23 October 2016Last updated

Real Life

‘I’m half the size I was, with twice the confidence!’

Kerrie Hawthorne, 32, from Leeds, UK, lost more than half her body weight in two years after weight loss surgery

As told to Kirsty English
5 Aug 2016 | 12:00 am
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  • I didn’t see myself as fat. I thought I looked OK, that I was a normal size. I was in complete denial about my weight.

    Source:Supplied Image 3 of 3

As a young girl growing up in Kirkstall, Leeds, UK, I was a proper outdoorsy type.

We were lucky enough to live near a school field and my parents were friends with the school caretaker, who let me play in the grounds. My friends and I would spend hours hanging out there at weekends.

But one day, when I was 10, my friend and I decided to play what turned out to be a potentially lethal game of pirates after school. I climbed over the school fence and was walking along the top when I lost my balance. I did a kind of back flip into a privet hedge, landing on an iron girder that was lying upright.

In one agonising, life-changing moment, the girder pierced my left thigh, going straight through my leg almost as high as my bottom.

I was literally impaled on the girder – and screaming in pain.

Panicking, my friend ran to get the caretaker, who immediately rang for an ambulance. Even when the paramedics arrived they didn’t want to move me in case they caused more internal damage. With much difficulty I was taken to the local hospital, where surgeons battled to save my leg.

The horrific accident made headlines in my town and sparked a massive campaign to make sure girders were disposed off safely. But for me, it sparked the beginning of a lifetime’s worth of operations and psychological problems.

As surgeons battled to reconstruct my leg, days drifted into weeks and I ended up having seven operations, each nine hours long. I always kept hoping I’d be back to normal one day but I gradually realised I was going to be living with pain and mobility problems for the rest of my life.

I spent the next six months in hospital being fed painkillers and antibiotics via a drip. After one of the surgeries, I developed a serious infection that caused my leg to turn black. Doctors feared I’d lose my limb, but luckily they managed to save it.

I was schooled in hospital and spent the last two months lying on my stomach as doctors said that was the best position to allow the leg to heal. I had to do everything on my stomach – schoolwork, eat, drink, watch television.

After six months, doctors tried to get me to walk on my leg but it was a slow process. I got around mainly 
in a wheelchair, gradually learning to walk again.

Since the accident had left a thick rope-like scar right around my thigh, the doctors decided to do cosmetic surgery to correct it. They were able to cut away the scar at the front of my leg and do a skin graft to make it neater. It made a big difference to the way it looked but again it meant another intense course of painkillers. To make me feel good, visitors and family brought me chocolates, snacks and takeaway food. High-calorie junk food coupled with a sedentary lifestyle ensured I gained weight… a lot of it.

Back at primary school, now aged 11, I still spent most of my time in a wheelchair and I remember being the first one wheeled into the dinner hall at lunchtimes. Everyone at school was so supportive and understanding though and I’m pleased to say I was never bullied – even as my size increased.

As I entered my teenage years, I began to walk more, although my leg would often give way. I still had to take painkillers every day, including 600g of pregabalin Lyrica. My leg was so unstable, I’d often fall over and when I fell, I landed like a sack of potatoes. I broke several joints in my fingers and suffered ankle fractures because I couldn’t break the fall.

Over the years, I caused a lot of damage to myself and always felt like I was in pain. At one point I was taking morphine tablets three times a day. And, together with my lack of mobility, I was getting increasingly overweight. It was a vicious circle.

Without realising, the bad eating habits I’d fallen into were starting to impact my life more and more. Instead of eating breakfast, I’d have a huge lunch such as a massive chicken biryani, and on Sundays, a giant Sunday lunch with loads of potatoes. My portion sizes had gradually gotten bigger to satisfy my cravings.

As a result, I struggled with coughing, shortness of breath and acid reflux. Then, in September 2001 when I was 17, my dad had a massive heart attack.

This was a huge knock-back for me and triggered several bouts of depression, not helped by my frustration with my aching, painful body.

The following year, in 2002, I noticed patches of my hair starting to fall out. I’d always had thick, dark, curly hair but I was developing bald areas on the side of my head. My eyelashes started to turn white and when I brushed my hair, chunks would fall out. I went to see my GP, who diagnosed alopecia areata.

Another blow.

But I somehow managed to make the most of it. As I was only able to grow hair on the top of my head, I developed my own unique hairstyle with curls falling over my forehead. I tried to make alopecia a part of me.

Again I turned to eating as a way of making myself feel better. I craved large amounts of carbs – pasta, pizza, bread and rice dishes, and became addicted to energy drinks.

But when I looked at myself in the mirror, I didn’t see myself as fat. I thought I looked OK, that I was a normal size.

My mum Susan, 62, a carer, would say: ‘You really need to lose some weight love.’ But I just thought she was winding me up, and would brush off her comments. For years, I was in total denial about my weight issues.

It was only when I went to see my sister in Rhode Island near New York, five years ago, that I realised I had a serious problem. My first wake-up call was on the flight on the way over when the seatbelt only just fit round my waist. I squeezed into it, horrified that I might have to ask for a belt extension.

Then I had to catch a connecting flight to Rhode Island – and this time the belt just did not fit. I was so embarrassed I tried to convince the steward that I was strapped in, but in the end I had to submit to an extension belt.

When I saw my sister, Lisa, 42, she was horrified by my size. She worked as a nurse and knew all too well the health risks I was posing for myself.

‘Every single pound you’ve gained is knocking a year off your life,’ she said. ‘You’re at risk of diabetes and other horrible diseases because you’re so overweight.’ Until that moment, I’d stubbornly refused to accept I had a weight problem.

I was 28 and my sister’s words rang in my ears. Back home, when I saw a photo of myself at the beach, I couldn’t believe it was me. I was wearing a pink T-shirt and I’d cut the sleeves out of the top because I always felt so hot. My arms were hanging out like two beached seals and I looked huge!

Things had to change.

At 5ft 2in tall, I weighed about 143kg, wore size 24G clothes, and had a BMI of 55. That meant I was classified as ‘super obese’.

I tried various diets to get my weight down, including a cabbage soup one, but nothing worked long-term and I started to get really depressed. Some days I felt like I wanted to go to sleep and never wake up again.

I reached the point where I needed a helping hand: my GP agreed that surgery was the only choice given my past history.

Nervous about more surgery, I first decided to visit a weight-loss support group in Leeds called WLSinfo where I was able to listen to other people’s stories. Although I never spoke out during the seven-week course because I was so lacking in self-confidence, it really helped to know I wasn’t the only one overeating. The group leader helped educate me about portion sizes and healthy eating habits.

The group also gave me the confidence to explore the possibility of surgery. I was referred via my GP to Abeezar Sarela, consultant weight loss surgeon at Spire Leeds Hospital.

I remember him telling me: ‘With a BMI of more than 50, you are in the category of super-obesity. Without surgery, you are likely to continue to gain weight and put yourself at high risk of developing serious health disorders such as diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnoea, heart attack, stroke, chronic liver disease and various types of cancer.’

Then, he shockingly added: ‘Without intervention, your life-span is likely to be shortened by about 15 years.’ I was horrified.

We talked about the different types of surgery available, including gastric band, gastric bypass and sleeve gastrectomy, and compared the relative risks and benefits.

I decided to opt for a laparoscopic sleeve gastrectomy operation, which is done by keyhole surgery.

I underwent surgery in February 2014. After the two-hour procedure, I remember waking up in the hospital’s high dependency unit and feeling exhausted. I was on morphine and I just slept and slept after the operation. It was only a few days later when I really felt any sensation – and it was like I’d been kicked in the stomach by a horse. I was very sore.

The recovery was gradual but everyone at the hospital was so supportive and positive, I couldn’t help but respond well. The worst bit was having to eat sloppy food for a week while my stomach started to heal.

Slowly, I was able to eat small portions, but I had to chew well before swallowing. As the sleeve gastrectomy restricted the size of the stomach, it also controlled my appetite.

Dr Sarela explained that the sleeve ‘causes changes in the levels of the hormones that control your sense of fullness and so gives you a feeling of fullness after eating a small meal. In this way, intake of calories is reduced and you lose weight.

‘I’m so proud of you for confronting your problems with great courage and making such dramatic changes in your lifestyle and diet,’ he added. This was praise indeed – I was determined not to waste this second chance at life.

Since then, I have lost 79kg and I now weigh about 66kg. My BMI is 27 and my dress size has plummeted from 24 to 10. I’ve lost the equivalent of another person in weight. I’m a totally different person, with so much more energy and confidence. I’m also very strict with myself when it comes to my diet. I eat smaller portions of protein and vegetables and avoid carbs.

A typical meal now is half a chicken breast with salad. The portion size of my food is so small that all I need is a side plate. If I have a treat, such as some chocolate, I will eat it in moderation. I weigh myself regularly and if I find out that I’ve gained weight, even a little bit, I will adjust my diet immediately. I’m determined, after all this hard work, that I will not put the weight back on.

I’m also determined to keep on impressing Dr Sarela. He told me I’ve lost 92.5 per cent of my excess weight, which means I have an excellent outcome. The average excess weight loss after a sleeve gastrectomy operation for a person starting with a BMI of 50 is about 60 per cent after two years. My weight loss is far above average and I hope this reflects my commitment to my new lifestyle.

I used to live to eat – that’s changed now. It feels as if the doctors flipped a switched and it’s cut off my cravings for carbs. Having surgery was the best decision I ever made.

I would advise others who are considering bariatric surgery to do their research, discuss it with their doctor and choose what’s the best option for them. And if just one person reads my story and feels inspired to turn to surgery, then I’ve done my job.

What is sleeve gastrectomy?

During sleeve gastrectomy, the surgeon makes a cut in the abdomen before removing the left side of the stomach. This can reduce the stomach’s volume by up to 75 per cent, and is usually performed using keyhole surgery. The remaining part of the stomach is pulled upwards and resealed using surgical staplers. This creates a much smaller and longer stomach that resembles the shape of a sleeve. Surgery is done under general anaesthesia and takes about one to one-and-a-half hours.

As told to Kirsty English

As told to Kirsty English