Seven Years and Many Miles
Bariatric Surgery Patient Lost 170 Pounds, Races Around the World to Keep It Off
Brenda Fairfull ran her first marathon in Hawaii in 1997. She weighed about 250 pounds at the time.
“I’ve always been active, but I’ve also been overweight since college,” Brenda said. “I could lose weight, but I couldn’t keep it off.” She never let being overweight slow her down, but eventually, she couldn’t outrun the health effects of her weight. At a regular checkup, her doctor discovered Brenda’s cholesterol had spiked along with her weight.
“It had always been around 200, and this time I weighed almost 300 pounds. That’s what hit home for me. I was in my 30s and I thought, I’m way too young to be starting on cholesterol medication. I can do something about this.” She had looked into weight loss surgery before, but when her cholesterol spiked, she dug into the research.
“If I was going to consider something as serious as gastric bypass, I wanted to make sure that I had all the information I needed to choose the best team to do it,” she said. She went to Froedtert & The Medical College of Wisconsin’s website, and started reading more about the Bariatric Surgery Program and James Wallace, MD, PhD, Medical College of Wisconsin surgeon and director of the Bariatric Surgery Program.
“His qualifications along with all the positive comments from patients convinced me that this was the guy I wanted to see. I went to the information sessions and listened to the pros and cons of the procedure, and I knew I had to do it,” Brenda recalled.
A Tool for Success
In 2006, Brenda had Roux-en-Y gastric bypass surgery, a laparoscopic procedure that dramatically reduced the size of her stomach.
“Using small incisions for access, we make a new stomach out of the patient’s old stomach, which is approximately the size of the thumb, or about a 99 percent reduction in size,” Dr. Wallace said. “We also do a small intestinal bypass, a kind of plumbing hook-up to re-establish continuity of the GI tract. That encourages the patient to make good food choices.”
After bariatric surgery, patients have to be aware of everything they eat, focusing on high protein, low fat choices, and drinking plenty of water. That means staying away from sugars and carbohydrates, especially breads and pastas. “We want our patients to achieve their protein goal every day, and that’s a minimum of 60 grams,” Dr. Wallace said. Ultimately, any weight loss operation requires a lifelong commitment to a thoughtful, controlled way of eating and living.
The gastric bypass option has also been shown to reduce, even reverse, diabetes in some patients without any medication. Dr. Wallace related a 2012 study that found that 42 percent of patients who had gastric bypass surgery saw their blood sugar levels return to normal with no medical therapy and all patients showed significant improvements in the control of their diabetes. Another weight-loss procedure, the sleeve gastrectomy, can also help reduce diabetes, and improve other metabolic conditions.
While having the operation doesn’t guarantee a patient's diabetes will disappear, “if we can take away your diabetes for one year, that is better than having diabetes for that year. And if the surgery can take it away for 10 years, that’s 10 times better,” Dr. Wallace said.
Brenda did not have diabetes, but the operation did bring her cholesterol under control without medication. Her success began before her surgery, when she lost more than 60 pounds through diet and exercise in the months before the procedure. In all, Brenda estimates she lost 172 pounds from her highest weight to her maintenance weight.
“If you follow the recommendations of the program, you’re going to be very successful,” Brenda said. “That’s something Dr. Wallace said that I’ve never forgotten. He said that the operation is a tool, and if you choose to use the tool correctly, you’re going to be wildly successful. If I were to just go back to my old habits, it’s a waste of time and money.”
Destinations as Motivation
After her surgery, Brenda began running marathons (26.2 miles) and half-marathons in earnest. But she’s added a twist. She chooses destination races to motivate herself, running in places like the Great Wall of China, Easter Island, Antarctica and Greece on the 2,500th anniversary of the original marathon, said to have been run by a battlefield messenger from the town of Marathon, Greece, to Athens.
“That’s one of my treats for sticking to my workout schedule,” Brenda said. “I make every vacation a destination race vacation. I’ve done all kinds of fun places. It keeps me motivated. I always get the official T-shirt and the medal. I love the cheesy little medals.”
Of course, not everyone needs to become a marathon runner, but regular exercise is a vital component to losing weight after bariatric surgery and keeping it off. “Walking is great exercise,” Dr. Wallace said. “Becoming an exerciser means you can achieve much better than average weight loss and you’ll maintain it for the rest of your life. You don’t have to become a marathoner, you just have to set aside time every day and walk.”
As for Brenda, she’s glad she chose the Bariatric Surgery Program at Froedtert & The Medical College of Wisconsin, which is part of the Comprehensive Weight Loss Center. The program and all its surgeons have received the bariatric surgery “Center of Excellence” designation by the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery (ASMBS).
“It made a difference having it done at a Center of Excellence,” Brenda said. “They have a dedicated unit and the nursing staff was awesome. A lot of them had been through it as well. It was 100 percent worth it. I’ve got my old life back and am loving it every day!”