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Gastric Band Surgery Trims 156 Pounds From Reporter's Frame

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I turned 40 on Friday, and stand 156 pounds lighter than 22 months ago when I set out to celebrate my birthday by weighing 230 pounds -- my high school graduation weight.

I missed my goal, but still had a decadent slice of chocolate cake to celebrate my healthiest birthday in 15 years.

Despite falling short of my target 200-pound loss, I'm ecstatic. I got my life back.

In the spring of 2001, our first child was on the way. I weighed a physically and socially crippling 432 pounds, had worsening insulin-dependent type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, circulation problems and severe arthritis in my knees. Forget about riding a bike. I got winded antique shopping.

Life sucked. I had 20 years of failures at Weight Watchers, Nutri-System, Optifast, Slim-Fast, Lean-Line, hypnosis and The Diet Center. My doctor agreed surgery was next.

I looked at two procedures: the gastric bypass, made popular by singer Carnie Wilson and NBC weatherman Al Roker, and an operation called the adjustable gastric band (AGB).

With bypass, the most popular choice in the USA, a surgeon reroutes the intestines and creates a small pouch for food to collect. The pouch fills up fast, making the patient feel full. I was put off bypass by the idea of leaving yards of unused intestine in my gut.

The AGB, the most popular obesity surgery in Europe and Australia, but newer in the USA, seemed like a more elegant solution. The AGB works like a hollow belt implanted at the top of my stomach. The band restricts what I eat. My God-given intestinal design was unchanged. If a complication arises, it can be undone or fixed easily.

That little band cinches the top of my stomach like an hourglass, and my surgeon can make the passage for food narrower or wider by using a needle to inject or withdraw saline through a ''port'' implanted just below the skin on my chest. The smaller the opening, the less food can pass through.

No more sandwiches, steaks, burgers, pasta, crusty bread, chips or fries.

I don't miss those things, except maybe barbecue. I almost fainted during a recent Food Network show on pulled pork.

My protein now comes from skim milk, lots of fish, eggs and cheese. I'm not sure I get all the vitamins I need from my new food life, so I pop a multivitamin a day. Eating is an adventure now, and I've tried everything from pigs knuckles to calves lungs, seeking new tastes.

As I lost weight, the band loosened as my whole body got smaller and my stomach adjusted. I found to my delight that I had to create a new food life to cope with the restriction. Nothing was off the table for experimentation as long as it was ''band friendly'' -- meaning that its texture would get through the opening within 10 minutes or so of swallowing. Unfriendly foods, or too much food, cause me to vomit. I learned quickly how to eat.

Couldn't I just draw on my own discipline to eat less and exercise more? I don't know. There are many theories. My heavy relatives may indicate a genetic predisposition to obesity. What I know is that I failed at every diet attempt and gained 200 pounds in 20 years. The AGB works great for me.

I'm part of the majority of AGB patients who don't have any side effects or problems, and who lose more than 50% of their excess weight after surgery. Weighing 400 pounds was embarrassing and isolating. But feeling like a sideshow attraction is in my past.

My surgery took place at Hamilton Medical Center in Dalton, Ga. I chose to go there because I liked the long track record of the surgeon, Jaime Ponce.

My insurance paid 80% of the bill, which was about $14,000 two years ago.

I lost just about all of my 156 pounds in 15 months. I have plateaued at between 275 and 285 since last December.

Still too heavy? Probably. But my diabetes is gone. I can ride a new bike over hill and dale. I romp and play with my 17-month-old son, Henry, in ways I thought wouldn't be possible two years ago. I am healthy and getting healthier.

I still have another 50 pounds I would like to lose. And in the fall, I plan on getting my AGB tightened.

Despite my success, I have two concerns. The first is that a later complication could set in, necessitating that the band be removed. But I am hopeful. The second is that people as sick as I was will read my story and rush to get the surgery.

The AGB is not a surgery for everyone suffering from obesity. Some people, I believe, are better off with the gastric bypass, others not getting surgery at all. Figuring out which course is best is a process that should take someone at least six months of investigation, research and soul-searching.

I bet right and got my life back. Happy birthday to me.

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© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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