I was just ten years old when I first went to see a dietician. I'd always been a large child and my parents were increasingly concerned about my weight. I underwent years of medical supervision. Name any diet, I’ve tried it; Weight Watchers, Slimming World, the lot. Yet nothing seemed to work. By my mid-twenties, I weighed 21 stone and wore a size 22. At my heaviest, I was 24 stone and my confidence was at rock bottom.
But in October 2013, when I was 40 years old, all that changed. I had a gastric bypass, a form of bariatric surgery, and lost 12 stone in the space of a year. Over the past five years, I’ve maintained a loss of ten stone, due to a slight weight gain known as a ‘reverse tick.’ It wasn’t a decision I took lightly, but looking back it was one of the best life choices I’ve ever made. In fact, if I hadn’t had the surgery, I don’t think I would be here today. When I was being taken down to the theatre on the morning of operation, the porter said: ‘You seem really calm Angela.’ My response was ‘I don’t care if I don’t come back.’ I’d got to that point where I didn’t want to be in that body anymore.
That's why I fully support Boris Johnson's decision to improve access to bariatric surgery as part of a new obesity strategy to prevent a second wave of covid-19 fatalities. Living with obesity doubles your risk of needing hospital treatment for the virus. However, there's been little guidance on how overweight people can protect themselves, other than to shield or lose weight. Obesity is complex, and for people like myself, shedding a few pounds isn't as simple as that.
At school, I was regularly bullied for my weight. One girl used to hit me if I didn’t give her 20p and a chocolate bar everyday. She phrased it as: ‘I’m helping you so you don’t get fatter.’ In my teenage years, I became a recluse and didn’t want to mix with other children. When I met a new person, I would make a joke about my weight before they could.
I also found it hard to get a job. When I was working in a clothes shop, I went for a promotion, but I was told that I didn’t look like a manager of a woman’s department because of my size. That was completely devastating; I felt worthless and like a failure. No matter how much I tried, the medical advice of ‘eat less move more’ just didn’t seem to work for me. I even enlisted the help of a personal trainer but, after two years of working with them, my weight was the same.
Up until the age of 35, I didn’t have any of the usual medical issues associated with obesity, such as high blood pressure. But, after being referred to the weight management team at Aintree Hospital, I was diagnosed with sleep apnea, meaning I had to sleep with an oxygen mask. That was a wake-up call for me; with the help of the weight management team at the hospital, I began a two year program to prove I was ready to make the lifestyle changes needed for bariatric surgery. This was different to any of the weight loss methods I had previously tried. It involved working with a psychologist to address my relationship with food, and a dietician who monitored what I was eating and made suggestions of changes I would need to make post surgery. With a gastric bypass, you need to be mindful about how you eat food; things like chewing 20 times before swallowing and not drinking fluids 20 minutes before and after food, to maximise the feeling of satiety.
The surgery creates a small pouch at the top of your stomach using surgical staples, while the lower stomach pouch is no longer used. This reduces your stomach size, so it takes less food to make you feel full. From the food you do eat, you will absorb fewer calories. It’s a drastic operation, and you have to be prepared to put the work in.
The procedure takes about an hour to do and I was only in hospital for three days. I went down for the operation at 9am, and was back in my room by around 1pm. At 4pm I was up and walking - they encourage you to get up and move as much as you possibly can to stop any wind building up. I felt nervous about what I was going to eat and how my stomach was going to react. I could eat only pureed foods for three month before progressing to regular food. Over the next 12 to 18 months, I had regular calls from the dieticians, and check-ups at the clinic; this meant I felt entirely supported throughout the recovery process.
Bariatric surgery has changed my life in ways you wouldn’t believe. Now, I can cut and paint my own toenails, swim in public pools without fear of verbal abuse and go for long walks in the countryside without feeling out of breath. I look forward to flying too, because I'm no longer worried about whether I will be able to fit in the seat. Now, people judge me on my personality, rather than making assumptions based on my weight.
It even led me to find love. Prior to the operation, I was in a marriage that broke down. After the surgery, I was left with excess skin and could barely look at myself in the mirror, so the last thing I was looking for was another relationship. But, during a monthly support meeting with Obesity UK, I met my current partner who had also undergone bariatric surgery. We discovered we had so much more in common than just the weight loss, and we have now been married for two years.
Most of my friends and family have been extremely supportive, although I have experienced some jealousy for what I’ve achieved. I think this is partly due to the stigma around weight loss surgery; some people think I ‘cheated’ my way to a new body, but it’s far from a quick fix. I have to be mindful about keeping my protein levels up, and monitor my food intake more than I ever did before the operation. There’s also the misconception that it costs the NHS lots of money. They invested £8,000 by giving me a gastric bypass, but I believe the cost of treating sleep apnea is much higher.
It’s a scary time for people who are living with obesity. I’m glad that the Government is starting to recognise the complexity of the disease, and introducing support and treatments to reflect that.
As told to Alice Hall