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Floating on Air

  • Date Submitted: Jul 10, 2017

“ I wasn't comfortable in my own skin.”

Lily Johnson

Shortly after her scale moved past 300 pounds, Lily Johnson looked in the mirror and told herself her life had to change.

“I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin,” she recalled.

Now, two years after bariatric surgery, she’s nearing her goal weight of 150 pounds and is busily recommending the approach that worked so well for her.

Lily had weighed about 160 at the start of her first pregnancy. Her significant weight gain was just water, her doctors told her, and it would be easy enough to shed. It wasn’t.

She actually lost a few pounds during her second pregnancy. After the birth of her son, she’d hit the gym five days a week and counted calories, but in hindsight, her eating habits were sending her on a dangerous spiral.

One of the classic weight-loss strategies involves writing down everything a person eats – solid and liquid – during the course of a day. When Lily starting writing, she saw the problem.

“It was an eye-opening experience,” Lily recalled. “I saw why I wasn’t losing weight. Starbucks, sodas…. Some days I was consuming 8,000-12,000 calories, 4,000 in liquids,”Lily said.

She slipped into what she described as a “slight depression” over her weight. She consulted her husband, her mother and her family doctor about courses of action. And she talked to Dr. Andrea Pakula, a general surgeon and associate director of the surgical critical care unit at Kern Medical.

Lily, a surgical technologist at Kern Medical, had worked with Dr. Pakula and had taken note of her success in bariatric surgery.

Bariatric Surgery 

Bariatric surgery “is the only durable cure for obesity,” Dr. Pakula said.

Since the arrival last year of the daVinci Robotic Surgery System, she has overhauled her bariatric practice to take full advantage of the advanced technology. The daVinci system allows the surgeon to see in 3-D, she explained. The result is more precision in a less invasive procedure.

Installing the gastric sleeve that shrinks the stomach takes about an hour and fewer than two percent of patients experience complications, Dr. Pakula said. She expects to do about 150 such operations this year. She also performs other surgeries with the daVinci.

Bariatric surgeons across the country have shifted to using the gastric sleeve rather than the once-popular lap band technique. The reason is simple: Better results.

And a new gastric bypass technique being used in Europe could be even better, although it may be at least five years before it’s cleared for use in the U.S.

But even with the technology advances, weight loss surgery isn’t a guaranteed answer.

Dr. Pakula estimated that 40-50 percent of patients will reach their target goal, 30-45 percent will lose but not reach goal, and 15-20 percent will fail.

Even with surgical intervention, losing weight is hard work and takes discipline, she explained.

Change in Life

Lily’s surgery, in July 2015, went smoothly. While she was off work for six weeks, the biggest issue for Lily was a restriction on lifting, a tough one for the mom of a two-year-old.

By that Christmas, her life was changing, even if she didn’t realize it at the time.

It was Christmas morning and Lily was on the floor opening presents with her children. “My husband was looking at me funny and I asked him what was up. ‘I’ve never seen you get on the floor with the kids before,’ he said.”

Her weight continued to melt away in 2016, but then she hit a plateau. At one point, she said, she’d actually gained a few pounds. “I didn’t think that was possible with the sleeve but it is. I rededicated myself to eating right and exercising. I’m not at my goal, but I’ll get there.”

Her energy levels continued to grow. She went back to school and has now completed all the prerequisites for pursuing her nursing degree and has applied to the Bakersfield College nursing program.

A Family Affair 

Her progress hasn’t gone unnoticed among her family. A cousin had the gastric sleeve surgery earlier this year. Her husband has begun the required six-month regimen of evaluation and documenting weight-loss efforts before surgery. And then there’s her mother.

When Lily announced she was going to go for the bariatric surgery, mom was dubious, Lily recalled. “She said: ‘We’ll see how it goes.’ I’m competitive by nature and that just made me want to prove I could do it.”

Now her mother, who has Type II diabetes, has started that long six-month process that leads to her own bariatric surgery.