Undergoing surgery to combat a bulging waistline may seem drastic but hundreds of obesity sufferers are doing it every year. Today West Yorkshire mum Alison Mason opens her heart about how a gastric bypass helped her lose weight – and get her life back. Jo Rostron reports.
"SHE'S a big girl isn't she," joked the stranger. The words rang through Alison Mason's ears. Crippled with depression, the 38-year-old had hidden away at home for 10 months. But that night, friends and family had persuaded Alison to go out and socialise for the first time.
"This lady commented and I just flipped. It just hit home. It had taken me ten months to get out on a night out and then that happened. It was then that I thought I really needed to do something about my weight."
After the births of her three children Daniel, 19, Emily, 10 and Libby 23 months, Alison began to pile on weight.
On leaving school, Alison weighed 12 stone 4lb but at her heaviest she tipped the scales at 21 and a half stone.
Years of slimming clubs, tablets and diets ensued – but still the weight refused to budge.
"I used to have no energy before my operation and my weight would really get me down. I would avoid leaving the house and if I did go out, I would always take the baby so that the pram would hide my size.
"I had always been active and went out and about but then when I had Libby I had depression. I put on weight when I had the kids and it was ruining my life."
Alison, of Popeley Road, Heckmondwike, heard about the operation at BUPA Hospital Leeds from a mum at her children's school.
"I never thought I'd be able to afford it. Then I heard you could have it done on the NHS. I was clinically obese. I got to the stage where I could not go out of the house. People think if you are big it's your own fault but I've tried everything."
Husband Andrew, 40, tried to boost Alison's confidence.
"He was under pressure. He had to do all the shopping and everything because I wouldn't go out. He really felt for me because he knew how much it all got to me. I became introverted and lost all my confidence – I wasn't the person he had met and married."
Alison visited her GP to discuss the procedure and was then referred to have the operation on the NHS in August.
"The operation has been a complete success and the recovery period was so quick. I went into the hospital on the Friday, had the operation on the Saturday and was home on the Monday.
"Within a week I started to get back to normal and two weeks later I was able to do everything as usual."
It's now been three months since the op and Alison has lost a staggering four and a half stone.
"I have got my life back. Andrew thinks it's great because we are so active now. We go out walking and do things with the kids."
The gastric bypass is a type of surgery where the stomach is reduced in size. Alison underwent a laparoscopic gastric bypass – keyhole surgery.
So instead of the copious packets of crisps Alison was eating, she now sticks to just a few.
"I have been eating everything that I would have done before – I just eat much smaller portions. I am following my consultant's advice to the letter and haven't tried chocolate since. You cannot get too much down otherwise it hurts and you're violently sick."
Alison says the surgery has changed her life and added: "My energy has also increased dramatically and we are even planning on going skiing next winter which is something I would never have been able to consider doing before. My advice to anyone in my situation is not to worry and just go for it!"
l Over 30,000 deaths a year are caused by obesity in England alone.
l The condition costs the NHS an estimated 500 million a year.
l The overall cost to the country is estimated at up to 7.4 billion a year.
l People are classed as obese if they have a body mass index over 30. They are overweight if it is 25-30
l Adult obesity rates have almost quadrupled in the last 25 years.
l Now 22 per cent of Britons are obese and three-quarters are overweight
l The number of obese children has tripled in 20 years.
l Obesity can lead to health problems, including arthritis, heart disease and diabetes
Leeds' specialists fighting fat
A STREAM of medics have headed to Leeds this week as part of plans to expand facilities across the UK to fight against obesity.
The city is the "centre of excellence" for carrying out gastric bypass operations with a trio of experts seeing patients from all over the country.
For consultant surgeons Stephen Pollard and Simon Dexter and Professor Mike McMahon are part of just a handful of specialists who focus on this type of work.
And this week will see scores of hospital staff attend the Leeds General Infirmary Bariatric Surgery Course - headed by Prof McMahon.
He told the Yorkshire Evening Post: "If there are two and a half million people who have no choice but surgery in order to get them to lose enormous amounts of weight, you can imagine the enormity of the problem.
"It's vital that in just about every NHS trust in the country, they are able to provide this type of surgery."
Dieticians, anaesthetists and nurses are all part of the teams from hospitals who attend the courses which feature lectures and video links to live surgery.
"They do this for three days, they go back and then we try to go to them and help them set it up. It's expanding rapidly."
When the course first started up just a handful of medics would attend. This week up to 70 professionals are expected to flock to Leeds.
Consultant surgeon Stephen Pollard, from St James's Hospital says he does about eight gastric bypass operations a week. Some on the NHS, some are private.
For private patients, prices start at 10,800 - and the heavier you are, the more expensive it gets.
Since starting in 1994, Mr Pollard has carried out about 1,500 operations.
"We got more and more referrals because it's so effective and as a result we got flooded with waiting lists which got longer and longer. So it was decided to close the number of referrals and we haven't been able to take new patients."
However, the floodgates are set to open once more and the team will take both NHS and private patients.
The latest batch will have to go through a series of stages which could take up to a year. There will be an assessment, then patients could be referred to slimming groups, dieticians, exercise classes - anything to help them lose weight.
"We want to make sure we have explored all other options first and those hardcore ones left will then go ahead and be offered surgery on the NHS."
The procedure combines reducing the size of the stomach with a safe degree of bypass of part of the small intestine. This operation gives better results than standard stomach stapling and does not carry the risk of liver disease seen with pure bypass procedures.
The op results in the patient only being able to manage smaller meals, their bodies have a poorer absorption of calories and they have less craving for sugary foods . The result is massive weight loss.
But how safe is the procedure?
In over ten years of carrying out the operation, Mr Pollard has seen four people die.
"I have done 1,500 and I have had four deaths - that's just a fraction. There would have been pre-existing heart problems and the stress of the surgery would have tipped the balance."
TV programmes about the operation have also prompted an influx of requests from the surgeons who have toured hospitals across the country to deliver talks about the procedure.
Mr Pollard said: "This will be as available as hernia repair. Obesity is almost as common as gall stones. It's not something you can just set up and do, you have got to have the tackle and equipment to look after heavy patients.
"There are hospitals who already want to do it and I would like to think that this will happen on the NHS more and more."