**This post contains discussion of medical conditions and procedures in some detail. If that may bother you, I’d encourage you to click off.
I got my period when I was 13 years old and by the time I was 14, we knew something was wrong. I was bleeding for 5-6 weeks at a time, way too heavily for a young girl, passing out in gym class and experiencing extreme pain. I was playing sports and eating pretty healthy, but with every year, my weight was climbing. At 15 years old, after head CTs, blood work, multiple specialists and speculations, I received my diagnosis: Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) with a side of insulin resistance. By the time I was 17, my weight had climbed high enough to put me in the “morbid obesity” category (try that label on for teenage self-esteem) and the doctor told my parents: “Molly is now pre-diabetic. If she doesn’t lose weight fast, she’s going to have a lifelong disease that will change your reality forever.”
It was obvious that something drastic had to happen. Aside from the medical implications of my weight at such a young age, I was also dealing with major depression (psychiatrist diagnosed) and verging on the suicidal. My parents knew that I wouldn’t have what it takes to drop a large amount of weight as quickly as was necessary to avoid further degradation of my health, so they took action. I was desperate for a solution, and so were they. On the evening of my 18th birthday, my dad told me, “You’re booked for LapBand surgery at the end of this week.” I bawled and thanked him and bawled some more into his chest. He’d given me what I couldn’t find in those dark days: hope.
LapBand, or laparoscopic banding of the stomach, is an operation which affixes an adjustable band around the stomach. It creates a small pouch of upper stomach (which can only fit about a cup’s volume) and a lower pouch of normal stomach, which are joined by an opening about the size of a pen cap. The band can be filled and unfilled with saline in order to achieve different levels of tightness via a small port which is attached just below the skin in the mid-abdomen. This is done with a needle and is pretty much painless. After banding, the stomach can only hold a small amount of food. Water should be drunk before your meal, but not during or after. Every small bite must be thoroughly (I mean very thoroughly) chewed before being swallowed. Heavy foods like bread are nearly impossible to eat. You’ll always be the last person at the dinner table and eventually probably just lose interest in eating altogether once everyone’s left and the food is completely cold. The reason the band works is not only by restricting physical food intake, it also keeps your stomach from communicating hunger to your brain, therefore blocking hunger pains and seriously reducing appetite. It keeps the body from believing it is starving while you eat tiny portions of food. For the very obese, it is a very effective fix.
The band worked–I lost about 90 pounds in as many days and kept it off for years. I didn’t tell people that I’d had the surgery. I didn’t want to try to explain the reasons why and defend myself and I didn’t want to feel like I’d cheated my way to weight loss. Let me tell you… this is not cheating. One day at high school I’d tried to eat some of my friend’s burrito for lunch. I took too many big bites and ended up “stuck,” which in the LapBand world means food becomes lodged in the tiny opening between your upper and lower stomach. The pain is extremely severe. I had never experienced it before, and called my mom from the girls’ bathroom in a panic. One of the risks of the band is that it can become dislodged and slip, causing a tear in the stomach (most surgeons suture the stomach over the band to keep this from happening, but it can still happen). The pain was bad enough that I was sure this had happened, and on top of it, I was having a panic attack. By the time she got there to pick me up and bring me home, I was in such a state of panic that the muscles in my arms had cramped up from hyperventilation and I was yelling that she should call an ambulance right away. She did. We pulled over to wait and some guys who were working in a field came running over to check on us. They offered me water (which I had been told not to drink after eating, without a reason) and I declined, but then thought – well it can’t get much worse. I took a sip, the food slipped down, and I was instantly relieved. Mom cancelled the ambulance, and I learned an unfortunate lesson – food can be helped to descend quicker by drinking water with each bite.
In college I found new freedom without the extra weight. I was a new version of myself. I made friends easily, got involved with lots of activities, and truly felt like I had come into myself. My depression very much dissipated and I was so much happier than I’d ever been.
By the time I moved home to Canada, I was tired of the band. I found a doctor in Calgary who unfilled it completely and I was able to live and eat fairly normally. I say fairly because, even unfilled, the LapBand makes it extremely hard to eat. Tyler would always order water for himself at restaurants so I could have two cups of water at all times, and there were plenty of times I forewent food if there was insufficient liquid available to wash it down. I still got stuck occasionally, sending me to the bathroom to fight it down or let it come back up. The reality of the band became part of my every day reality in a way that neither Ty or I really thought about it anymore, but it was always there. The other downside was that my weight slowly crept back on. Then, during my pregnancy, things got serious.
Around month 5, baby was big enough that I was having trouble eating. I probably threw up once or twice a week from just being unable to get the food to descend past the band. It was the only option. The last three months, I was suffering from reflux, as many women do, but I also had the added challenge of the LapBand. Food couldn’t go down, and the acid couldn’t either. I started to wake up choking because I would reflux and then aspirate it into my lungs, causing me to sit bolt upright and choke until my lungs stopped burning. I awoke many times gasping for air, completely unable to breathe. I couldn’t lie down to sleep, so I “slept” sitting up in a recliner in front of the TV every night. I kept a bowl with me at all times because I would frequently wake up vomiting with little warning. Strangely, I started to look forward to that because it was the only time I would get momentary relief from the constant feeling of fullness and acidity that had become my reality. Even after Beth was born, it took about 6 weeks for me to be able to fully lie down in bed without the same thing happening.
After that pregnancy, I told Ty there was just no way I could do that again. I was so sick and exhausted, and in a second pregnancy, I would have to be taking care of a toddler during the day on top of my extreme discomfort. We tried to go the public route to have the band removed, which would have been covered by Alberta Health, but the wait would have been over a year. We found a private company that does band installs and removals and paid the money (only a third of what it cost in Texas!) to get the ball rolling. They were able to fit me in quickly (September 25) and we decided to just go for it.
Yesterday marked the end of a ten year chapter of life. I do not regret having the LapBand put in. I truly believe it saved my life. While hindsight is 20/20, I have to trust that at the time we made the decision to have the surgery, we were dealing with what information we had, which was that rapid weight loss was necessary to save me from diabetes and possibly suicide. Might there have been other options? Maybe. Again, hindsight is 20/20. But I can’t bring myself to regret this option just because it has caused me some discomfort. It is time to move into a new chapter. It is time to tackle my weight on my own and be free of the constant presence of this helpful burden. I am tired of making excuses at dinner parties, I’m tired of side stepping the issue in so many conversations, I’m tired of leaving Ty alone at the table in restaurants to go battle the band in the bathroom. I’m tired of not being able to eat an appropriate amount of food so that I can lose weight. I’m tired of being scared to swallow vitamins and pills I genuinely need. I don’t want to dread my next pregnancy or approach it with fear. I don’t want my next baby to go without prenatal vitamins or be at risk for being so small again because of my malabsorption issues.
Last night after surgery, Ty got me in bed and brought me some Tylenol. I swallowed them with just a few sips of water and laid right down and went to sleep. In that moment, I knew it was all worth it.
Moment #54. Have My LapBand Removed. Check.