Samantha King struggled with her weight for most of her life, and by the age of 35 was classed as clinically severely obese. She had tried a host of diets to no avail, so made a life-changing decision to undergo gastric bypass surgery. She describes her journey and the huge benefits the procedure has had on her physical and mental health
Last June, Samantha King’s life changed dramatically. After a lifetime of struggling with her weight, the 35-year-old Wicklow woman had decided to have a gastric bypass. She saw all the necessary doctors and was deemed suitable. After 18 months of waiting, she got a call from St Vincent’s Hospital with a date for the procedure. Her private health insurance covered the cost of the operation.
In preparation, she was told that she had to go on a liver-reduction diet for 10 days. This is a low-calorie, low-fat, low-carb restrictive diet that reduces glycogen, water, and fatty deposits in the liver to make it smaller.
“I just cried,” she says. “I didn’t believe it. I felt that there was an end in sight and I could see hope again at last.”
Having the operation was not a decision she made lightly. By then, she had tried everything — cabbage diets, calorie counting, several slimming clubs, private one-to-one sessions with a doctor at a weight-loss clinic and even Operation Transformation as part of a Bride and Groom group. This operation was her last resort.
“You have to have serious obesity issues to be deemed suitable for the procedure and have to meet the necessary criteria,” says Samantha.
Under current Irish insurance rules, to be eligible for the surgery, a patient should have a BMI over 45, or over 40 with weight-related medical conditions. BMI, body mass index, is a measure that uses your height and weight to work out if your weight is healthy.
Samantha’s BMI was “way over” 40, and she had two weight-related medical conditions — diabetes and high blood pressure. She was assessed as being clinically severely obese, also known as morbidly obese.
“Since I was 16, I have started a diet every Monday morning,” she says. But the more she tried to diet, the more she piled on the weight. A stone here, a stone there. At 35, she was 5ft 5in and a size 24. Diets didn’t work and she was fed up. Finally, she admitted that she needed help. She has compared herself to someone who drinks too much or smokes too much and wants to stop.
When she was told to go on her liver-reduction diet, she initially thought about one last blow-out with food. After all, who’d know? Then, she realised that she was only fooling herself. She knew that if she hadn’t reduced her liver sufficiently with the pre-operation diet, her chances of surgery would be hampered. So she copped herself on and began to prepare.
“I thought, ‘This is it. I am so ready’,” she says. The last words she said to her surgeon were: “Please mind me.”
“I had five little incisions in my stomach,” she explains. “They move the liver [temporarily out of the way] and take away 80pc of the stomach and sew it back up. The surgery took up to two hours and, in all, from arriving in the hospital to leaving, it took 36 hours. I felt so relieved afterwards.”
She went home to her husband who had the fridge stocked with all her approved foods. “A huge portion of your tummy is taken away. It’s reduced to the size of an egg cup. The morning after surgery, I had half a Weetabix. After four spoons, I was stuffed. I was afraid to get too full because you can be sick if you’re too full. It was about having a mouthful and asking yourself: Am I full or not? As someone who has a weight problem, I’d never waited to see if I was full.”
For the first six weeks, Samantha ate only soft, mushy foods. “You need to learn to live with food and introduce it back into your system.”
In the early days, she had to inject herself twice a day to prevent blood clots. Five days after the operation, Samantha felt fine. She was up and pottering around her house, slowly coming to terms with the realisation that she was out the other side. “When you have the operation, you get hit with emotions that you never allowed to be there before.”
Now she can look back at her eating habits and admit that she had been comfort eating. She would skip breakfast, run on coffee and at the end of a long working day, she would get takeaways.
“Food gave me silence,” she explains. “When you own your own business — King Hair and Beauty — there are no holidays. The phone is always beside you and there’s always a new deal or a new premises. It’s chaotic. But food gave me a break from that. It gave some peace of mind.”
Those days are behind her. At the time of writing, she is over seven stone lighter and still shrinking. Each time she loses a stone, her husband buys a giant helium balloon with the number in celebration (he added 100 regular balloons when she recently hit that loss in pounds). He has held Samantha’s hand all the way and is delighted by the changes in her.
“It has been life-changing,” she says. “I eat a lot of freshly prepared food now. And I am doing the prep. I never really did that before. I am making it a priority. Now it’s as important as a meeting on a Monday morning. I go to the supermarket every Friday afternoon and I do the food prep that evening.
“Everything is lighter and brighter now,” she says. “It’s the best thing that I’ve ever done. I don’t miss food because I can eat what I want as long as it’s in small amounts. I feel great and I have more energy now.”
And there is a lot of laughter. When she came home and told her husband that Aldi was a fine shop, he laughed, because it was so clear that she’d almost never done a food shop before. Up until then, unless she was on a specific diet, it had been gobbling on the go and takeaways at the day’s end.
Samantha now weighs all her food as she wants to be aware of portions, and steps on the scales every two days because she doesn’t want any surprises at the end of the week.
“It’s to keep myself accountable,” she says. “This is life-changing and life-consuming. My husband said that he never realised how much I walk around the house naked. It has given me confidence. The other day, I got out of the shower and said, what the hell are those? My collarbones! I hadn’t seen them in years.” She is lighter now than she was 10 years ago.
For the first year, she has to go for check-ups every three months and after that, it will be annually, for five years. Her last check-up was in September.
“My consultant said that my weight loss is above average and they are happy with me. They said that for them to see the surgery as a success, they would hope that I’d lose eight stone. But I’d like to lose 10 or 12 stone. I’ve lost 12 inches around my chest and 10 inches off my stomach. I never thought that was possible. I check in with the dietitian all the time and I tell them what I eat. I listen to the advice and follow it.”
She knows that the rate of her weight-loss will eventually slow down but she is happy to work at it and see how much she will lose. There is no follow-up surgery needed but she says she might look into excess skin removal at a much later date. But right now, she is happy to continue on her journey.
The health benefits have been tremendous, she says. Her blood sugars have gone down and she is not diabetic any more. When she gets out of bed in the morning, all her aches and pains are gone. No longer does she have the crippling heartburn that used to keep her awake at night. Her husband’s final words to her each night used to be: “Do you have your Rennie on the bedside locker?” Now, she is walking, swimming and enjoying life. “I feel fit and healthy. I feel like I can take a full breath.”
That hadn’t happened in years.
Right now, Samantha has so many reasons to be joyful. She gave away 30 dresses and two winter coats, as they are all too big. Some friends told her to get them altered, but she said no.
“I just felt that they didn’t belong to me any more and I can see my style changing. I want to show off my waist. I used to wear midi-length dresses, but now they are shorter and tighter.”
When she looks at herself in the mirror to put on her make-up, she is finally happy with her reflection. “Before, I used to think that slapping it all on wasn’t improving the situation. My skin was so oily and I’d be sweating anyway. But now my skin is so much better and I don’t get break-outs any more. I feel like my eyes ‘pop’ out of my face again, whereas before they felt they were sunken because my face was so inflated.”
She sounds relaxed and says that the operation has, metaphorically, taken a weight off her shoulders. “Looking back now, I can see the pain and anxiety I was going through. I actually get upset when I think of it.”
With all the extra weight, she felt that she had aged herself, physically and emotionally.
“I know that some people see the operation as controversial but this is not a shortcut. It wasn’t an easy option. It is major surgery and I had to make the decision to do it. Also, the doctors said that I was suitable.”
These days, she is doing weight-training and going for walks. Time was, she wouldn’t have been able to stand for long, such was her weight, but now she is doing her 20,000 steps each day. Swimming used to be the only sport she liked and she thinks that’s because it wasn’t weight-bearing, whereas now she is able for more.
Now she is up for life and living it to the full. She is making plans for all sorts of things; mad for water, she has dreams of going kayaking. Before, she would have worried about squeezing into a wetsuit and on to the kayak.
No longer will she need an extension for her seat belt when she takes a flight. In fact, she has a list of goals. She would love to run 5km. On her walks, she feels the urge to break into a jog.
Before, she would only wear heels to try to make herself look taller and thinner; now, she might buy a pair of flat Docs. Perhaps most significant of all, she says that motherhood might be an option if she and her husband decide they want a child. Up until now, she worried about complications due to her being morbidly obese. Now, she isn’t ruling anything out.
She has more energy for life. Recently, it took her four weeks to turn around her new pop-up shop in the The Square Shopping Centre in Tallaght (it will remain until Christmas). Before, with the extra weight, she knows that she wouldn’t have been able to work so fast.
Samantha continues to document her weight-loss journey on Instagram and refuses to listen to the negative comments from some who say she’ll put the weight back on. There is, she says, a lot of goodwill towards her and her story, especially now that she is succeeding. “No one is interested in the fat girl with the problem,” she says. Now her good news story resonates with others.
Samantha is determined to keep going. And so she sticks to her plan — three small meals a day — and continues to shrink. “I can only eat small amounts, so I want the food to be good. If I’m going to eat chicken, I make sure it is corn-fed organic.”
One of her dreams was to ditch the specialist large-size shops and buy a dress in Penneys. Now she’s a size 18, so she did.