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Everything to lose

Woman undergoes surgery to combat severe obesity

Posted: Sunday, January 23, 2005

 

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  Mason performs in the Sing from the Heart contest this summer at the Peninsula Center Mall in Soldotna. She says singing has been good exercise for her lungs. Photo by Jenny Neyman

Lori Mason displays a pair of pants that are the same size as the pants she used to wear. She said getting rid of her old clothes was one of the first things she did after she started losing weight.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Lori Mason doesn't feel much like her old self these days, with good reason — she's a mere fraction of the person she was three years ago.

After undergoing gastric bypass surgery in November 2001, the 5-foot, 2-inch central Kenai Peninsula woman who says she once was about as wide as she was tall lost 247 pounds and gained a new lifestyle she never thought possible.

Mason, who lives on Gaswell Road with her husband, Dan, said she's always had a weight problem.

"I'm Italian. That sums it all up."

Growing up in southern Texas, she said she was an overweight child and teenager. Her outgoing personality, sense of humor and quick smile garnered her friends but did not make her immune to ridicule and name calling because of her size.

"I was always jolly on the outside but crying on the inside because I always wanted to be the cheerleader, not the girl that all the boys wanted to be friends with," she said.

She met and married Dan Mason in Tex-as and the two followed her relocated family to the central Kenai Peninsula in 1991. After the move, her weight went from being a self-esteem-limiting nuisance to a debilitating medical problem as she eventually hit 365 pounds.

She went from one diet to another, willing to try anything, but none produced lasting results.

 

Lori Mason is pictured about two months after her surgery. She had already lost about 60 pounds.

Photo courtesy Lori Mason

Her best results came from the diet drug cocktail Fen-Phen, which was later taken off the market after it was discovered the "Fen," fenfluramine, caused lung and heart valve damage. Mason's doctor was reluctant to let her try the pills in the first place and finally made her stop taking them. Mason did suffer slight heart valve damage, but she also lost 60 pounds.

"I was scared but I was losing weight. I didn't care."

The allure of a quick cure to her obesity proved too strong to allow her to take small steps in modifying her diet and lifestyle to lose weight slowly, but for good.

"There is no quick cure," Mason said. "I had 250 pounds to loose. How long is that going to take at three pounds a month?"

Mason put on so much weight she was confined to a wheelchair. The excess weight led to other problems — severe asthma, joint stress, painful bouts of gout, high blood pressure and sleep apnea, a breathing disorder often associated with obesity where excess tissue constricts the airway while sleeping.

During the day Mason had to be on oxygen every two hours and puffed on inhalers in the meantime. At night she had to wear a special air mask over her nose to combat the sleep apnea. Being claustrophobic to the point where she doesn't even like to wear sunglasses, the mask was torture for her.

"When you can't look forward to going to bed at night, it's a bad thing," Mason said.

Despite her medical conditions and lack of mobility, Mason was able to attend classes at Kenai Peninsula College.

Mason credits her mother, Jackie Mize, for motivating her to get a degree.

"(Mom) wanted that for me at a early age, and life took me different places," Mason said.

The two had an argument once about what Mason was doing with her life.

Out of frustration, "Mom said I would never do it," Mason said. Turns out that's a great way to motivate a stubborn Italian.

"I was bound and determined to do it," she said.

It sometimes took her 20 minutes to get from the parking lot to KPC buildings, having to stop frequently to rest and use her inhalers. She spent three weeks in the hospital during finals her senior year in 1996, but by taking tests on her own and doing make-up work, she still managed to graduate magna cum laude with a degree in psychology.

"My mom's got me through a lot in life," Mason said.

Her husband has gotten her through the rest.

As Mason's condition worsened over the years, she became increasingly dependent on others. It got to the point where she couldn't put on shoes or hold her arms up long enough to brush her hair.

"He did everything for me that a spouse should not have to do," Mason said.

Throughout their marriage, Dan and his wife have been a team, Dan said, whether that means being in a band together or managing Dairy Queens — as they did in Texas — raising kids or him forgoing a North Slope job to care for Mason.

"It was pretty much like taking care of an invalid, I suppose," he said. "... When I got married, like they say, it's for better or worse. That's just the way I am. She's the world to me, so I take care of her."

Mason's mobility became so limited she'd sit in one spot unless Dan helped her go somewhere. At home if she wanted to cook she'd sit at the kitchen table and he'd bring her whatever ingredients she needed.

 

Lori Mason takes her grandson, Eli, from Mason's mother Jackie Mize during a visit to Mize's house.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"If you put two people on your back and try to get up and walk across the room, that's what it was like," she said.

At her worst point, her blood pressure was constantly within stroke range, she'd had congestive heart failure at least five times and was averaging six cases of pneumonia a year, Mason said.

"I did everything I could to make it though a day. ... It was awful. I didn't know what to do. I couldn't exercise. Even if I tried to monitor my food consumption, it was too far gone. My metabolism was at a negative. I didn't even want to try anymore."

In 2000, her breathing got even worse. So little oxygen was getting to her brain that she passed out. When paramedics got her to the hospital, the carbon dioxide level in her body was measured at 107 percent, a sign she should be dead, Mason said.

"We lost her in 2000 in intensive care at (Central Peninsula General Hospital)," Dan said. "The doctor came from behind the curtain and I asked her (about Mason) and she didn't even answer me, she just looked at the floor and walked passed."

"I'm not one to believe in things like this, but I actually went to the other side," Mason said. "It was a strange, strange experience."

She said she remembers knowing it wasn't her time to die and that she had to return to consciousness.

But she didn't want to go back.

"I didn't want to live another moment the way I was," she said.

It all comes to (by)pass

That bout convinced everyone involved that something needed to be done immediately to get Mason in control of her weight and health.

"Until that point where she slipped away, I guess I had it blocked it out," Dan said. "When that happened, the reality just hit me."

Mason had been researching gastric bypass surgery and became convinced she should do it. She found a doctor in Anchorage who performs the surgery and in November 2001 she had her insides rerouted in a RNY gastric bypass procedure, allowing food to travel through a stomach pouch that had been altered to be about the size of an index finger and bypass much of the rest of her digestive system.

The smaller stomach size means Mason can only eat about a cup of soup or half a sandwich at a time, and the digestive track bypass means she only absorbs about one third of the calories. She must eat several small meals a day loaded with protein to get the nutrients she needs. Overeating is an ever-present risk that carries serious repercussions. If she eats too much, too fast or the wrong foods, such as too much fat or sugar, it triggers a reaction called dumping. With a one-ounce-size stomach, one bite can be enough to trigger the reaction.

"For about two hours you feel like you're going to die. You're shaky, lethargic, nauseous and have cramping," Mason said.

Adjusting to her new eating regime was a challenge, especially at first. She came home from the hospital a few days before Thanksgiving.

"Probably the hardest thing I've ever done was walk into my mother's house with a least 30 people there and every kind of food from my childhood and I had to sit there with my protein drink," she said.

From her former life as "a big carnivore," meat no longer has any appeal for Mason, and she often has to keep track of when and what she's eaten so she doesn't forget and go without.

"There's no hunger. I still don't feel it. Never have. I have to make myself eat," she said.

With all the medical problems Mason had going into the surgery, she said her chances of coming out of it without any complications were about 50-50.

"I had not one problem. Things just fell into place. It was this wonderful puzzle. I thank God every day that I wake up. The only thing I regret is I wish it had happened to me sooner," she said.

'Every day

is a great day'

Immediately after the surgery, Mason began shedding pounds. Within a week she lost 12 pounds, within a month it was 60 and within a year she shed 150. In the next year she lost another 100 pounds and has been maintaining her size-three frame since. Now at 47, Mason is living a new life filled with a vigor she hadn't felt in a decade.

People who see her now can hardly believe she's the same woman. Even her kids, Damien, Joshua and Donovan, had a hard time adjusting to their diminutive mother. Joshua, who is stationed in Iraq with the Army, came home on leave a year after Mason's surgery and didn't believe Dan when he pointed Mason out at the airport.

"He went, 'That's not my mother," Mason said. "He was able to pick me up and swing me around."

As the weight came off, her health problems began to clear up. Her breathing improved to the point where she no longer needed the oxygen tank or the dreaded sleep apnea mask. Her blood pressure lowered and her joint pain went away.

"It's a total change. It saved her life, getting this surgery she had," Dan said. "She was on about 20 medications a day. Now she don't take anything. There's no breathing machine, it's totally different. Every day is a great day."

Since her health has im-proved, Mason's life has become full of activities she never though possible — walking long distances, jogging up flights of stairs, horseback riding and being well enough to have a job. She works as a personal care assistant for an elderly woman through Frontier Community Services.

Mason also devotes time to music. Singing has become a kind of physical therapy for her. Her mother gave her a karaoke machine as a college graduation present, and Mason used it strengthen her lungs. After her surgery, one of Mason's brothers talked her into entering a singing contest at the Duck Inn, in which she tied for first place.

"I got excited about singing because it was something I always wanted to do," she said. "I remember singing in front of the mirror with a hairbrush."

 

Mason performs in the Sing from the Heart contest this summer at the Peninsula Center Mall in Soldotna. She says singing has been good exercise for her lungs.

Photo by Jenny Neyman

Mason's sister talked her into entering the Sing from the Heart talent contest this summer, where she placed third. The lungs that once could barely provide enough oxygen to keep her conscious now give her enough air to belt out songs like "Rocking in the USA." Her latest musical project is Headwater, a southern rock and country band she, Dan, her older brother, Clark, and a friend have started.

Clothes shopping has become a new favorite pastime for Mason, though at first she bought clothes that were too big because she hadn't come to grips with her new shrunken size.

"It took about a year of looking in the mirror before I did not see a fat person," she said.

The psychological adjustment has proven to be the biggest hurdle the surgery presented for Mason.

"The emotional part of it was extreme. Even though I had surgery, I was still a fat person on the inside. I still wanted a burger and fries, even though it would have killed me at first."

Though it's been difficult at times, Mason says she wouldn't trade her new situation.

"It's all great. I can't complain about a thing — except my husband telling me to slow down," she said. "I wanted to go, wanted to live, wanted to go out there and experience everything I never could."

Dan's protective side has relaxed somewhat as the two have adjusted to their new lifestyle together.

"You can't put that out of your mind," Dan said of how sick Mason had been. "When you see somebody go as far down as she did, I get a little concerned. She's like a Tasmanian devil around the house. It's totally different, between night and day what she can do now."

Mason is getting better at pacing herself as she's become accustomed to her new health and energy, but that doesn't mean she takes it for granted.

"I wouldn't change it for the world, not the world. I love it."



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