Friends use sweat, surgery to shed weight

SHREVEPORT — Leslie Hill isn’t letting up on her quest to lose half her body weight.

The former competitive swimmer gained weight during pregnancy and as a single mother. At her heaviest, she weighed 400 pounds, putting her among the nearly 4 percent of Americans considered morbidly obese.

About 50 million people in the United States set out to lose weight each year. Some try diets. Some change their eating habits and try to exercise more. In 2010, about 160,000 people underwent bariatric surgery, which limits the amount of food they can eat or digest.

Hill, of Stonewall, considered bariatric surgery but decided to take the diet-and-exercise route because of cost and concerns that the weight might not go away permanently. She embarked on a rigorous diet and exercise program supervised by her doctor. She’s lost 150 pounds and is working to shed 50 more.

“I know people who had bariatric surgery, and lot of them haven’t even lost weight,” she said. “But at my heaviest, I remember sitting and being envious of them. I do have a friend who had it and was successful. She runs marathons now.”

That friend — Bossier City native Kristen Clay Ankrom — said she was overweight all her life. Ankrom and Hill met in 2000 while working at a child care center and have remained close, despite Ankrom’s move to Georgia.

Ankrom rejected weight loss surgery at first. She coped with bullying in middle school and limitations as an adult because of her weight but for years tried to shed pounds through dieting. Nothing worked permanently. Her aha moment came during her yearly physical in 2010.

“I stepped on the scale and I weighed 304 pounds. I had kind of a breakdown in my doctor’s office,” Ankrom said. “My doctor knew I had been on multiple diets and I had been on this roller coaster. She mentioned weight-loss surgery. At first I was offended. In the mirror, to me, I didn’t look that big.”

But the more Ankrom researched surgery, the more she leaned toward it. A nurse, she finally decided she didn’t want to become one of the patients she was tending at a Georgia hospital. At age 29, she already was taking medicine for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, a thyroid imbalance, depression and anxiety.

She took the plunge in May 2011. Nearly two years later, she carries 165 pounds on her 5-foot, 9-inch frame. She works out four or five days a week and recently completed a half-marathon. She takes only medicine for her thyroid and vitamins now.

Ankrom credits support from her family and “true friends,” advice from a nutritionist and counseling with helping her make lifestyle changes to improve her overall health. She still sees her counselor occasionally.

“I have actually lost friends,” she said. “There have been comments, ‘You took the easy way.’ It hasn’t been easy. Through the process I actually learned I had a food addiction and I used food to cover up feelings. Right after the surgery, my grandmother passed away, and I didn’t have any way to cope. I couldn’t eat any comfort foods. I started walking, and that’s how I coped, by exercising.”

Hill found support at LSU School of Allied Health in Shreveport and “The Doctors” television program as well as among family and friends. She works out at the School of Allied Health and a fitness center near her home in Stonewall. She’s getting counseling to help her cope with life’s stresses and avoid slipping back into unhealthy eating habits.

“Food was my numbing agent. It was my drug of choice,” Hill said.

Dr. George Merriman II, who specializes in bariatric surgery, recommends that same whole-person approach for patients considering a weight-loss surgery program. His practice also offers a medically supervised weight- loss program that doesn’t involve surgery.

“The focus should be on the word ‘treatment,’ but it’s not a cure,” Merriman said of surgery. “(Obesity) is a chronic, recurring, remitting disease. Surgery is just part of a lifelong treatment protocol.”

Surgery is considered successful if a patient loses at least 50 percent of his or her body weight and maintains the weight loss five or more years.

Intentional weight loss through diet and exercise is considered successful if a person loses 10 percent of body weight and maintains the loss five years, according to research from the National Weight Control Registry.

“I think counting calories is best for me,” Hill said. “I even measure my coffee creamer. My mom was diagnosed with diabetes, so now I count carbs, too.”

Hill hopes to motivate others as she continues her lifestyle changes. Dr. Dee Cochran, rehabilitation services director at the School of Allied Health, has encouraged Hill to seek a health coaching certification.

Cochran continues encouraging Hill when she hits a plateau.

“One day she was discouraged and I told her, ‘Let me get on your back and try to carry me around and you’ll feel how much weight you’ve lost.’ That’s what she’s lost, me plus 40 pounds,” Cochran said.

“I held myself prisoner. I don’t feel like a prisoner anymore,” Hill said.