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Keith and Sara “Can Live a Life” Again After Gastric Bypass Surgery

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Keith and Sara Johnson at Universal Studios Florida
Keith and Sara Johnson visited Universal Studios Florida in the fall of 2023, less than one year after they both had gastric bypass surgery.

Local outings are fun again and the Johnsons can enjoy thrifting and riding rollercoasters after having lost a combined total of 370 pounds through gastric bypass surgery (Roux-en-Y). Sara, 35, had been morbidly obese her entire life. Keith, 39, had packed on the pounds as his activity levels dropped over the past 20 years. It’s been 18 months since their surgeries and their future looks bright after years of worrying about each other. 

“We actually feel like we can live a life,” Sara said. “Before we made this change, it wasn’t easy. It hurt to move; we didn’t have the energy.” 

Obesity Caused Dominoing Health Issues 

Three years ago, Sara was working as a nurse on the medical-surgical floor at Aurora BayCare Medical Center in Green Bay. She could make it through the day, but it was painful and completely wiped her out. Her asthma attacks had gotten progressively worse.

“Sara’s asthma, probably once a month at that point, was uncontrollable. She’d be laying down in the evenings and she was wheezing,” Keith recalled. 

In addition to her asthma attacks, Sara’s blood pressure was bordering on hypertension and she suffered from acid reflux.

Sara and Keith Johnson before their gastric bypass surgeries.

Meanwhile, Keith was working in the shipping department at LaForce and was constantly on his feet throughout the day. When he got home, he’d need lots of ice packs. 

“The miserableness of trying to walk around was starting to take its toll,” Keith said. “I was realizing how heavy my legs were and how hard it was to move around. Not having any flexibility was just terrible.” 

Keith described his health as falling dominoes – hypertension, a hernia, acid reflux that had him vomiting every morning, and severe sleep apnea.  

“It seemed like every year I was getting a different pill I would have to take for a different issue, and it was always related to my weight,” he said. 

Both Keith and Sara would just lie around in the evenings or go to bed early because they didn’t have the energy to do anything else. 

“I wouldn’t say we weren't happy – because we love being with each other. But when you're not really able to do much because you're physically exhausted every day, it's not great,” Keith said. 

Weight Loss As Their Shared Solution 

In December 2021, Keith had COVID-19 and Sara was extremely worried about him. As a hospital worker, she knew Keith’s obesity put him at a higher risk of dying.

“That's when I realized how good Sara's poker face was,” Keith said. “When I started feeling better, she was like, ‘You were so close to going to the hospital. I was so close to probably saying goodbye to you.’”

“It brought more awareness to the fact that we’d really have to change our lives if we wanted to be together for many, many years to come,” Sara said. “[Weight loss] has to be something for both of us, not just one of us.”

The medical-surgical floor at Aurora BayCare Medical Center is where the bariatric patients recover from surgery, so Sara knew bariatric surgery was an option. She just hadn’t brought it up yet.

“I had thought about it for probably a couple of years, even before this point, and mostly because I knew I was overweight,” Sara said. “But I knew Keith was really overweight and I worried about him long term and our life together.”

Keith, who wasn’t sure he’d make it to 40 at that point, had always assumed bariatric surgery wouldn’t be covered by their insurance. But Sara noticed a change in coverage for 2022 did include it for the couple.

“We were both at the appropriate level of miserableness, so it didn't take too much convincing with me,” Keith said. “I told Sara, ‘If we if we can get it covered, let's go tomorrow.’”

Within a week, they had their first appointments scheduled at the Aurora BayCare Bariatric Surgery & Medical Weight Loss Clinic.

Keith and Sara Johnson before their gastric bypass surgeries.

The Bariatric Program Sets Keith and Sara Up for Success 

Keith and Sara met with Mara E. Schuh, NP first to learn about the bariatric program and get their binders. The information in these binders lays out exactly what a patient should expect, from nutrition and exercise to surgical options and life after surgery. It became the Johnsons’ playbook to success. 

But the playbook doesn’t do much without a team of coaches to help the patients navigate gameplay. Mara built trust early by solving Keith’s severe acid reflux issue. 

“During my first appointment with her, she suggested a medication; and within probably two weeks, my acid reflux was no longer an issue,” Keith said. He had brought it up to four primary care doctors previously and hadn’t found a solution. 

“She fixed you!” Sara said. “And I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can stay married to you – you’re not going to puke every morning!’” 

Mara guided the Johnsons through their first set of appointments, which included meeting with nutritionists, an exercise therapist, a psychologist, and having a sleep study done. They started to change their diet and commit to making a full lifestyle change. 

Since they both suffered from acid reflux, they also had to have an upper gastrointestinal endoscopy (EGD). That’s when they got to meet Dr. Daniel T. McKenna, MD, FACS, who would eventually be their surgeon. 

“Once we both met him, we're like, ‘Absolutely we want this guy. Like, he's our guy now, he's gonna be stuck with us,” Sara said. 

Keith and Sara only got to see Dr. McKenna three times before he performed both of their gastric bypass surgeries, but he was very thorough and made them both feel comfortable with their decision. 

“It was like he could read my mind,” Keith said. “I felt like I was the proper candidate if he was answering all of my questions before I could ask them.” 

Keith and Sara Have Gastric Bypass Surgery 

Seven months after their initial appointments, on December 2, 2022, Keith and Sara had gastric bypass surgery. At that point, they had collectively lost 244 pounds already by working with the bariatric team on their nutrition and exercise. 

The day started out sweetly when the pre-op nurses put them in adjoining rooms. This was the first time they could recall a married couple having bariatric surgery on the same day. 

“They wanted to make sure that we could be close to support each other before and after our surgeries,” Sara said. “I knew immediately that we were going to be fine.” 

Dr. McKenna did Sara’s surgery first, and Keith’s second. Everything went well during both surgeries, but their recoveries were a little different. Sara had gas pain that prevented her from lying down and Keith couldn’t sit up because his skin would pull on the incisions. 

“So, she's sitting up in the living room on the couch, and I'm lying in the bedroom,” Keith said. 

“We were both like, ‘Are you still OK over there?’” Sara said with a laugh. 

After a few days, both were back on their feet. 

Recovering and Relearning 

The recovery journey was more about relearning how to live for Keith and Sara, and learning how to eat with their new stomachs was quite the challenge. 

“Initially I had some of the head stuff – remembering I needed to eat to live, not just to eat because I want to or because it's in front of me or because I'm sad or because I'm happy,” Sara said. “I need to eat to sustain my body.” 

That’s where all the work she and Keith did before surgery came into play. The habits they formed together in those seven months help them stick to the game plan. 

“Having the restrictive stomach just reinforced that so much more,” Sara said. “Now I gotta eat what's good for me because I ain’t got room in there anymore!” 

“We have to eat smaller portions more frequently throughout the day,” Keith said. “Because if I get hungry, I know I'm gonna end up eating too fast.” 

Sara also struggled with her self-image as people around her complimented her weight loss. 

“I appreciate that they're complimentary, but then it's also like, ‘Umm, what you think about me before this?’” Sara said. “A lot more of the mental health side for me was harder.” 

Keith’s love for thrifting came in handy as they updated their wardrobes. While it had been something only he enjoyed, Sara has grown to love it post-surgery too. 

“I think I'd still be lost in the woods on how to dress myself if it wasn't for Keith,” Sara said. “He was so supportive in that and took me thrifting and said, ‘Well, why don't you try this on? Why don't you try that on?’ And we still do it to this day.”

The Johnsons are proud of how far they've come on their bariatric program journey.

Support From an Army 

Through all of this, Dr. McKenna, Mara, and the rest of the team at Aurora BayCare Bariatric Surgery & Medical Weight Loss are cheering Keith and Sara on. 

“It definitely takes an army, and they’ve got it,” Sara said. “And they just care about you.” 

“They want you to be successful,” Keith chimed in. 

Mara is still one of Keith’s favorite people ever. 

“The way she listened to me and was able to figure out my acid reflux, and anything else I asked about…she’s amazing at her job, that’s for sure,” Keith said. “Nothing felt too embarrassing to ask her.” 

“She’s so welcoming and nonjudgmental that it's just easy to come to her with whatever you have,” Sara said. 

The Johnsons will have lifelong check-ins with the bariatric team at scheduled intervals. This will help ensure Keith and Sara are getting the vitamins and nutrients they need, while keeping their mindsets on track to continue succeeding. 

“If ever we have questions, we just message Mara and she's usually back to us, a lot of times, within a couple hours,” Keith said. 

Sara is now a nurse lead in labor and delivery at Aurora BayCare Medical Center and she sees Dr. McKenna in the hallways occasionally. 

“He always asks how Keith and I are doing. I feel like we’re actually humans to him and everyone on his team.” 

She and Keith have also leaned on each other a lot and grown as a couple through the process. 

“I feel like there's no way I would have done it without him. It's been great for us and our marriage and our life together,” Sara said. “It's really cool to see how much has changed for us.” 

“Yeah, it's nice when you can get home and, when dinner time comes around, you're both on the same page,” Keith said. “We know what we need to do, so that’s what we do.” 

Reflecting on Their Gastric Bypass Journey and Loving Life Today 

Sara and Keith have maintained their weight loss, which has also fixed their joint pain, hypertension and acid reflux issues. Keith’s sleep apnea is less severe, and Sara’s asthma has improved. They give a lot of credit to the bariatric team for preparing them for all the changes bariatric surgery comes with and teaching them how to keep a healthy mindset. 

“The team there made it successful for us and the most amazing thing in this whole experience was their support,” Sara said. “Even the things you don't think about, like what happens with your body and what happens with your relationships. In every piece of your life, they're there to support you.” 

But the actual work is on Keith and Sara, and their advice is to understand your “why.” It’s what has propelled Sara through the tough times. 

“For me, it was our health, looking at the long term, ‘What does our life look like together?’” she reflected. “And trust the process.” 

“You gotta be willing to do the work,” Keith said. “If you’re not happy with your life and the way it’s going or the prospects of your future, it’s the way to go. I’m going to make it to 40 now. That was very questionable after COVID.” 

Now, he’s reminded daily of how far he’s come.

“I don't know how many times in my workday someone asks, ‘How did you lose all that weight?’”

“With lots of work and lots of help,” Sara said.

“It’s just so dramatic how active I can be now, and how much less stressful in general everything is,” Keith said. “I don't have to worry about having to have that mobility for X amount of time and trying to conserve some energy in case I want to be able to do something later.”

Sara’s goal was to be healthy and to improve their quality of life.

“Truly, it was never a number on the scale that was important to me,” she said.

Life is fun again for Keith and Sara Johnson after they lost 370 pounds together through gastric bypass surgery.

A Positive Domino Effect 

The decision Keith and Sara made to change their lives through gastric bypass surgery dominoed into positive change for their families. 

“[Keith’s] mom said at one point, ‘Sara, thank you so much for doing this.’ And I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ And she's like, ‘I don't have to worry about Keith every night anymore.’” 

“And,” Keith said, “Sara's mom lost so much weight she was able to get two new hips.” 

“Yeah. So, it's just cool to see that like, yes, we made a change for ourselves, but we were able to inspire others,” Sara said. 

Keith and Sara always have something on the calendar now to look forward to. They’ve already enjoyed a trip to Florida, where Keith took a nap by the pool without his CPAP machine and Sara didn’t worry about him at all. And then, there were the amusement parks. 

“We actually rode rollercoasters,” Sara exclaimed. “Which is something we’ve never been able to fit on.” 

“Every single one where you pull the bar down to see if you fit in there, I fit without even being uncomfortable,” Keith said. 

“That was a huge game changer,” Sara said. “We ran around parks all day and we were OK. That is a whole new type of vacation that we can experience now. It was incredible…and so strange.” 

“Walking down a street used to be so taxing, but we walked around a theme park all day without needing a bench,” Keith said. 

Whether thrifting, strolling the farmers market, planning their next adventure, or catching up with friends, Keith and Sara love the life they’ve worked so hard for. 

“We don’t sit still anymore,” Keith said. “We’re always doing something and going somewhere.” 

Published: Wednesday, May 22, 2024