Laurie never let spina bifida slow her down or define her. She lived a full and satisfying life, despite sometimes weak legs and flagging energy levels. Like her perpetually sunny disposition, spina bifida was a constant for Laurie—as was her excess weight. Chubby as a little girl, Laurie accepted her status as an overweight adult.
When the demands of graduate school triggered additional weight gain, she began noticing a decline in her mobility. At 258 pounds, Laurie weighed the most she ever had. Obesity added a complicated layer to spina bifida, a birth disorder that affects the spine. “I had gotten myself into a nasty cycle where one medical condition influenced the other. From a physical perspective, my quality of life was suffering,” said the hospital administrator.
Laurie knew it was possible to change her body and improve her health. Her mother was a weight loss success story, a gastric bypass surgery patient who had lost 130 pounds. With her mother’s encouragement, Laurie, 36, began considering bariatric surgery options. But she was hesitant—worried about her pre-existing condition and wondering if she could commit to such a lifestyle change.
In June 2012, she attended a free information session at Brigham and Women's Center for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery (CMBS), an all-inclusive program offering a medical evaluation, laparoscopic surgical options, and lifetime support by surgeons, dietitians and psychologists. “There was really no other choice for me than the Brigham,” she said, citing the hospital’s stellar reputation. “I heard Ashley Vernon, MD speak and later talked with her about my concerns. She spent a long time explaining options and answering my questions.”
In preparation for surgery, Laurie attended the CMBS Bariatric Forums, monthly informational meetings where former patients shared stories. “I wanted to hear the good, the bad and the ugly,” she said. Because gastric bypass surgery can cause gastrointestinal issues in spina bifida patients, Laurie opted for less invasive, laparoscopic sleeve gastrectomy surgery. As part of her pre-op testing, CMBS consulted with her neurosurgery specialist in spina bifida at Brigham and Women's Hospital. “I felt secure knowing the Center considered me as a total person—physically and emotionally.”
Her mind made up, Laurie chose to have surgery at Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital with Dr. Vernon, December 2012. She recalls saying a prayer with the hospital chaplain before the procedure, which helped put her mind at ease and encouraged her as she went into surgery. Laurie remembers waking in the recovery room with some pain and nausea. “The nurses were right on top of it,” she said, remarking that, once moved into her private room, she was encouraged to get out of bed and walk. “It was clear that surgery was only part of my journey. The rest was up to me.”
Laurie describes her eventual weight loss as a staircase. “I’d drop down five pounds, level off, and then lose again. I knew if I kept doing what I was taught to do, I was headed in the right direction,” she said. She continued walking every day, building endurance and increasing distance. Eventually she walked to and from work—3 miles each way.
Dancing at Zumba classes became a highlight and, when the weather warmed, Laurie started kayaking. Less than one year after surgery, Laurie did what she never imagined was possible: she ran a 5K road race. She had lost 90 pounds and discovered a whole new zest for life. “We only get one body and one life,” she said. “I want to live mine to the fullest.”
An avid traveler, Laurie travelled to Europe and the Middle East four months after surgery. She prepared by meeting with her dietician, Meghan Ariagno, RD, LDN, CDE, to develop a plan for eating while abroad. One of her most cherished highlights was when she boarded the airplane and had ample room to spare in her seat. The other was in Petra, Jordan where she completed two hikes, climbing 1200 steps in one day. “Hiking and stairs had always been a challenge, but they are much easier now,” she said. “I may have lost weight as a result of bariatric surgery, but in life, I have gained so much more.”
Today, Laurie is happy to share her weight loss story—and proud to be part of CMBS. “My journey has been filled with hard work, joy and new adventures,” she said. To remain focused and accountable, she attends post-operative Behavioral Support Groups with psychologist Paul Davidson, PhD . “It’s a small, supportive group of patients who have become my friends. There’s great camaraderie,” she said.
According to Dr. Davidson, research shows that those who participate in support groups experience greater long-term weight loss and satisfaction. “Laurie exemplifies the power of the encouraging social network of our bariatric patients,” he said. “Taking advantage of our groups as a means of staying focused and sustained by her peers, Laurie benefits from what the group gives her, but contributes so much in return. She has the gift of lighting up a room, and she frequently inspires others to achieve more than they ever imagined.”
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