By the time Katie Peterson’s weight reached 900 pounds, she knew her life depended on bariatric surgery.
She could barely breathe let alone walk. As her weight continued to climb, she spent two years confined to the house and needed help getting out of bed or walking to the bathroom. Getting to a doctor’s appointment required an ambulance crew and volunteer firefighters to lift her out of the house.
Without bariatric surgery, Peterson says she couldn’t lower her life-threatening weight. But when she contacted hospitals in 2021 to request the procedure, they told her she was too heavy for it and they couldn’t accommodate someone her size. About 20 different hospitals turned down Peterson, she says.
“It was really hard. At one point I seriously thought there was no hope,” Peterson, 44, who lives in Lusk, Wyoming, tells TODAY.com.
“I was about to give up… I would probably be dead today. That’s how bad my health was.”
“She would die,” confirms Dr. Robert Quaid, a weight-loss surgeon at UCHealth in Fort Collins, Colorado, was the only doctor who decided to hire her.
“She was in extreme distress, but she was also at extreme risk … when you get to this level[of obesity]it puts a lot of surgeons off.”
That’s because operating on such a large patient poses enormous challenges. Everything from administering anesthesia to inserting a breathing tube is more difficult, says Quaid. Peterson would be his toughest patient ever, but “if I don’t do it, she’s going to die,” he remembers thinking.
Finding Quaid was a total game changer, says Peterson.
Extreme weight was beyond her control
Peterson struggled with weight throughout her life. An emotional eater, she found solace in food when depression and anxiety hit. As the pounds accumulated over the years, she tried different diets, but she always gained the weight back when she lost weight.
In 2006 and weighing 650 pounds, she underwent gastric band surgery, which worked for a while and helped her lose 250 pounds.
But Peterson then went through “a nasty divorce” and her father died suddenly, causing her weight to spike again.
She reached at least 900 pounds at her heaviest, though the exact number is unknown because it was hard to find equipment to weigh her accurately, says Quaid.
“I felt terrible. I could barely walk. My breathing was horrible,” Peterson said.
Medications that helped keep her alive also gave her brain fog. After her family helped her out of bed in the morning, she spent her days on a couch watching TV. Everything in the house, including cooking and cleaning, had to be done for her.
Such obesity isn’t the person’s fault — it’s a disease, says Quaid. Hormones, gut bacteria and body chemicals are different in these patients, causing their bodies to want to carry fat, he adds. Most healthy people would not be able to reach such an extreme weight even if they tried.
“I could force you to eat double your calories every day and it’s not very likely I can get you to 900 pounds because your body is going to take that, regulate itself and figure out a way to stay where it wants and it’s not about being 900 pounds,” he notes.
“She doesn’t want to be 900 pounds and there are a lot of factors that push people to these levels that they have no control over.”
Some of the health problems associated with obesity include diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, sleep apnea and a higher risk of many types of cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Peterson had some degree of heart failure and lung failure because every organ system was affected by her obesity, says Quaid. He feared she would die from an infection, pneumonia, or a blood clot that lodged in her lungs.
‘There is hope’
Peterson underwent a sleeve gastrectomy in May 2022.
The procedure involves removing about 80% of the stomach, including the part that produces most of the hunger hormone, according to the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery. The change affects metabolism, reduces hunger, increases fullness and aids in blood sugar control, the group notes.
The metabolic effects of the sleeve gastrectomy are much more potent and last longer than the effects of the gastric band, which failed in Peterson, says Quaid.
On the day of surgery, it took six people to wheel Peterson into the operating room and two operating beds had to be placed side by side to fit her. Quaid remembers that a huge amount of tissue had to be cut to get into her body, and once he got in it was hard to see because there was so much fat. He credits robot technology for helping him complete the procedure.
The surgery went better than expected and there were no complications.
At her last weigh-in, in November 2022, Peterson weighed 648 pounds — still an extremely high weight, but 250 pounds below her maximum. She now feels full after eating six or seven mouthfuls of food and eats a diet consisting mainly of protein, fruits and vegetables. She can walk better and has been walking circles around her house.
“I feel great,” says Peterson. “Life is a lot easier… but I still have a long way to go.”
Her goal weight is 225 pounds. When she loses weight, she dreams of traveling to Hawaii, Italy and other places in the world.
Quaid expects Peterson to need additional surgery to remove excess skin, which could limit her activity, and to increase sleeve size to encourage more weight loss when her weight plateaus. He expects her to live a normal life and wants other people in her situation to know that they can get better.
“There is something that can be done to help you get out of this horrible disease process,” says Quaid. “There is no such thing as too big [for bariatric surgery.]”
“I just want people to know there is hope for us who are very tall,” Peterson added. “There’s help out there.”