Post-Op, Learning to Use a New Stomach

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This winter, a writer living in Washington, D.C., underwent gastric bypass surgery. To learn why he decided it was only option left, please read the first part of this ongoing series here.

What to say about the first two weeks after surgery? Most of us will have had a major procedure at least once in our lives, and the recovery is roughly the same. The anesthesia takes time to wear off. The body adapts to a traumatic incursion; blood sugar fluctuates rapidly; the immune system gets busy trying to simultaneously battle the inevitable opportunistic bacteria and healing the wound. My wound is about four inches long. Even hours after surgery, it looked no different from a large, slightly irregular paper cut stretching from an inch below the sternum to a half inch above the navel. My surgeon was kind enough to stitch it up from the inside, plastic surgery-style. In a year, it'll be a slightly off-color mark, barely noticeable (I hope!) on the beach.

I pleaded for forbearance: please let me try some pureed food ... something substantive, like grits or oatmeal.

My relationship with food changed immediately. At first, I wanted none of it. I could barely tolerate the smell of anything with more than a gram of sugar on it. For two days in the hospital, I lived off intravenous fluids. For four days at home, I ate nothing and drank only a little. Before the surgery, I had been a voracious consumer of the Smart Water brand. I use voracious advisedly: I was diabetic, and therefore constantly thirsty. I could gulp down 16 ounces of water in a single swig. After surgery, I can't stand the expensive mineral water. My GI tract is profoundly offended when I drink it, and it usually responds to the incursion by forcing it back up. It's never pleasant to learn that your body now objects to certain types of water. Fresca, which no longer tastes as refreshing as it once did, and caffeine-free Diet Coke -- these I could handle well before I was supposed to be able to handle them.

By the Saturday after surgery, I was sick of drinking only codeine. Having arranged for my partner to take some time off of work to care for me, I granted him dictatorial powers over my life for those few days. I pleaded for forbearance: please let me try some pureed food ... something substantive, like grits or oatmeal. He said no; I went behind his back. The oatmeal stayed down. It's become the staple of my diet for no other reason than that my new stomach seems to process it well.

Over the next few days, my food choices expanded. I had half a small cup of Greek yogurt. I was able to digest pureed chicken, which, surprisingly, retains its taste, especially if it is cooked fresh. I cheated a little, mixing some light salad dressing and shredded cheese into my two ounces of strained tuna fish. It stayed down. Salad dressing was totally contraindicated until six weeks after cutting. But not for me! I rejoiced in my triumphs over the wisdom of bariatric surgery doctors everywhere.

These are the early victories we celebrate. They compensate for just as many defeats. Getting out of bed was extremely painful for a week. I weighed more post-surgery than I did pre-surgery -- it took two painful, dyspeptic days for the water weight to skedaddle. During my waking hours, I had hoped to spend the post-surgery respite catching up on some light reading. I found I could not concentrate on a newspaper headline. I tried watching TV. The food commercials didn't bother me, strangely: I felt disconnected from the reality they were selling. I popped in some DVDs, but found that laughing was as painful as moving from a sitting to a standing position. For every Arrested Development sight gag I happened to enjoy I felt as if someone was stabbing me from within.

My mind wandered to darker places. What am I missing at work? Why did I do this? Why do bariatric patients have a higher chance of dying in their first post-surgery year than others? What if the pain never goes away? I really, really crave a piece of pizza right now...

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Samuel T. Stanley is a pseudonymous reporter living in Washington, DC. More

Samuel T. Stanley is a pseudonymous reporter living in Washington, DC. Earlier this winter, he received gastric bypass surgery at George Washington University hospital. He is re-learning how to enjoy food.
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