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Lake Placid Half Marathon vet trims down for future race

Lake Placid News editor decides to have bariatric surgery to lose weight

Lake Placid News Editor Andy Flynn, center, crosses the finish line of the 2014 Lake Placid Half Marathon at the Olympic Speedskating Oval with his twin brother Steve, left, and childhood friend from Tupper Lake, Daniel Roy. (News file photo — Lou Reuter)

Chalky. Gritty. The Bariatric Fusion multivitamins in my mouth don’t necessarily live up to the promise of “tropical” flavor. Still, it’s chewable and “complete.” Just what I need to help me prepare for bariatric surgery next week.

I can still taste the vitamins when I sip my pink, strawberry protein shake. Thin. Lumpy. I refuse to dirty a blender three times a day just to get liquid protein in my body. Instead, I dump a scoop of flavored whey isolate powder in a glass and use a spoon to mix it with 8 ounces of water. Nothing fancy. Just enough to get it in my stomach.

The shake helps wash down my daily medicine: an anticoagulant (Warfarin) so I don’t get life-threatening blood clots like I did in 2017, meds for blood pressure and gout, and a large dose of vitamin D3.

All this because I let myself reach an embarrassing 499 pounds last June. That’s my highest weight.

Lake Placid News Editor Andy Flynn walks on Main Street during the 2015 Lake Placid Half Marathon. (News file photo — Lou Reuter)

Lake Placid Diet

Six years earlier, in 2015, I was about 100 pounds lighter and walked the Lake Placid Half Marathon. A year before that, I was walking the half marathon for the first time — smiling, confident. It was all part of the Lake Placid Diet, my weekly column in the Lake Placid News designed to explore a community approach to losing weight.

I had started at 470 pounds in mid-December 2013, about a month after coming back to the LPN as the editor. By late winter, I was training for the half marathon, and by the time of the race in June 2014, I was down to 390 pounds. I barely made the six-hour cutoff to finish the race at the Olympic Speedskating Oval. The next year, I shaved one hour off my race time without even trying.

These are some of my biggest Lake Placid Diet success stories. That and losing up to 88 pounds in less than one year. My biggest failure was gaining all the weight back, and almost 30 pounds more. The weight gain began after my second half marathon and steadily continued — 425 pounds by October 2015, 440 pounds by January 2016, 470 pounds by June 2016, and an emotional roller coaster ride of weigh-ins ever since.

Lake Placid News Editor Andy Flynn poses on May 1, 2022, at his Saranac Lake home for a “before” picture, 30 days before his bariatric weight-loss surgery date. (Provided photo — Dawn Flynn)

I don’t have the exact weight, but I guess I was about 470 pounds when I almost died from pulmonary embolisms and a blood clot near my heart in September 2017, just before my 48th birthday. I was walking around with a cane by then, a necessity that continues today.

The last time I wrote a Lake Placid Diet column was in May 2020, a couple of months into the pandemic. The title: “Just because you’re not dying, doesn’t mean you’re not hurting.”

“I’m fine. I’m good. I’m well. How are you? That’s what I say when people ask me how I’m doing,” I wrote.

“Truth is, I’m not fine, I’m not good, and I’m not well.”

My wife and I didn’t have COVID-19, and I was counting my blessings at the time. Yet I was being honest and open about my emotions.

“I’ve gained 26 pounds in the past 12 weeks — 9 pounds in the last week alone — and that is not good,” I wrote. “It’s a personal crisis. My mental health is not the best right now, and my anxiety is up — way up.

“But I still tell people I’m fine. I’m good. I’m well. I don’t want to trouble them with my problems. After all, we all face demons, and we’re all going through problems right now with the social distancing lockdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic.”

After getting my weight down to 440 pounds by Jan. 7, 2020, I started the new year with a renewed effort to shed the weight. By the end of the month, I was down 7 pounds. But that’s as far as I got. By mid-March, the pandemic hit. I hardly went out. I worked from home. I didn’t exercise. I ate too much. Like many Americans, I gained a lot of weight. By mid-July, I was up to 470 pounds again. By Jan. 12, 2021, I weighed 483.

‘Rock bottom’

Three days later, in the darkness while in bed, I made a note on my iPhone. I wasn’t considering suicide, but I felt as though there was no hope I would ever be healthy again. I was in a lot of pain. This depression went far beyond my weight gain and the problems it was causing me; it was an existential crisis. I’ve been afraid of death for most of my life, but at 10:52 p.m. Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, I was ready to let go.

“I give up,” I wrote. “I have nothing to live for. I wish there was a purpose to this life. But I have not found it yet. I hope I find it soon. I am going downhill fast, physically, mentally and spiritually. I feel as though my days are running out on this earth. Goodbye. I love you. Peace be with you, now and always.”

Obviously, I did not give up, even though I felt that way at the time. This was more than the mid-winter blues. It was a cry for help — yet I’ve never told anyone about it, until now.

My second bout of depression in 2021 peaked on Memorial Day, Monday, May 31 — exactly one year before my bariatric surgery. Again, I wrote a note on my iPhone about my feelings:

“This is what rock bottom feels like. I’m lying in my bed, on my back, unable to move much at all. It’s 9 o’clock in the morning, way past the time I normally get up. Even though it’s a holiday, I feel guilty about being in bed this long.”

I had weighed myself a day earlier — 494 pounds, the highest I had ever been up to that point.

“I’ve spiraled out of control with no end in sight. I fight this every day and lose every battle.”

Bariatric surgery revisited

Three days later — on the morning of June 3 — I went to the hospital with abdominal pain. It was my appendix. Later that day, I had emergency surgery to remove the appendix before it burst. During a followup visit with the surgeon, Dr. Michael Hill, he suggested bariatric surgery — one of his specialties.

I had already contemplated bariatric surgery years earlier — twice attending the information sessions. In the summer of 2017, I joined the program, but after more than a month of hand wringing and soul searching, I quit. I decided it wasn’t for me. I didn’t want to “mutilate my body,” as I put it, in order to lose weight. Plus, I wasn’t ready to give up the foods I loved or the Guinness and Jameson Irish whiskey I enjoyed on St. Patrick’s Day.

Yet after Dr. Hill removed my appendix, I was more open to having other bodily parts rearranged to improve my health. I remembered his surgical team trying to move me — at almost 500 pounds — from the hospital gurney to the tiny operating room table. It was still vivid in my mind. I was embarrassed. I never wanted to go through that again.

So, in early July, I attended my third bariatric surgery information session at Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake. I ignored the regular sales pitch — that this surgery was the only proven way I could have long-term weight loss and add years to my life. Instead, I was more focused. I had real questions. How would the surgeon manage my blood thinner during the operation? When can I get the surgery?

Three to six months was the answer to the last question. It was a promise I kept close to my heart. Eleven months later, I’m finally having surgery. I spent most of those months jumping through hoops: getting a series of tests, meeting monthly with the bariatric nurse, seeing the hematologist, cardiologist, physical therapist, nutritionist and Dr. Hill. I also spent a lot of that time worried that I’d never have the surgery; I was losing my patience. But I’ve jumped through my last hoop and received approval from my health insurance company earlier this month.

I’ve been familiar with bariatric surgery for years and wrote about it for the Lake Placid Diet in 2014, interviewing a coworker who had undergone bariatric surgery and lost a lot of weight. Since then, I’ve spoken with many friends about their bariatric surgery experiences. Many say it’s the best decision they’ve ever made. Bariatric surgery is one of the community resources we have in the Olympic Region for people who are morbidly obese. It’s a tool, not a magic bullet, and it’s far from easy. While I wasn’t ready to have the surgery before, I am definitely ready now. I’m afraid and excited at the same time.

I see bariatric surgery as the beginning of my new life. Earlier this year, I wrote some notes on my iPhone about saying goodbye to my old self:

“My old self has to die, and I have to be born again.”

Who is the new me? I’m not sure yet, but answering that question will be part of my personal reinvention.

I’m ready for my new self. In fact, I’m morphing as I write this. But it’s not just the physical; it’s the mental, the spiritual, the emotional. I’m developing a new relationship to food, and I’m searching for ways to replace those overeating moments with new hobbies, more reading, more quality time with friends and family and exercise.

The nitty gritty of surgery

It all goes down Tuesday, May 31 — my surgery date. I’ve decided to not have the regular gastric bypass surgery — what they call the roux-en-y. Instead, I plan to get the duodenal switch (DS) — in two phases. First, I get the vertical sleeve gastrectomy (VSG), where the surgeon removes about 80% of my football-sized stomach and reduces it to a banana-looking sleeve. This reduces the amount of food and liquids I can consume at one time. Then, after nine months, I decide whether to get the DS done — rerouting the gastrointestinal tract to cause malabsorption. Most of what I consume, including fat and protein, will not be absorbed. Yet the carbohydrates will be absorbed, so I’ll have to be careful with any sugary and starchy food: bread, rice, desserts, etc.

It’s Sunday, May 22, as I write this, and I’m almost ready for surgery. Those chalky multivitamins and protein shakes are part of a two-week diet to shrink my liver — which sits above my stomach — so it won’t be in the way during the laparoscopic surgery. It’s basically all I can do personally to reduce the risk of complications.

That and stick to the blood-thinning plan my hematologist drafted — weaning my way off the Warfarin before the surgery so I don’t bleed out, and restarting it right after surgery to prevent blood clots — a real danger for anyone having surgery and for me anytime. This “bridging” process will require me to give myself shots of medicine (Lovenox) in the belly four times a day — two shots in the morning and two in the evening — to get the right dose. The Lovenox — the bridge between therapeutic levels of Warfarin — is another type of anticoagulant that helps reduce the risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which could lead to pulmonary embolism (PE).

On Thursday, May 26, I will get tested for COVID-19, get blood work done, attend another bariatric class and meet with Dr. Hill. It’s the first day I stop my Warfarin and two days before my shots begin. I resume the Warfarin when it’s safe right after surgery.

My two-week preoperative diet consists of protein shakes, high-protein substitutes such as Greek yogurt and cottage cheese, fruit, and an evening meal with 4 ounces of protein, three servings of non-starchy vegetables and one serving of fat (I’ve chosen cashews and almonds; 6 of each is a serving). I have daily goals: Consume between 1,000 and 1,200 calories a day; get at least 80 grams of protein; take multivitamins; eat every three to four hours; and drink liquids between meals “to prevent hunger.” Needless to say, I spend a lot of time being hungry.

I have to consume at least 64 ounces of non-carbonated, sugar-free liquids each day. They can include water, Crystal Light, broth, sugar-free popsicles, sugar-free gelatin and tea and coffee (in moderation).

I started the 14-day pre-op diet two days early, just so I can tweak it for my schedule. That was the biggest learning curve; juggling all my dietary requirements in my busy newspaper schedule. The timer on my phone helped remind me when it was time for the mid-morning or mid-afternoon piece of fruit, lunch at noon and the 4 o’clock protein shake. I start the day with a shake around 7 a.m. and have dinner around 6 p.m. I rarely have the final shake at the suggested time of 8:30 p.m.; it’s too late in the day for a meal.

On Monday, May 30, I stick to an all-liquid diet and stop taking the shots. After midnight, nothing is consumed. I’ll find out Monday what time to be in the hospital the next day.

Emotional roller coaster

Despite trying to stay positive, I’m drawn to YouTube videos of VSG and DS patients. I see the good, the bad and the ugly — the highlights and success stories, the challenges and the complications. I hear about deaths and near-death experiences. I see bodies that have shrunk and become healthy. It gives me hope and it scares the hell out of me at the same time. It’s hard to look away; I’m continually searching for other people’s stories so I’m mentally prepared.

But, as my mother says, all the worrying in the world won’t help prevent what’s going to happen — good or bad. So why worry?

Easier said than done. Thanks, Mom. It’s the thought that counts, and even though I know you’re right, it’s impossible for me not to worry.

Still, she knows I need the surgery.

“You’re a walking time bomb,” she said last month. “It’s a matter of life and death at this point.”

Forget the bucket list of things to do before I die; I just want to be able to tie my sneakers again; put on my socks without help from a machine; fit into my car again; stop using the cane; and walk from Point A to Point B without stopping so often or sitting down. I want bathroom functions to be easier, and I want less pain. Above it all, I want to survive my 50s … and beyond.

It’s an unwritten rule. You must have “before” and “after” pictures for any weight-loss journey. My wife took my “before” picture on May 1 in our living room, wearing black shorts and a white T-shirt, holding a cane, my legs and feet swollen with fluid. I was 481 pounds two days later.

I think the key to seeing a thinner “after” picture will be to solve my emotional eating problems and successfully create a new relationship with food. After all, my old relationship was deeply flawed and potentially deadly.

After surgery, I’m not sure how I’ll handle the smell of burgers and fries from McDonald’s, barbecue ribs or Chinese food. I imagine it will be extremely difficult. I’m going to miss the foods I won’t be able to eat anymore — chicken wings, potato chips, pizza, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream — and the beer and whiskey.

In the months leading up to surgery, I had an unhealthy bout of “last-chance syndrome,” a series of last meals with comfort food in large portions. These last meals — which lasted on and off for months — didn’t help me physically prepare for the bariatric surgery. I rarely got below 480 pounds.

My weekly weigh-ins have continued since the Lake Placid Diet began, but during the pre-op diet, I’ve been stepping onto the scale daily. The beep of the electronic scale — when it’s ready to reveal my weight — is all too familiar. It’s a sound I’ve dreaded for years.

After the beep on Tuesday, May 10 — the weigh-in before my final “last meal” on Saturday, May 14 — I recorded another high number: 490. I started my pre-op diet on Sunday, May 15, weighing in at 488 pounds. By the following Sunday, I was down to 469 — 30 pounds less than my highest weight. I hadn’t been 469 pounds since September 2020.

On Tuesday, May 24, I was at 467 pounds.

In addition to positive thinking and setting realistic goals, another key to my successful weight loss will be exercise. I figure walking will be the keystone of my post-op physical fitness plan.

I’d like to eventually walk the Lake Placid Half Marathon again — maybe next year, if all goes well.

This year’s race is on June 12. In the meantime, I’d like to finish the Lake Placid Classic 10k in October. And on Sept. 9 — my 53rd birthday — after a lot of hard work, I’d be extremely proud to give myself a gift — the first of many “after” pictures documenting my weight-loss success story — at the finish line of a 5k race during the Old Forge Marathon Weekend.

After two weeks of recovery, I look forward to seeing you on the other side.