Patient Story

Claudia Tolhurst

I have been overweight, actually morbidly obese, for most of my adult life. I have yo-yo dieted for most of that time and had tried every possible weight loss option without success – Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Sure Slim amongst others. And even when I had success with some of those, the weight always came back.

I know of people over the years that had a lap band, but to be honest, everyone I knew that had that weight loss option had success initially but either regained their weight or had complications so that wasn’t something I wanted to consider.

Then I met someone who had had gastric sleeve surgery and had success. Then I met another person, and another, and another. It appeared that this was a successful option and it sparked my interest. I started to think that this might be a positive solution for me.

I went to a friend’s 30th birthday at a café one afternoon, and I met Cathy Harbury. In talking I asked her to come and join a sporting committee that she had previously been a member of. Cathy couldn’t commit because she was doing a PhD and didn’t have any spare time to offer. At that point, being the sticky beak I am, I asked her what she was studying – her reply -“morbid obesity” and so began a conversation that changed my life.

Something Cathy said that day was a trigger to get me thinking more seriously about surgery. I discussed my weight loss efforts over the years with her and mentioned how every time I was successful I always put the weight back on. I don’t remember her exact words or the exact percentage she gave me but it was something like: “the percentage of morbidly obese people who have success with weight loss and then manage to successfully keep that weight off is something like 5%”. And that was the statement that made me believe that surgery was the answer for me.

It took me some time to actually pick up the phone and book an appointment with my GP to get a referral for the surgery. All sorts of thoughts were going through my head. Let’s face it, when you’re morbidly obese you tend to be aware of your lack of health and the doubts start to circle your mind………… am I fit enough to make it through, will I die on the table, what if there are complications……….. I reassured myself by asking the questions – what if I don’t have the surgery? What quality of life do I have, will I have moving forward, will I be around to regret it???? The pro’s outweighed the cons and so I made the appointment.

To prepare for surgery, and to make the decision to have the surgery, I didn’t listen to other people’s opinions. In fact, I didn’t really tell too many people I was having the surgery. I told myself to listen to the experts – my GP, my surgeon and my dietician. The only people outside of my family that I spoke to were two friends who had had the surgery and they both assured me it was the best decision they had ever made. One of those friends added me to a facebook group of Gastric Sleevers – at the time I was grateful for the addition – later on I blocked the group from my newsfeed – I’ll explain why a little later on. Knowing what I do now, I wouldn’t have changed any of that.

I’m often asked about having the surgery and I say the same thing every time. DO NOT go into this thinking it is the easy option because it’s not. Sure, the weight loss is easy as long as you follow the advice of your dietician, but when the weight loss stops, that’s when the hard work starts. I tell them what my surgeon told me – this surgery is a tool for weight loss. It doesn’t change your eating habits, it requires you to make changes to your eating habits and lifestyle. I also tell them that the most important person in this journey for me is my dietician. Yes I’m putting my life in the hands of my surgeon, but once he has done his job, that’s it – I see him one a year for follow up, but my dietician is my life line. She’s my sounding board, my confidant, my support and most of all my guide. So if you’re going to go through this journey, choose a dietician wisely as that is the person that will take you through the journey – like the surgery, your dietician is a vital tool in the process. I intend to see my dietician on a regular basis for the rest of my life. Sometimes that will be 6 weekly visits, sometimes it will be 6 monthly depending on how I am travelling at the time. The things I have learned from my dietician have been amazing. My whole idea of eating has changed and evolved as a part of the process. She explained to me in the early days that obesity is a disease, which gave me a whole new outlook and made me start to feel better about myself. I also now look at food as a fuel and eat a much more balanced diet accordingly. Some friends of mine who have been through this process, have done so without follow up with a dietitian and a high percentage of them have regained a great deal of their weight. If you are going to consider this surgery as an option, then you need to also consider that you will need a dietitian to be a part of your remaining life. If you don’t, then in my opinion you’re setting yourself up for failure.

When it came time to tell people I was having surgery, I obviously had to tell my work mates – mainly because they would want to know why I was off work, but also, one of those workmates had previously been through the surgery so she was one of my sounding boards throughout the process. I also told my immediate family and my best friend but no one else. Why didn’t I share it with the world ??? Because at the time I was embarrassed and ashamed. Ashamed that I got myself to the weight I was and embarrassed that I couldn’t fight the weight without the intervention of surgery. I didn’t want to be judged. I am a big user of facebook and anyone who knows me, knows I share my life on facebook. To this day, I have never gone facebook public with the fact that I had weight loss surgery. I didn’t want to be judged as what other would perceive as taking the easy way out.

The lead up to surgery is not easy. Depending on your surgeon you will spend anywhere between 2 and 4 weeks on an Optifast diet. Now if this is a short term thing it’s ok, you can get yourself through it. By the end you’ll be looking forward to the surgery just to get off the optifast. You can get through it, yep it’s hard and yep it seems to go for a lifetime, but it’s a necessary part of the process and if you stay focused you will get through it. It’s not that it tastes bad, it’s just that you get a bit bored, but again it’s a necessary evil to get you where you need to be. My advice to get through this is to mix it up as much as you can – try the different flavours and foods available and increase your water intake.

As for post surgery, everyone handles this differently. The main focus here is getting your protein in and your water intake. Again, this can be boring. I tried to get my daily protein in over breakfast and lunch with protein drinks so that I had covered it by dinner time and could then introduce some non protein flavor like pumpkin soup. Speak to your dietitian, they will guide you. Once you are allowed to introduce soft foods you’ll be surprised how excited you will be over cottage cheese and scrambled eggs. Once you get past that stage and start to eat a more rounded diet, my best piece of advice here is advice I got from my dietitian – serve yourself a plate, and stop when you’ve had enough. Walk away if you have to. So if you’re at a party and there’s a cheese platter out, serve yourself up on a plate the amount you think you can handle and when it’s gone it’s gone. Grazing isn’t a good idea………..

I was somewhere one day with someone who had had surgery and they had a McDonalds coffee and a Sausage and egg McMuffin. I said to them, ‘how can you fit all of that in?” she replied, “I’ll just take my time, even if it takes me an hour”. I have never, and will never practice that method of eating. If that was me and I got half way through the muffin and halfway through the coffee and I was full – that’s it. Wrap it up and pop it in the fridge for another day.

Eating for me since I had the surgery is about fuel. I now try and eat to fuel my body. Sure there are special occasions when we want the piece of birthday cake, or morning tea with everyone in the office, but as long as those foods are ‘sometimes’ foods then it’s ok. Don’t beat yourself up about them – this is something I’m currently working through with my dietitian. I still struggle everyday with the fear of putting myself through the surgery and regaining weight.

So, as I write this I’m coming up to the 3rd anniversary of my surgery. I have absolutely no regrets about having the surgery and I feel amazing. I’m not a size 8, far from it, but I am a happier and healthier person than I have been for 30 years. I’m a foodie, I just love it. I always have been and probably always will be. And it’s for that reason that I intend on having a life-long relationship with my dietitian.

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