than an hour or two and exercise was out of the question. There is a period after the surgery, other than major events like my wedding, and going back and forth to the hospital, that I basically don’t remember anything. I wasn’t much of a mother and I sure wasn’t much of a wife.
After they fixed my stricture I was on liquids again for another 6 weeks. This means that I didn’t start eating solid food until the end of June. I don’t think I psychologically prepared myself enough for the huge changes that come after surgery. I expected the changes, but what did these changes mean for who I was? My entire life has always been entertaining others and cooking for them. Food and entertaining was my identity and now who was I? There were many days when I cried over food.
Another side effect of surgery that a lot of people aren’t really prepared for is that you lose a coping mechanism for all your issues. In general, people who are as fat as I was aren’t truly happy people. Depression & low self-esteem are pretty common among the obese. And it doesn’t go away because you are suddenly losing weight. It can actually get worse with the loss of coping techniques and loss of identity. Before the surgery, when I was at my worst, I’d eat a half gallon of ice cream and a box of cookies when I was having a bad day. Now, I can’t even eat a spoon of ice cream without getting sick. Along with clinical depression, I also struggle with PTSD. There are days so bad that I can’t even leave my house. And without my coping mechanism, I really struggled.
Some people, with the loss of a major coping mechanism, will fall into “transference disorder”, which is a fancy way of saying that we take one addiction (food) and find something to replace it with. Shopping, exercising too much, and substance abuse are common replacements. I’d like to highlight on substance abuse for a second. Once you’ve had these surgeries, you should never consume alcohol or controlled substances again. Someone went in and rearranged your insides and now you will have a very quick and intense reaction to things like alcohol. This increases your chance of alcohol poisoning AND addiction. Someone I love very much who had the surgery the day before I did fell into this and it broke my heart to watch her fall further and further into alcoholism.
I really think the hardest part of weight loss surgery is the psychological changes that have to take place. While I think that it is good to do some counseling before hand, I personally believe that one thing that would have really helped me and other was one-on-one counseling after the surgery. I went to group therapy once and it was so depressing and unhelpful that I never went back. I’m blessed with a super supportive husband and family. My family ate what I ate, and I never felt like I was missing out. In my opinion, it is why I have been so successful.
One Year Post Weight Loss Surgery
Around two months after they took care of my stricture, I started to feel normal again. Premier Protein shakes, zoodles, and a supportive family got me past the hard times and I suddenly started feeling better. I started exercising pretty heavily in January 2016, and the benefits were immediate. I can’t stress enough the importance of building up to pretty intense exercising.
I’m just past my one year surgiversary. I have lost 116.8 pounds since the day of my surgery. I wear a size 8/10 and I feel great. One of the best non-scale victories was being able to run from my car to the store in the rain with my son. The look of excitement and respect on his face was so important to me. I love working out and I love how active I can be. I look like I fit in with my active family, rather than being the whale they allow to tag along. It is wonderful.
But I am still struggling. Hi, my name is Rachel and I’m a food addict. I started a job in January and slowly old food habits began to sneak in. I’ve had to be very strict with myself and each week is really hard to be good. I was super impressed with a blog I read the other day that advised having firm protein with every meal and two bites of protein for every bite of veggies. I like that. It is important to stay vigilant and eating intentionally – not snacking.
Once you reach your goal weight, you have to learn to eat again. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. But the 70% protein, 30% vegetable rule applies no matter what after surgery. Also, soda is the devil. Stay away from it. Water is your friend. I really like my Hydroflask to carry water. And if you need flavor – Crystal Light/Sugar Free Kool-Aid syrups are the bomb.
In the end, I am so grateful I did this surgery. Not just because I’ve lost weight but because my life is fuller and I feel like I have a future again. There is no surgery or medical treatment that will guarantee a long and healthy life. But the life changes can make the life we do have worth living. I now understand the saying that there’s no food that is as good as skinny feels, though I’d change that to, there’s no food that’s as good as being healthy and strong feels.
Surgery is not for everyone. And it is not the easy way out. If anyone tells you that it is, do me a favor and punch them in the gut for me. I have struggled to lose every pound and I’ll fight the rest of my life to maintain, just like anyone who has ever struggled with weight loss and food addiction. But I’m a strong woman and I have tools that help me, thanks to this surgery.
And I can do hard things.