Today I celebrate the 26th anniversary of my Roux-en-Y gastric bypass!
Even though I knew this anniversary was approaching, seeing the number “26” is still amazing to me. That is a pretty long time—long enough to qualify me as an “elder” in this little bariatric village of ours.
Whether you are a prospective surgery candidate, a bariatric surgery healthcare professional, or even an insurance company employee, everyone’s bariatric surgery experience is different, and we can all learn by sharing our gastric bypass success stories. In that spirit, as a 26-year veteran of bariatric surgery, allow me to share a few things I have learned.
- Bariatric surgery is not a cop out! Let’s start with a big one. It’s OK to be angry when someone has the nerve to tell you having weight loss surgery is “the easy way out.” My 26 years has been filled with successes and failures and everything in between. Anyone who thinks having surgery is easy hasn’t done it themselves, or seen an acquaintance or loved one go through it. The bariatric surgery process is not easy, it’s really hard.
- Don’t be ruled by the scale. PLEASE don’t give your bathroom scale the ability to obliterate your feelings of self-worth if the needle moves in a direction you consider wrong. Too many of us are driven to despair because we are unable to reach a so-called “ideal” or “goal” weight that is often unrealistic. A scale is just a tool that provides useful data, like a blood pressure cuff or an X-ray. Take in the information it provides, share it with your bariatric healthcare team, and act on it appropriately.
- Don’t let someone else your define bariatric surgery success. I started my journey just over 400 lbs. with a BMI of 60-61. I never got to the so-called “ideal” body weight after my surgery. Some people, including healthcare providers and bariatric professionals, might say that I am not a gastric bypass success story because of that. I disagree. If keeping off 165-175 lbs. for 26 years is a failure, then I can live my next 26 years with that kind of failure.
- Take your vitamins! As I look back, one of my big mistakes has been neglecting vitamin supplementation. If you are post-op and you aren’t taking your vitamins (iron, calcium, or whatever your doctor recommends), get with the program! Vitamin deficiencies, anemia, and all the other problems that come from failing to take supplementation seriously are real and get worse with time. Keep trying until you find the right supplementation program that works for you—one that you can stay on for a lifetime.
- It’s OK to be worried. Many people who pursue bariatric surgery do so because they have “failed” at losing weight any other way, and I think every one of us wheeled into an operating room for surgery is also fearing, despite the high long term success rate of gastric bypass, that this too will fail. I know I did! To those of you who are pre-op, I’m telling you it’s OK to go into surgery a little worried that it might not succeed. Use that worry as fuel to motivate you to do what you can to make this work!
- Support is available! I am thankful to be a member of the American Society of Metabolic and Bariatric Surgeons and the Obesity Action Coalition, both of which, along with countless other organizations, work tirelessly to help us all. They really want us to succeed and get frustrated when they learn a patient who is struggling won’t come into the office because of embarrassment or thinking they somehow let their doctor down. The only time that your doctor will feel let down by you is if you don’t give them the chance to use their education, skill, and passion to help you succeed. So go back to them—ESPECIALLY when you don’t think things are going so well.
- “Revision” is not a four-letter word. If the time has come to evaluate whether another operation is needed to help you deal with this disease, you need to understand you are not a failure! Say it over and over until you make those words part of your truth. Believe me, I have been there. I had a revision in 2003 and I waited too long because I was ashamed of my weight gain. People ask me about things I’d do differently and delaying my revision is one of the biggest mistakes I made during this journey. If you think you might need another surgery, don’t make the same mistake I did.
- Abolish the bullies! Sometimes, bariatric patients avoid seeing healthcare providers when things aren’t going well because they fear being judged or made to feel like a failure. While there are many wonderfully supportive providers, there is the occasional “bad apple” who makes it her or his business to make us feel worse than we already do. They use “compliance” to cast the blame at your feet or they say things like you “failed their program.” Let’s put those people on notice: Absence of compassion or overt hostility has no place in any bariatric surgery program anywhere. It’s bad enough we struggle with this chronic disease of obesity—we shouldn’t have to deal with biased healthcare providers who blame us and shame us. I don’t care if the mean person is a surgeon, nurse, office manager, psychologist, nutritionist, dietitian or insurance coordinator—stop it!
- Celebrate the small victories. My wife recently reminded me that I never pay attention to whether the chairs in a restaurant have arms—I had totally forgotten how important that used to be! After 26 years, I tend to forget the many “non-scale victories” I used to celebrate regularly, like not checking for chair arms or not having to ask a flight attendant for a seatbelt extension. Make sure you make those celebrations a habit.
- Don’t judge yourself harshly. Life is too short to engage in such self-destructive behavior when we are already living in a world that judges and discriminates against people just because of their size.
- Be kind to yourself. Your value as a person is about what’s in your mind and heart, not the number on the scale or the size of your clothes—don’t ever forget that!
On the 26th anniversary of my journey through bariatric surgery, my wish for all of you is that you are living your best and healthiest life, and that your path brings you joy each and every day. I am honored to be a part of our bariatric “village” and look forward to many years to come.