A trip to the grocery store isn’t usually a big event. But that one day in Ralph’s parking lot changed everything for twenty-seven year old Amy Suter. Three she was, driving around on that sweltering summer day, praying she could find a spot so close to the air-conditioned entry that she would not be drenched in sweat and out of breath by the time she got there. “All of a sudden, I was so disgusted with myself, all three hundred pounds of me. It was then and there I decided I would finally do something about it.”
The diets, the pills, the crying jags, nothing had jettisoned her out of what she calls “that weird Amy world I lived in since I was a kid.” That world was her Alice in Wonderland place where she believed she was okay, maybe even skinny. “I just didn’t think I really had to do something about my obesity until that moment of utter self loathing painted the picture of truth for me.”
She spent the next few weeks on the internet, researching gastric bypass surgery, one of the fastest growing surgical procedures in the United States. She learned that San Diego is considered a leader in this bariatric specialty, a procedure that actually shrinks the size of the stomach pouch making it impossible to binge or eat large quantities of food. This bolstered her confidence to ask a lot of questions and interview several doctors. Her investigation led her to Alvarado Hospital Center for Surgical Weight Control and Dr. Julie Ellner. “I knew from that moment on I could overcome my fears because Dr. Ellner made me feel comfortable.” But the decision made in the doctor’s office would be challenged by the inner demons which lurked in the shadows at home. “Doctor Ellner made me realize I had to change everything about my approach to life or I would fail as a bypass patient. It was unexpected, but now I had fears about having to overhaul my life. I was going to miss being able to eat a couple boxes of macaroni and cheese at a sitting. Could I really change that much?”
That’s when Amy decided to go public. She started her own website to help others struggling with obesity. “There’s a lot of help out there, including obesityhelp.com, and sites specifically for gastric bypass patients.”
She called KGTV to see if health reporter Carol LeBeau might be interested in following her through the process. “If I went public, there could be no turning back. I needed that and I wanted to help others in my same position make a change in their life.”
Gastric bypass candidates are carefully chosen; patients who do not have the drive and conviction to do the preliminary work will not be allowed the procedure in quality medical settings. It is major surgery with hours of anesthesia required.
In August 2001, Amy Suter came out of gastric bypass a new woman, soon half her size, more than one hundred and ninety pounds lighter. But that was the relatively easy part.
What many patients of the procedure don’t consider is that gastric bypass surgery often leaves large amounts of loose skin hanging just about everywhere. Amy winces when she says “this will sound gross, but I had to lift my skin flaps around my waist to clean inside the folds. I had wings where there used to be full, if flabby, upper arms.” At that moment, she fully understood this was to be an odyssey, not a quick fix.
Gastric bypass specialists might not always recommend skin removal, but for Amy, a young woman planning her wedding, it was an obvious choice, if she could afford to do it. “The life saving part of this, the gastric bypass surgery, really didn’t help me with my self esteem. I was wearing this excess skin like it was a freak costume and I couldn’t accept that. It just wasn’t how I thought I would look. It made me sick to look at myself.”
San Diego, of course, is also well known for its world-class plastic surgeons. Again, Amy began to do research on the net and interviews in person. Once again, she chose a woman, Dr. Lori Saltz, of La Jolla Cosmetic Surgery Centre on the campus of Scripps Hospital, La Jolla. “I liked her. She was bold during consultation, lifting large chunks of my now loose flesh and hoisting it up to show me what I could look like. I was still so unhappy; here I’d lost all this weight and it was such a letdown to have to look like this.”
Dr. Saltz is a body contouring specialist who understands how traumatic this type of skin reducing surgery can be. “If gastric bypass is mildly uncomfortable, trust me, this is real misery.” Cutting away double digit pounds of flesh will leave you unable to move without great pain for several days, depending on how young and fit you are to begin with, and how dedicated you are to quick recovery.” Complications like blood clots can kill you; fluid collection can be a nuisance that requires more surgical follow-up or intravenous drains. “The longer you’re obese, the harder it is to have your skin return to a snug fit over your skeleton,” she explains. Education, she says, is critical; candidates must be realistic and understand when they have their stomachs reduced, they will probably also need extensive and expensive cosmetic surgery. Thirty thousand dollars for waist, abdomen, upper arm and upper thing contouring is not unusual. “It’s usually done in three or four stages because it’s too much trauma for the body all at once.”
Amy is not embarrassed about the new scars that look like giant zippers from her elbows to the cleavage between her breasts. She claims the new red flesh demarcations circling her midsection are already diminishing nicely. “Again, her youth and her attitude make all the difference in her healing, says Dr. Saltz. She smiles with pride when she looks at Amy prepping her for the next phase, thigh skin reduction. “Amy could be a poster child for this long, difficult process of gastric bypass and body recontouring. She has exactly what makes her the ideal candidate: the right attitude.”
All of this isn’t easy, of course. Amy knows the rest of her life will be an exercise in restraint and self respect. The new wardrobe, the new hairdo, the media darling ‘tude are merely superficial crutches for the evolving soul Amy must embrace. Now when she peers into the looking glass, Amy doesn’t need Alice anymore. She has found her own space in the land of plenty.