The whole world changed for these patients, losing weight was the key to a new life

Shannon LittleImagine waiting in line for hours to take your kids on a theme park ride, only to be kicked off because you’re too heavy. Imagine being turned away at a restaurant because there isn’t a booth you can fit into. Imagine finding out your family has been going to the beach without you because your weight makes you too hot to stay for more than a few minutes, and you are too slow to keep up with them.

That was what life was like for Shannon Little, Darryl Marbry and Keflyn Rice before they had bariatric surgery to finally end their struggles with obesity. After undergoing surgery — and making the changes before and after surgery to achieve a healthier lifestyle — life has drastically changed for all three.

Little recently completed her first marathon. Rice is riding roller coasters again. And Marbry is relishing the little things in life she couldn’t do before, such as shopping for clothes in any store she wants … and walking on the beach at a pace her family can barely keep up with.

Why bariatric surgery?

Obesity has many causes, including genetics, psychological issues, metabolism, diet and a sedentary lifestyle. It is linked directly or indirectly to almost every serious health condition, from heart disease to diabetes.

Darryl Marbry

“The good news is bariatric surgery can improve many of these conditions, including diabetes. For some patients, within 48 hours after their surgery, they don’t need medication anymore,” said Bestoun Ahmed, M.D., an assistant professor at the  College of Medicine – Jacksonville.

More than half of the United States population — 66 percent — is overweight. An estimated 24 million adults are morbidly obese. Losing weight through diet and exercise is the best option for those who are able. But when that fails, bariatric surgery can be a life-saving alternative. The procedure changes the size of the stomach and the way the body responds to food, helping the patient lose the excess weight.

After qualifying for surgery, potential patients have to go through a rigorous process of education and preparation before they ever go to the operating room. There is an introductory seminar, nutrition consultations, a psychological evaluation and a fitness program. Patients also are required to lose a percentage of their body weight, which will shrink the liver and make the surgery safer.

“There’s a stigma that opting for surgery is the easy way out,” said Little, a UF Health nurse manager who weighed 320 pounds at her heaviest. “In reality, it is the most difficult choice, because everything about your life has to change. It’s not a magic bullet.”

The choice

Keflyn Rice

UF Health Jacksonville offers all major types of bariatric surgery, including gastric bypass, gastric banding and more. The pros and cons of each type of surgery are discussed at length during the introductory seminar. Patients work with their surgeon to choose the best option for them.

Rice had rapidly gained weight after retiring from the U.S. Navy in 2010, topping out at 333 pounds. He was so large he couldn’t bend over to tie his shoes. He began the process to pursue weight loss surgery, but almost backed out. Then he ran into a friend in the grocery store.

“I saw my friend’s wife, and I thought she was with a new guy. But it was him — he had had the same surgery I was considering with the same doctor at UF Health,” he said.

He set out to do his part of the work immediately, exercising and watching his diet. He lost 28 pounds as he prepared for gastric bypass.

The surgery

UF Health Jacksonville has a dedicated hospital unit for bariatric surgery patients, with beds and showers built to accommodate any person’s size. The patient rooms are also designed so a family member can stay with the patient.

“We encourage families to be a part of every step: to stay in the hospital, come to the educational classes and attend the support group meetings,” said bariatric program coordinator Carol Abbott. “Families can inadvertently sabotage a patient’s weight loss, so it’s important for them to be involved.”

Marbry, who was 370 pounds at her heaviest, had once contemplated suicide because of her weight. She had breathing problems and chest pains, could barely walk and blacked out at times.

“I used to cry all the time. The only walking I ever did was from the bed to the bathroom and back,” she said.

After an abusive relationship, food was her solace, along with drugs, drinking and smoking. Darryl gave up these vices when she decided to have the surgery. She said her grandchildren, including middle-schooler Percy, motivated her to make the change.

“Percy was a very good inspiration to me. He kept me going,” she said. “He was even more determined for me to lose weight than I was, because he had things for us to do. We walk and we play, and I am able to keep up with my grandkids now.”

Abbott said the strength to go through such drastic changes has to come from within.

“We’re just a small piece in their success,” she said. “We give them a tool, the surgery, but they are the ones who have to do all the work.”

Life after surgery

Once a patient recovers from surgery, the work to maintain a healthy weight is not done. At first, a liquid diet is necessary. Vitamins are a must. As the body adjusts, a healthy diet of nutritious foods and water will be best. It is possible for patients to gain back their weight if they do not commit to healthier eating and daily physical activity.

Little spent decades trying to lose weight and then gaining even more back. She spent four years deciding whether to have the surgery. But it took her less than a year to drop 100 pounds once she underwent gastric bypass. Altogether, she has lost more than 160 pounds.

She committed to a fitness routine and eating habits that would ensure she stayed that way. She discovered a love for running, and began participating in races. In 2014, she completed her first marathon.

“My whole world changed,” Little said. “The social structure changed. It didn’t revolve around going out to eat anymore.”

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