A fitting happiness

Andrea Sinclair

Student’s surgery to lose weight brightens outlook on life

Autumn Vail stands by a poster friends signed for her before her gastric bypass surgery. “I have great friends and family and without them, I couldn’t have done this,” Vail said.

Leslie Cusano | Daily Kent Stater

Credit: Ron Soltys

Autumn Vail woke up in excruciating pain. She was surrounded by curtains and could hear mumbled voices — this wasn’t her room. Her anesthetic wasn’t supposed to have worn off this soon.

Just sitting up in her hospital bed was a challenge, said the fourth-year theater major.

“It was so uncomfortable, like a sharp burning. It felt like I had a huge bruise all over my stomach,” Autumn said.

She had just undergone laparoscopic Roux-en-Y gastric bypass surgery, a procedure in which the stomach is reduced to a small pouch to restrict food intake, and a portion of small intestine is bypassed.

Five incisions are made on the abdomen, said Marsha Thompson, registered nurse and department assistant at the Cleveland Clinic Bariatric and Metabolic Institute, and one of the nurses who operated on Autumn.

“Picture the five side of a dice,” Thompson said. “The center incision would be the middle dot, and the four others would be around it.”

Carbon dioxide is used to expand the stomach and allow surgeons to see while operating, Thompson said. While pain levels are different for every person, “most of the pain comes from the gas used to expand the stomach,” Thompson said.

Autumn spent five days at the Cleveland Clinic after her surgery in February 2007.

At five feet, four inches tall, Autumn weighed 323 lbs. before the operation. She was sure her weight would change, but she wondered: What about taking a semester off school and the myriad of other life changes she faced?

She had been overweight since childhood, and obesity had affected her entire life.

“I used to play soccer, softball and basketball, but had to stop due to my weight,” Autumn said.

She developed heel spurs and asthma, and she feared getting diabetes from her morbid obesity.

During her sophomore year, Autumn said she got depressed and started eating a lot. “I just didn’t pay attention to it,” she said.

Autumn indulged in pizza and McDonald’s and used food to cure boredom.

“Now when I’m bored, I ask my friends if they want to go on a walk,” she said.

While some people can diet and exercise, Autumn said she wasn’t motivated.

“I’d go to the gym with my friends, and they’d say, ‘Oh, I’m tired,'” Autumn said. “I’d say, ‘I’m ready to die.'”

After various diets and weight-loss programs, Autumn considered surgery. “My weight has always fluctuated,” she said. “I wanted a permanent result.”

Autumn went through an extensive background check. She completed a survey of her and her family’s medical history, and she met multiple times with support groups, counselors and physical therapists who determined she was ready for surgery.

“When they told me I qualified, they just said, ‘OK, pick a day,'” Autumn said. “I couldn’t believe it was happening so fast.”

Six months ago, Autumn had the gastric bypass surgery, and in another six months she said she’ll be at her goal weight.

“I just want to be healthy,” she said, adding that 140 to 150 pounds would be an ideal weight. “I don’t remember the last time I weighed so little.”

Autumn is losing weight rapidly, partly due to her altered appetite.

For a month after the surgery, Autumn said she didn’t feel hungry.

“It was scary — I didn’t know if it would be like that forever.”

She got her appetite back, she said, but it is a different feeling than before.

“Food had such a control over me. I loved food. I loved to eat,” she said. “I don’t get tempted to eat foods I shouldn’t have now.”

The surgery had not only altered her stomach, but also Autumn can’t eat the foods she loved so much before having a gastric bypass.

She is now a vegetarian. “I’m all about animal rights, but I loved, loved, loved steak before I had the operation,” she said. “It’s why I wasn’t a vegetarian sooner.”

Meats do not settle well in her smaller stomach, she explained. “I like eating organic foods and being healthy.”

She said she eats a lot of tofu and cooks more for herself. “But that’s a good thing because I love to cook.”

Autumn doesn’t drink like she used to, either. She isn’t allowed tonic water, soda or beer because the carbonation fills her stomach quickly.

“When I turned 21, I went crazy,” she said.

After the surgery, Autumn said she can drink half of a glass of wine and be intoxicated.

One-hundred-and-fifteen pounds lighter, she said she doesn’t notice the weight change as much as others who haven’t seen her post-operation.

She doesn’t foresee more surgeries because her skin has reacted well, she said.

“I don’t think I’d have an operation just for vanity,” she said. “I’d just do it for health reasons.”

Autumn’s longtime friend and former Kent State student Raina Semivan calls her the incredible shrinking woman.

“Her heart’s the same — it’s still big,” Semivan said.

Autumn said that she most notices a change in her confidence.

“My self is so improved,” she said. “I let my weight hold me back from doing so much. I think everyone deserves a chance to be happy.”

The 5 steps of surgery

1: Five incisions, sometimes more if needed, are made into the abdomen.

2: Instruments called trochars, which act as piping to keep tissue open, are inserted into the incisions. Surgeons then put their instruments inside the adjustable trochars.

3: Carbon dioxide is pumped into the stomach to allow surgeons to see while they are operating.

4: The stomach is reduced to about the size of a golf ball, and a portion of the small intestine is bypassed.

5: The instruments, the trochars and most of the gas is removed. The muscle and tissue is then sutured from the inside with dissolvable stitches. Steri-strips are used to hold the skin together on the outside.

Source: Marsha Thompson, RN and department assistant at the Cleveland Clinic Bariatric and Metabolic Institute

Contact features reporter Andrea Sinclair at [email protected].