ST. CHARLES — Gary and Vickie Pierson recall how they lay side by side on gurneys at DePaul Health Center two years ago, awaiting gastric bypass surgery.
"We were scheduled about an hour apart the same day," Vickie said.
"We do everything together," Gary chuckled.
Together also means having gained hundreds of pounds during their 14 years of marriage before the surgery. And together they took more than 700 pounds into the operating rooms.
Vickie, who is about 5 feet 6 inches, went into surgery weighing 314 pounds. Gary, about 6 feet, went into surgery at about 400 pounds.
Today, they see it as the best together time they've ever spent.
She's lost more than 160 pounds and now weighs 149. He lost 183 pounds and is below 220.
Gary had problems during surgery, so he had another surgery in April 2009, after he lost about 40 pounds.
Gary and Vickie were large when they got married 16 years ago.
Vickie, 55, said, "I battled my weight my entire life; I'm a very emotional eater. Food is comfort; food is love."
The weight gain for Gary, 56, started 10 years ago, after a traffic accident left him with the immobility of chronic leg and back pain.
"I was teaching and coaching and keeping ungodly hours; I didn't eat right, didn't get enough exercise," he said.
They decided on gastric bypass surgery at the same time.
"We had a forehead moment," Vickie said. They spent two months studying the surgery and cleared it with their medical insurance company. They chose the SSM Weight Loss Institute at DePaul Health Center because it was close to their St. Charles home.
Gastric bypass surgery is the most radical of weight loss surgeries. It permanently reduces the size of the stomach and reconnects the stomach to the intestine in a way that decreases hunger.
Stephen Scott, director of the SSM Weight Loss Institute, said people also opt for the bypass surgery because a byproduct is it clears up metabolic problems.
For example, the surgery cured Gary's diabetes, lowered his blood pressure and cholesterol level immediately.
But the downside, besides the risk of infection from surgery, is that it is irreversible. Dietary changes are permanent, meaning no carbonated drinks or full-strength fruit juice. People must eat high-protein, tiny meals, nibbling throughout the day rather than eating big meals. With the loss of hunger, people often must be reminded to eat.
"But considering the long term (problems with) obesity — diabetes, heart attack, hip and knee replacement — this is a better alternative," Scott said.
The National Institutes of Health recommends the surgery for men who are 100 pounds overweight, women who are 80 pounds overweight or people with a body mass index (ratio of height to weight) of 40 or more.
After the surgery, Gary dropped 150 pounds in the first year. He lost an extra 17 pounds with the removal of 20 square inches of sagging stomach skin.
"But the new energy and feeling better was worth it," Gary said.
He found himself up mornings walking three to four miles, "with my iPod and earbuds. I get out and walk around the neighborhood."
Vickie dropped 100 pounds her first year and an additional 60 pounds this year. But adjusting to the new eating restrictions took a year, too, she said. For example, she became lactose intolerant and had to find a brand of milk that wouldn't make her sick. "Now I drink about a half-gallon a day," she said.
The Piersons eat small high-protein meals of food such as peanut butter, chicken and any lean meat.
"But you can't eat and drink at the same time," Vickie said. "There's no room. I schedule my eating and drinking times through the day."
Gary said, "I eat what I want and if it bothers me, I leave it alone."
Otherwise, "Cravings go away," Vickie said. "I haven't been hungry in 16 months.
"That's the biggest change. Your body is in charge, not your mind."