Wendy Reynolds

The Horrible Answer to My Fat Chick Prayer

I wouldn't mind so much if I didn't know the truth.

Carnie Wilson's recent cover story in People heralded her surgically-engineered 150-lb. weight loss as if it were the Second Coming. I believed in bariatric surgery too -- so much so that three months after I logged on to adoctorinyourhouse.com and watched what I thought was Wilson's stomach-reducing surgery (according to an E! Entertainment Online Profile, she's recently admitted that it wasn't her surgery that was on the web, but someone who had the same procedure) I checked into a Bronx hospital and had the same thing done. After 33 years and 330 lbs, I too had thought this would be the answer to my fat chick prayer.

Wilson's surgeon and mine told us the same thing -- that we were in relatively good health despite our morbid obesity, but we were walking timebombs. The heart disease, the diabetes, the sleep apnea that could choke us to death, the early onset of arthritis (the pressure on my joints was so much that a specialist told me it would be a matter of less than two years before I'd need both my kneecaps replaced). Did the doctors tell her she was a "perfect candidate" for the surgery? They told me that. Another 30 lbs and I'd run a bigger risk of never coming out of the anesthesia. As I was, however, I had "nothing to worry about." Yes, people died having this radical procedure, but I ran "a higher risk of a heart attack" on the stairs to my fourth floor walkup. "Sure, there can be complications, but you're young, healthy..."

Did they gloss over those "complications" during Wilson's consultation? I can't remember hearing the words "pulmonary embolism" or "blood clot," but then again I barely remember the two office visits I was allowed by my HMO to the sole surgeon they approved for this procedure, other than he was a very arrogant, confident, handsome man who "never lost anyone in the 18 years" he'd done the surgery. I was surprised that my HMO had approved the surgery in the first place -- according to the year's worth of research I'd done beforehand the majority of HMO's and insurance companies won't cover bariatric surgery because it is elective.

Then I found out why I had been approved. After consulting with the HMO psychiatrist, dietitian, general practitioner, pulmonary specialist, cardiologist, pretty much everyone concurred that I would be permanently disabled in a matter of two to three years by obesity. Long-term care is pricey, and while bariatric surgery is very expensive, they would save money in the long run compared to what could be another 30 years of replacements, prescriptions, consultations and the like.

So on Nov. 30, 1999 I went under the knife, allowing a man I'd barely met slice a pouch off my stomach and attach it to my intestine; this would only let me consume an ounce of food at a time, instead of my usual quart-plus.

And then the fun began. I hemorrhaged into my small intestine, threw a pulmonary embolism, sank into a coma, and three weeks and two more surgeries later, awoke in Intensive Care to see my mother, sister and best friend grinning like idiots around me. "There she is," Bucky said, tears running down her face. "Welcome back." She was more than relieved -- she'd seen me code on the way to X-ray and watched them defibrillate me, scared out of her mind because with my family in Buffalo she'd agreed to be my next of kin on the "just in case" forms.

I spent three months in the hospital, without a drop to drink or eat -- there were holes in my "pouch" and the surgeons didn't want to go in a fourth time unless they absolutely had to. Instead, they waited for the pouch to seal itself. So I watched as cans of liquid crap were poured into an IV and pumped though a jejunal tube inserted into my body. I felt like a Yugo sucking down unleaded through a straw.

Did Carnie have to have six people at a time tip her off a gurney onto an X-ray machine every day? Did she have to sleep on a "bari bed" specially designed so that the nurses could tip you over on your side to remove the shit stained sheets from under your fat ass? Did she fall out of the bed a few times and have to have an entire medical team hoist her back up because she was so weak she couldn't even sit up by herself? Did she wonder if maybe she'd never get the hell out of there, that she'd die alone in a hospital room with a bunch of monitors beeping at her and a nurse coming in every half hour to gauge a raging fever and sing to her to comfort you after a scary, morphine-induced hallucination?

I bet she enjoyed the luxury of the less invasive laser surgery -- my scar is a spreading red zipper from my chest to my now floppy "apron" around my abdomen. They tried to encourage it to close faster by stapling plastic floss to either side, criss-crossing all the way down, and pulling it taut, like I was a sneaker. The staples popped out every day, and every day they had to be replaced, without anesthetic, without painkillers (by that time, they were trying to get me off the morphine).

Yes, I knew when I went into the surgery I could die. I accepted it as a risk. But I didn't bargain on unconsciousness through Christmas, a lonely New Year's Eve spent flat on my back trying to remember how to breathe without an oxygen mask, or my 33rd birthday in a claustrophobic MRI machine, nauseous and choking on the 10 cc's of radiology juice I'd greedily swallowed for the procedure -- it tasted like thick, chalky Pepto Bismol, but it was the only thing they'd let me consume in three months, and I got so used to drinking it almost every day I looked forward to it. Happy Birthday to me, as I slid into the cold, metallic donut, hearing the robotic voice tell me to breathe, then hold my breath as the machine got my good side, at least internally.

I could go on and on -- about the following three months I spent trying to recover in my mom's apartment; about the follow-up visit with a loving, caring surgeon there who confided to me that I'd been through hell, and half of it was perhaps unnecessary, but I would get better. Did Carnie throw up every single thing she put in her mouth for two months, and shit out anything that managed to be digested? She must have, but she never talk about that in her People interview. She went on about how she nibbles three small meals now, and a spoonful of peanut butter is an occasional snack. I do that now, too. But it's been a long, slow climb from a half-jar of baby food a day, baby.

Carnie says that too much sugar makes her nauseous now. That the surgery doesn't "work on the brain, but you have fewer cravings." That's true -- after experiencing "dumping" (think insulin shock with a puke/crap chaser) a few times I stopped "craving" junk food, too. She never mentioned that one can outeat the pouch -- constant grazing all though the day on small things adds up, and can lead to weight gain.

The one truth I admire her for was the last paragraph of the article, when she admits that it's hard to let go of the fat. "I mourn for the loss of my old self. It brought me some protection in some way, and now that it's gone I sort of feel empty," she tells the reader. I ache for the weight I carried with me like a shield -- it was an excuse for every bad thing I'd ever experienced in my life. If someone doesn't like me now, it's me, and not the fat, that they object to. It makes people like us vulnerable, in a way we avoided all our lives. I feel the cold now, and I cannot tell if it's from the blood thinners they gave me postop or the loss of the layer I came to rely on that isn't there any more.

I admit I hated Carnie all through that People article. It was just a roll of the dice that her surgery was such a breeze, and mine was fraught with complications. But she is a member of what my beloved's brother refers to as The Legion of Doom -- the sons and daughters, brothers and sisters of the famous and talented, who exploit their name and legacy to their own ends. This allowed her to access the very best medical experts in the field, a personal trainer after the surgery, a personal chef to teach her "how" to eat, and now plastic surgery to nip and tuck her batwings and her saggy folds. In telling her story she was not telling the whole truth about this "miracle cure" she's the new poster child for, because those little details never come up. Instead, fat people all over America read her waxing rhapsodic over fitting into size 6 clothing and having men stare at her in the street, and they come away thinking that's the be-all and end-all of life.

I am down over 100 pounds myself, and a size 18, on my way to a 14. I enjoy trying on clothes, too, and the fact that I can walk up the four flights of stairs in my building without stopping on each landing to catch my breath is the most exhilarating feeling I've ever experienced. But I cannot forget the fear in my mother's eyes the time I fainted in the shower and it took an hour and a half to heave myself out of the tub, I was so weak. I cannot forget what I put my family and friends through all those months of trying to stay alive.

You see, when I slip out of my new clothes, and stand in front of my beloved, and his green eyes blink in astonishment as a little bit more of me disappears, I feel a cold chill on the skin that still has sensation. And when he kneels in front of me, his hands finally able to span my waist, and places a kiss on my scar, I cringe. I can't feel anything there at all.