While most people make it through gastric-bypass surgery safely, some suffer painful complications and a small percentage never make it out of the hospital. Here are the stories...

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While most people make it through gastric-bypass surgery safely, some suffer painful complications and a small percentage never make it out of the hospital. Here are the stories of three such patients.

A close call

Donna Sherrouse says the surgery cost her nearly everything.

At slightly more than 200 pounds, the school administrator living in Barrow, Alaska, decided to undergo gastric-bypass surgery after meeting Tacoma surgeon Dr. S. Ross Fox at an obesity seminar there.

“He took hold of my little finger and looked at me and whispered ‘size 6,’ ” she says. “And I was like a size 12 when I was born, so he was offering a golden opportunity.”

She flew to Tacoma for the surgery in June 2000 and planned to stay a couple of weeks to recover and perhaps do some shopping in Seattle. But a severe infection caused by an internal leak after the surgery left Sherrouse in a coma for three months.

Her husband, Al Sherrouse, still chokes up when he recounts the day his wife, whom he calls “Shorty,” woke up. It was his birthday, Aug. 27.

“I walked through the door, and she was propped in bed and her blue eyes opened. It was the best birthday present I’ve ever had,” he says.

She remained in intensive care for an additional three months with her intestines so swollen and infected that doctors kept her splayed open, her gaping incision covered only with gauze. A thin skin graft and bandage were all that encased her insides when she left the hospital Dec. 1.

Fourteen operations and almost one year after her gastric bypass, doctors were finally able to sew her back up.

By that time, the couple had lost their jobs, home and retirement savings. “We’ve now got about another 22 years before we can retire,” says Al Sherrouse, who’s approaching 60 and starting a new career in New Hampshire, “but at least I’ve got Shorty with me.”

Donna Sherrouse is slimmer at 150 pounds, but her voice catches when she thinks about the price: She is bankrupt and still too weak to pick up her grandchildren.

Her malpractice lawsuit against Fox is scheduled for trial in October. Fox refuses to comment on the lawsuit but says Donna Sherrouse suffered from a complication seen in a little more than 1 percent of patients.

Half the size

One grueling year after surgery, Mary Miller of North Bend says she has no regrets.

Last February, the now svelte 28-year-old’s scale read exactly twice her current weight of 148 pounds. Though her story has a happy ending — complete with a wedding — she says it’s far from a fairy tale.

“I had a rough three months. I regretted it every day,” she says. In tremendous pain and hardly able to move, she spent a month unable to eat a bite without heaving it back up.

Then, four weeks after her initial surgery, she had to be cut open again for emergency gallbladder surgery; the rapid weight loss had destroyed the organ. She suffered from severe dehydration and developed a lung infection.

Her planned two-week recovery stretched for nearly three months, causing her to lose her customer-service job.

And like 30 percent of people who get the surgery, Miller suffers from fatigue caused by severe anemia that she must treat with vitamin B-12 shots and iron pills.

“The scary thing about that misery is you don’t know where you will end up,” she says.

But the rapid weight loss kept her spirits up. Last September, when she was able to wear a size large wedding dress instead of a triple X, she says the months of pain became worth it.

“This is the best decision aside from marrying my husband I have ever made in my life,” she says.

Deadly consequences

Steven Steen opted for gastric-bypass surgery for a chance at a healthier, longer life, but he died before he left the hospital.

At 365 pounds, Steen suffered from serious health problems, including high blood pressure, diabetes and an enlarged liver.

At 41, it was looking as if Steen would meet the fate of several of his relatives, including his mother and siblings, who died from heart problems in their 40s. But he met his death another way.

The Boeing data technician underwent the surgery Sept. 10, 1998, also with Fox, who performs more stomach-reduction surgeries than any other doctor in Western Washington. But a leak where the small intestine was joined to the newly created stomach pouch caused a massive internal infection that took his life three weeks later.

Steen’s wife, Susan Steen, settled a wrongful-death lawsuit against Fox last summer. Again, Fox declined to comment on the case.

Julia Sommerfeld: 206-464-2708 or jsommerfeld@seattletimes.com