‘I was life-flighted. I had a tube down my throat I didn’t want, so I took it out.’: Woman shares trauma after weight-loss surgery

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“My name is Charity Damron, and on October 8th, 2019, I had a life-changing medical procedure called a vertical sleeve gastrectomy, or VSG for short. In the eighteen months that have followed, my life has been a whirlwind of complications, hospital stays, victories (including scale, non-scale, and otherwise), more surgeries, joys, pains, and so much more. I am really not sure how to put into words how my life has changed, but I will try my best. To get to where we are now, though, we need to start at the beginning. By beginning, I mean way back in 1988. I was born two months premature, weighing 8 pounds, 13 ounces… so I have basically been what is considered morbidly obese my entire life.

While I don’t put much stock in the Body Mass Index (BMI) scale, it is used medically to describe how ‘healthy’ you are… and I have always tipped in at obese to morbidly obese. Throughout my adolescence, I was always severely overweight. I was always active, participating in sports and activities, such as marching band… but it never seemed to help when it came to the scale. Just because I was obese does not mean I was unhealthy. Quite the opposite, actually. I was always very healthy ‘for being obese,’ whatever that means. I never had weight-related medical issues, my weight never really stopped me from living a full life (although, looking back I can see it hindered me in many aspects of my life unconsciously)… and it wasn’t until my husband, Cody, and I decided we wanted to start a family I really took a closer look at what my weight was keeping from me.

My husband and I had decided we were ready to start trying for a baby in 2014, but I hadn’t been ovulating or even had regular menstrual cycles pretty much my whole life. Back in 2011, I had a procedure called a dilation and curettage (D&C) done because I had been bleeding for three months and had polyps in my uterus causing it. I didn’t have a cycle for almost a year, and since then my cycle has been very irregular. In 2014, after trying unsuccessfully for three months and many tests from my OBGYN, I was officially diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome, more commonly referred to as PCOS. We tried three rounds of fertility treatments (which really messed with my hormones and I had raging mood swings each cycle) and had a very serious discussion about how my PCOS would likely prevent me from ever successfully having a baby and my weight could be a factor in this.

Courtesy of Charity Damron

I decided then I would try to lose weight, again, on my own. Now, keep in mind I had successfully lost 50-75 pounds on my own multiple times throughout my life… but it always seemed I would hit a wall, not lose anymore, and start gaining no matter how consistent I stayed with diet and exercise. I was told it would be harder to lose and keep weight off because of my hormonal issues… but I was determined. Throughout the next few years I had again lost 50 pounds, and in December of 2018 we decided to try fertility treatments again. This time we also had Cody checked out by a urologist to make sure everything was good to go on his end, which it was. I did another three unsuccessful rounds of fertility treatments, complete with raging mood swings and an overall feeling of helplessness. I had also started gaining weight back even though I was entirely consistent with my eating and exercising.

It was then, in March of 2019, I decided to attend a seminar at my local hospital for weight loss surgery. I was at my wit’s end when it came to weight loss, and I just didn’t know what to do anymore. I will admit, I had been skeptical of weight loss surgery. I have seen many people in my personal life have the surgery, gain their weight back after a short time, and go back to their old habits. I have also seen people be successful with the surgery, live a more active lifestyle, and seem happier. I just didn’t know which end of the spectrum I would fall into and I didn’t know if I wanted to have a surgery to change what so many doctors had told me I could do on my own if I just tried hard enough.

When I attended the seminar there was a slide that changed my entire outlook on surgery. For me, I was a perfectly happy fat person. Being fat never really bothered me. My husband liked me the way I was, I liked me the way I was, my friends and family all accepted me and loved me… and as I said before, I had been healthy pretty much my entire life. I didn’t really see the need for surgery to make me ‘thin.’ I didn’t need to be thin. I didn’t care, or rather I didn’t THINK I cared what size jeans I wore. While sitting in this seminar, there was a slide that talked about common medical comorbidities associated with obesity, and how weight loss surgery could help. PCOS was one of them. I don’t remember the exact number, and I also don’t believe myself, not at all a medical professional, saying anything about actual medical information… but, it was a pretty high percentage of weight loss surgery patients who saw an improvement in the symptoms of PCOS and fertility in general.

This was it. I was sold. If for nothing else, I was going to get this surgery done to have the possibility open to my husband and I to have our own baby. My insurance had a requirement of six months of supervised diet and exercise with monthly appointments with both my primary care physician and a dietitian. So, in March of 2019, I had my first medically supervised diet and exercise check in. In October of 2018, I had recorded my own personal highest weight of 327 pounds, but in March of 2019 I started the process at 301 pounds. Throughout the next six months, I lost and gained the same 20 pounds, and when I started my three-week pre-op diet in September of 2019, I weighed 300 pounds… and on the morning of my surgery, October 8th, 2019, I weighed 271 pounds… but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Back to March.

Courtesy of Charity Damron

Throughout my six-month supervised diet, our lives changed very drastically. We went from a family of two to a family of five in under two months. My husband and I had become licensed foster parents, and in May of 2019, welcomed twin 13-month-olds into our family. In July of 2019, we welcomed Chiara, an Italian foreign exchange student, into our family for the next school year. We now went from a pretty chill, do-whatever-whenever kind of lifestyle to an always-on-the-go family lifestyle, instantly. Anyone who is a parent knows being a parent to toddlers is very different from parenting an infant or school-age… and we had two at once with no prior parenting experience. To say we were overwhelmed is an understatement, but we survived (as all parents do, somehow), thrived, and made it through those first few months.

As a new parent, my focus had shifted again. I noticed how hard it was for me to keep up with the twins. They loved to be chased around and play for hours on end and I just couldn’t do it. I would get worn out very easily and need to take breaks on family trips to the beach or zoo. So now, in addition to needing this surgery for the chance to have a biological child, I also knew I needed this surgery to help me keep up with my very busy toddlers. Remember how I said our lives changed a lot during my six month supervised diet? Well, in addition to adding new family members, we also needed more space to run around… and on October 4th, 2019, we closed on our dream property and moved in all before the morning of October 8th, 2019, when I went in for my VSG procedure. About 70-80 percent of my stomach was removed, and I was left with what they call a ‘sleeve.’

Before I begin the next chapter of my story, I want it made very clear this is NOT a cautionary tale against weight-loss surgery. Quite the opposite, actually. What happened to me was rare. Very rare. So much so that my surgeon, who has been performing weight-loss surgeries for well over a decade, had never seen it happen before. I pretty much felt like a guinea pig, because no one really knew what to do with my case. It didn’t typically happen with weight-loss surgeries. Looking back on these eighteen months, I would do it all again to get where I am today. Would I change a few things? Sure, who wouldn’t? But the decision to have weight-loss surgery is not something I regret or would change.

My surgery and recovery was pretty textbook. I did stay in the hospital an extra night because my surgeon wanted to be extra careful before going home to two very active toddlers. But by the time I went home on October 10th, I was already feeling pretty good. I was up and walking every 20-30 minutes, drinking my liquids and getting my protein in, and feeling good. The first six weeks of my recovery was very smooth sailing. I returned to work after two weeks, and as an elementary music teacher, I had a school-wide program scheduled for Veteran’s Day that went as planned. We took a family trip to San Diego to visit the zoo and the beach for Chiara. I had already lost almost 30 pounds since surgery, and over 80 pounds overall. Things were going great, until they weren’t anymore.

Courtesy of Charity Damron

The week of November 18th, 2019, we had a lot of appointments scheduled for the new house, including a pretty big inspection for our foster license. Chiara was gone on an out-of-town field trip for school, so that was one less person to entertain the twins. Overall, I just wasn’t feeling my best. I had a low-grade fever and had been feeling nauseous with a few episodes of dry heaving. I was getting the chills and cold sweats at night and I just wasn’t feeling good. I met with my surgeon on Thursday, November 21st, and she ordered some emergency ultrasounds because she was worried my gallbladder was to blame. When everything came back normal the next day, she diagnosed me with the flu and sent me to have a ‘banana bag’ infusion at the outpatient center to prevent dehydration (drink your water, that infusion was no fun).

That night, Chiara returned home from her field trip, and while picking her up from the school I had a terrible episode of the chills where I could not stop shaking. The drive home was terrifying and I kept blacking out and coming to, not knowing where I was. Thankfully we got home safely, but once we got home I was unable to even walk into the house without feeling overwhelmingly dizzy. Thankfully, Chiara was a godsend and took care of the twins so I could sleep while Cody worked. I slept the entire next day, Saturday. I did not get out of bed except to use the restroom. I was extremely thirsty and drank probably over a gallon of water that next day. I was very dizzy and tired and couldn’t stay awake for more than 5-10 minutes at a time. Every time I attempted to get out of bed, I would have to get right back in because I couldn’t walk more than a few steps without feeling like I was going to pass out.

At about 2:30 a.m. on Sunday, November 24th, 2019, I woke up to my heart racing, my body completely covered in sweat, and the worst pain I have ever felt radiating throughout my groin and up into my abdomen, chest, and shoulders. I legitimately thought I was dying. I called my husband at work, and in a freak coincidence he was not physically able to leave right away (and, we weren’t aware of how severe my situation was… I thought I was just having complications with the flu). I sat for the next four hours trying to stay as calm as possible (to this day I don’t know why I didn’t call one of my numerous friends, who would’ve gladly driven me to the hospital any time of day or night), and unsuccessfully lower my heart rate and stop convulsing from the chills. When my husband finally arrived home at about 6:30 a.m., we immediately left for the hospital (if you’re concerned about the kids at this point, they were completely safe and cared for at home).

Courtesy of Charity Damron

When we arrived and I explained my symptoms to the front desk, I was immediately whisked to triage and then back to a trauma room. Anyone who knows how an ER works know if you’re taken back that quickly, it’s probably not a good thing. Nurses began undressing me in the hallway and getting IVs started and hooking me up to all kinds of machines… and this is all I remember. I remember coming to a few times and seeing my mom and friend, Niki, which was strange since my mom lived over an hour away… and then the next thing I remember was waking up in a very white room by myself. I had a tube down my throat I definitely didn’t want there… so I took it out. I remember a nurse come rushing in and then my memory is pretty sketchy for a while. Overall, pretty much everything I am going to talk about now has been told to me and I have no recollection myself.

When I was admitted to the ER, my body was in septic shock… that was why I was having all of those symptoms. Basically, where my new sleeve met my esophagus had popped like a little balloon, and everything I was ingesting was leaking out into my abdomen. I was told just a few more minutes and I could’ve been dead. Honestly, I probably should’ve been dead as long as I waited to go to the hospital. Throughout the day on November 24th, I was taken into emergency surgery (and I have a sweet scar running from my chest to my belly button to prove it) to try and stop whatever was causing the sepsis. A temporary fix was performed, but they couldn’t actually locate what was going on, and my surgeon made the decision to have me flown to a bigger hospital more equipped to handle my case. Again, while I am not entirely comfortable discussing medical details because I am not a professional, I was sedated for a period of time.

I was life-flighted to Banner University Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona. This is where I woke up in the white room I mentioned earlier. I was in the ICU. My parents were there. I remember the first time I looked down at my stomach and was very confused about the ladder-like line of staples holding my entire abdomen together. I couldn’t feel my legs… but they were very shiny and huge (swollen). Overall, I was just very confused as to what was going on. Throughout the next few days, I had gathered information about what had happened for the prior two days (I woke up on November 26th, by the way). I ended up staying in the hospital for three weeks. Honestly, most of my memories from the hospital have been blocked out and I do not like to relive them. It was a very dark three weeks. The doctor in charge of me actually had me speak to a psychologist before leaving the hospital because I was struggling so much mentally.

Courtesy of Charity Damron

Throughout my three-week hospital stay, I had a number of things happen. I had my first ever panic attack, and continuously had them any time I was brought down to the radiology department. I had to relearn how to walk and worked with a physical therapist to learn how to walk on my own and use stairs. I had countless CT scans (seriously, I have never heard the official count), a thoracentesis to drain fluid that had caused my lung to compress/collapse, multiple swallow studies to see if/how the leak was progressing or repairing itself—it never did, two upper GI endoscopies (including corrective action to fix the leak in my sleeve), and a few stays in the ICU because my heart rate was so elevated and it wasn’t safe for me to stay on the MedSurg floor. Overall, I had six drains placed throughout my abdomen, including one I went home with, collecting all the stuff that had leaked into my body.

I had a peripherally inserted central catheter (or PICC) line placed after a few days because I was NPO (which means I couldn’t have anything by mouth—liquid or solid, including water). That PICC line is how I received all of my medication and nutrition for the next couple of months. I did not have a sip of water or bite of anything for almost two months. Everything entered my body through the PICC line. Like I said, those three weeks were a very dark time for me. My parents, bless them, halted their lives for the first week to stay with me in the hospital so my husband could remain in Yuma and care for the kids and continue working. The following weeks, though, I was mostly alone in the hospital except for the weekends when my husband would bring the kids up to visit. I realize that with COVID happening a short time later people have it much worse, but at the time I felt very alone and like I was going through this on my own.

We thankfully have some amazing friends who helped care for the children during those three weeks, and my husband’s employer was very understanding and let him work an adjusted shift while I was in the hospital. Those three weeks were hard on everyone in my family, not just me. When I was released from the hospital, on December 14th, 2019, I went home with a drain in my left side, a PICC line in my right arm, and in a hospital gown, because somehow during the three weeks I was there, my dress I arrived in went missing. My husband drove the three hours somewhat slowly, because every bump hurt my incision…but eventually we made it and started our new normal. I had a home-health nurse who visited and showed Cody how to properly start my TPN (which is total parenteral nutrition…basically, all my vitamins and nutrients) in my PICC line, as well as the numerous antibiotics I was on to treat and help prevent further infections.

Courtesy of Charity Damron

The nurse came once a week to collect blood work, check on my PICC line, and change the dressing. I was still hooked to an IV 20 out of 24 hours a day, slowly weaning down over the next two months to eight hours a day. Throughout December and some of January, I continued to be NPO and had very little energy. I needed a stool in the shower because I would get very worn out very quickly. I pretty much went from my bed to the recliner daily and didn’t do much of anything else, except the three to four days a week I would have to go in for doctor’s appointments to make sure I was progressing. I attended therapy and was told I probably have PTSD from the numerous traumatic events that happened while I was in the hospital (I still struggle with anxiety and panic attacks to this day when I have to attend medical appointments, but thankfully they are fewer and far between). I did have a spot in my abdominal incision that never fully healed and was open (I had to pack it nightly).

Because of COVID, we couldn’t get in to fix it until June of 2020. This was another experience I hope to never have to relive. It made the summer months less enjoyable, because I couldn’t swim or anything with an open incision for risk of infection. On January 8th, 2020, I was readmitted to the hospital for a 48-hour stay in which we would begin introducing clear liquids by mouth. While I was in the hospital, I had multiple studies done to ensure the correction was holding. It was a pretty standard stay, and I went home on clear liquids and moved to full liquids about a week later. For the next month, I worked on increasing my calories and nutrients so I would be able to wean off of the TPN and PICC line. I started getting some energy back and started walking when I was able and slowly getting back into a normal routine of being a wife and mom.

By February 14th I was back to work, and on February 17th, 2020, I had my PICC line removed and was getting my nutrition entirely by mouth again. Throughout those next few months I started to feel human again. My energy was back, I was losing weight again, and I could play and keep up with my kids. We had to say ‘see ya later’ to Chiara, who returned home to Italy in May, but we did welcome an infant in April of 2020 who was placed with our family. So, now I was caring for twin two-year-olds and a newborn…you could say I like to keep busy. Throughout the summer, we took a few trips to visit family (as much as we could with the COVID-19 pandemic) and I was enjoying hiking and overall feeling so much better. My surgeon took it very slowly, and I wasn’t back on a ‘normal’ diet again until July of 2020.

Courtesy of Charity Damron

On the way home from a road trip to Colorado at the end of July, I started having some back pain. I didn’t think much of it at first, just associated it with the long trips we had taken and caring for a newborn. By July 24th, I knew it was more than just some muscle pain, so I called my surgeon’s office to tell them I suspected another leak. I was having similar pain in my shoulder, and my heart rate was a bit elevated. Unfortunately, my surgeon wasn’t seeing patients at the time, so I saw the covering physician (who was not a bariatric surgeon and didn’t know my entire history). I was told it was musculoskeletal and to relax and take it easy for a few days. When things didn’t get any better, I called my surgeon the morning she returned to work, and she immediately had me come in and admitted me to the hospital with a suspected (and shortly thereafter confirmed) recurrence of the leak.

This time it was thankfully caught in time and I only had to stay in the hospital for a week. Another drain and PICC line was placed, but thankfully I got to leave drinking on my own and the PICC line was removed before I was released. I did have another corrective procedure done to fix the leak, but at this time my surgeon said I would need to have a revision done to my original surgery from a VSG probably to a roux-en-y gastric bypass, which would remove part of the remaining portion of my stomach and rework the stoma, which is the opening in which food passes from my esophagus to my stomach. The way it was explained to me, it would move my digestive system from a high-pressure system to more of a low-pressure system because leaks were going to continue to happen if I didn’t get it fixed.

My local surgeon was not able to perform the surgery, so I did have to see a surgeon in Scottsdale who specialized in more high-risk bariatric patients. I went on for the next four months eating a very limited soft diet, not eating any meat at all, and getting my nutrients mostly from foods like cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, etc. We didn’t want to risk another leak before I was able to get my revision done. In preparing for my next surgery, it was also found that my gallbladder needed to be removed because it was filled with gallstones… add that to the list. Throughout October and November, I completed all the necessary pre-op appointments and I was scheduled for my gastric bypass revision on December 1st, 2020.

Courtesy of Charity Damron

The surgery was very high risk. I was warned many times it was highly likely I would have to have an open procedure done instead of laparoscopic… this would mean my current abdominal scar would be reopened, and extended down to my pubic area, and the risk of surgery would increase exponentially. Thankfully this didn’t happen, and they were able to perform the revision laparoscopically. My husband was originally told the surgery would take about 90 minutes… but it took much longer. I was on the operating table for about four hours. My surgeon explained to me it was much more complicated than they had originally thought. In layman’s terms, my sleeve had basically collapsed and folded on itself, preventing food from passing through, which explained why I wasn’t able to get food down and why the leak kept coming back.

The revision was successful, and I went home after two days in the hospital. Again, my recovery was pretty textbook and I was back to exercising and back on track by January. This time, my diet progressed rapidly and I was back to a normal diet by January as well. We did have another scare and hospital stay in February of 2021, in which I was again life-flighted to Phoenix because they suspected another recurrence of the leak… but this time it turned out I just had strep bacteria in my abdomen, which does sound bad, but in hindsight was much easier to deal with than the previous two. I had a drain placed and was on a series of antibiotics, but was able to continue eating and the recovery was pretty simple.

So, here we are in April of 2021. I am officially four months post-op revision and eighteen months post-op from my original weight-loss surgery. Overall, I try to stay off the scale because my weight doesn’t really matter much to me… but I fluctuate from 160-165 pounds, from what I gather. I am wearing a size-8 jeans (down from a size 26 at my highest) and size XS/S top (down from a 4XL at my highest). While the surgery was never about my clothing size, it is much easier to shop for and find flattering clothes now. I enjoy dressing up and find myself caring less about wearing makeup to cover insecurities. As for what the future holds, who knows?! My husband and I do plan on starting to try for a pregnancy this summer (getting pregnant too soon after weight-loss surgery is dangerous, because you cannot get necessary nutrients for you and the baby) and after I have a baby or two (hopefully) I will look into skin surgery. I do have a lot of loose skin, especially in my thighs and upper arms.

So, now, the question I get asked the most… do I regret it? And the answer is no. I do not regret any of this surgery. I am able to run around with my now three-year-old twins and play with them for hours without getting tired. I feel more comfortable in my own skin than I ever have before. I feel healthy (like, I never knew how unhealthy I actually was while obese). Back to that pesky BMI scale, I am still considered ‘overweight,’ but just barely. I started my journey at a BMI of 53 (morbidly obese) and I am currently at a BMI of 25 (24.9 is considered ‘healthy’). I have a healthy relationship with the scale and my relationship with food is ever-improving. I don’t worry about who is noticing me in public because I am fat (again, something I never even realized how much time I spent on).

Don’t get me wrong… I still struggle with body image. I had surgery on my stomach, not on my brain. Mental health is something I am learning to work on every day. I have learned to embrace my scars, as they are a road map showing how much I have overcome these last eighteen months. My current passion is sharing every part of my journey with anyone who wants to follow along. I have an Instagram dedicated to my weight loss journey and family life, and I love connecting with the weight-loss surgery community. I want to help end the stigma attached to weight-loss surgery and normalize it in today’s society. Just like any other medical intervention, weight-loss surgery is helping people live healthier lives. I would love to have you join me and keep up on my journey as I continue to navigate my new life.”

Courtesy of Charity Damron

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Charity Damron of Yuma, AX. You can follow her journey on Instagram, her website and TikTok. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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