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Surgery was a life-changing experience
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Heather Zehring, 15 months after gastric bypass surgery. As a result of the surgery, she's lost 156 pounds -- more than half her body weight. (MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel)
A growing number of Americans are turning to gastric bypass surgery to help them lose weight and improve their long-term health. One St. Paul woman who had the operation a year ago found that losing half her body weight altered much more than just her waistline.

St. Paul, Minn. — Some kids dream of becoming firefighters. Others fantasize about joining the circus. As a child, Heather Zehring always imagined she'd grow up to be fat.

"My brother and I used to play fat people when we were young," says Zehring. "We would pretend to be fat people leaving the grocery store, and then we'd bump in to each other and our pretend groceries would spill all over and we'd fall on the floor. So I guess that's karma coming back and punishing me."

Zehring was actually a normal-sized kid. But by the age of 27, her childhood premonition had come true, and the St. Paul resident weighed more than 300 pounds.

Today, Zehring works at Woodbury Elementary School as a teacher's aide. It's a job she never would've considered a year ago. In fact, she was uncomfortable pursuing most forms of employment.

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Image Heather before surgery

"The thing that would always stop me was the thought of having to buy clothes for the job. There's a point where it doesn't matter if your stripes are horizontal or vertical, you're still going to look fat," Zehring says. "I didn't want to have to put on skirts that had waists the size of kiddie swimming pools. And I didn't want to have to wear nylons because I didn't want my thighs to be scratching against each other as I walked down the hall.

"I had all these images of what a fat person was, and I didn't want to put myself in these situations -- where I'd become the thing that I was worried about," she says.

Zehring typically visited the grocery store at midnight. She didn't want to share the aisles with the spandex-clad women who stopped by the supermarket after their morning workouts. And she didn't want crowds of people trying to peek into her cart to see what kinds of foods fat people buy.

"I would buy a sheet cake, and that would be all I ate for like three days. Sugar was always a big thing for me, and it made me feel rewarded to eat sugar," says Zehring. "So I thought, 'If it's a reward to have sugar, then I'll just be rewarded all the time. It'll be great.' And especially cake, it's like a birthday cake. It'll be my birthday every day.

"Sometimes I would buy candles with the sheet cake and then just put them somewhere. Once I tried to buy a sheet cake and asked them to put somebody's name on it. But I was just going to inhale it at home. It wasn't anybody's birthday," she says. "Sugar was so important to me. I always wanted to make sure I had enough sugar in the house, and I would worry about running out."

But that anxiety was nothing compared to her fear of dying at a young age. She knew overweight individuals were at risk for everything from high blood pressure to heart disease. And she knew her affection for food was becoming dangerous.

It's good to accept yourself for not having a perfect body. But it's not like accepting brown eyes over blue eyes. If you're heavy enough to not be able to sleep at night, then it's time to stop accepting yourself.
- Heather Zehring

"I knew that there were some people somewhere who don't have this attachment to food -- people who eat food when they're hungry, and when they're not hungry anymore, they stop eating," says Zehring. "And for me, it was about satisfying something else. My comfort and my safety and my solace was food."

In March 2002, at the age of 29, Zehring went in for laparoscopic gastric bypass surgery. Doctors reduced her stomach to the size of an egg to restrict the amount of food she could take in.

Fifteen months ago, Zehring weighed 312 pounds. She couldn't climb more than eight stairs at a time. And she crossed her fingers that the XXXXL shirts she bought over the Internet would fit.

Today she weighs 156 pounds. She can't believe how close her bones are to her skin. And, much to her constant surprise, she can now bake blueberry muffins without feeling the need to devour them all the minute they come out of the oven.

"When I passed from morbidly obese to obese, I was thrilled. When I became merely overweight, I felt, 'My God, this is something else,'" she says. "And when I became a size 18, I really thought I was a supermodel. I really thought that was the greatest thing in the world."

Although she's thrilled by her new size, Zehring sometimes misses the soft rolls of fat that used to hang from her sides. She says they were the perfect excuses for why she didn't have that high-paying job or that ideal husband. But now that they're gone, fitting into the world is much easier.

"I didn't like to sit outside at restaurants, because they always had those plastic chairs and I felt like they would break," says Zehring. "Airplane seats were the worst. Even some airplane seat belts wouldn't buckle. When I'd get off the plane, I'd pull the seat belt so it looked like I had been able to buckle it and have extra room. I just didn't want the evidence of it just sitting out there in the open of just how much girth I had."

On this spring day, Zehring is moving out of her parents' house. She's moving in with her first real boyfriend.

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Image Making muffins

"A year ago today, I had just gotten back from the hospital and I had a drainage tube in my side. I never thought I could do this."

When she was overweight, Zehring assumed people would look at her in disgust. But, in reality, they just didn't look at her at all.

"I did feel kind of invisible sometimes. I felt like I could go in and out of the crowd without being noticed. Kind of like a superhero. A really fat superhero," she says.

"I did worry about what would be wrong with men -- to go out with me as a very heavy person. I really did feel a definite change when I started to feel like I was a thin person," says Zehring. "It didn't have too much to do with weight. It just had to do more with me accepting myself and expecting people to accept me. Before, I expected them to look down on me or be disgusted or other terrible things."

Back at Woodbury Elementary, Zehring supervises sandbox time. She's working with special needs pre-schoolers, trying to help them expand their comfort zones.

"It was surprisingly easy to get a regular job. A year ago, it would have just been so terrifying. I feel more useful now," she says. "It's not necessarily the fat that dragged me down, it's everything that got me to being so fat that dragged me down. That became symbolic. When I lost that, I was able to deal with a lot of other things, and I came out of my cocoon.

"It's good to accept yourself for not having a perfect body. But it's not accepting brown eyes over blue eyes. If you're heavy enough to not be able to sleep at night, then it's time to stop accepting yourself," she says.

Like any major operation, gastric bypass surgery comes with serious risks. Up to 20 percent of patients need followup procedures to address complications. Zehring's been lucky. Her biggest challenge is remembering she no longer weighs more than 300 pounds.

"I still walk really slowly and I still shuffle my feet. I recognized somebody as walking the same way as I do, and I looked up and she was morbidly obese. I still walk like a fat girl. I wonder when it's going to wear off," she says.

"Even though I'm not really fat anymore, I identify with fat people more than any other person. They're my race, fat people. And I think I'll always feel that way."

In a little over a year, Heather Zehring lost half her body weight. She got a new job, a new boyfriend, and, as the gastric bypass brochures promise, a new lease on life. Now she's just trying to overcome her weakness for Diet Coke.

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