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Gastric bypass truly saves woman#039;s life

With the increasing popularity of gastric bypasses, many would attest that the surgery has "saved their lives."

But when Angela Shoemaker says it, it's quite literal. Thanks to an unusual twist, without the surgery it's likely she wouldn't be here today.

"I had two kids, and basically I gained weight with the first kid, didn't get it off, had another kid, over a gradual period of time I had put on quite a bit of weight," Shoemaker said.

Shoemaker, supervisor of imaging at the VA Medical Center in Huntington, said that she had tried everything to get the weight off, though the fad diets would work temporarily, she said that she would invariably gain the weight back, and then some. Finally, she decided to cut the string of the yo-yo diets and find a more permanent solution.

The Chesapeake resident had often considered a gastric bypass, but still had her reservations. Though gastric bypass surgery has gotten progressively safer in recent years, there is still the risk of death, and other less drastic side effects.

When a close friend had the procedure, she followed her progress very closely and after monitoring her friend for a year, Shoemaker's fears were quieted enough to undergo the surgery.

"I had a lot of apprehension because I'd heard it was unsafe, and that you could die from the surgery," Shoemaker said. "All those things are true, but when I saw how her quality of life had improved and how much happier she was, I decided that it was something that I wanted to pursue myself."

Shoemaker decided on the most common gastric bypass procedure Roux-en-Y gastric bypass or RGB. First, a small stomach pouch was created by stapling a section of her stomach together, which limited the amount of food she could consume. Next, a Y-shaped section of her small intestine was attached to the pouch to allow food to bypass her duodenum which resulted in reduced calorie and nutrient absorption.

In layman's terms, the doctors made her tummy smaller so she couldn't eat as much. By all external signs, the surgery was a smashing success. Shoemaker had the procedure performed on Dec. 11, 2003, and was discharged three days later at which point she weighed 253 pounds. As of this month she has shed 106 pounds. However, despite the stunning weight loss, something was very wrong.

"When I got home, I was really having shortness of breath, which I thought was just a post-op complication, but as the months progressed and the weight came off, my shortness of breath got much worse," Shoemaker said.

Though she felt that something was wrong, no test performed on her could find any sort of problem. That was until her primary care physician order an echocardiogram, after which Shoemaker found out the terrifying truth.

"When they did the echocardiogram, they found a golf-ball sized mass on the left atrium of my heart," Shoemaker said.

The mass, an extremely rare, benign tumor largely composed of blood and muscle called an atrial myxoma, was preventing her heart from getting oxygenated blood to the rest of her body, which accounted for the shortness of breath.

If Shoemaker had not lost the weight before the echocardiogram was performed, it's likely that doctors would have been unable to locate the obstruction due to the additional soft tissue that her body was carrying.

"Had I not had the gastric bypass and lost the weight and detected this, the mass would have grown to totally obstruct the valve in my heart," Shoemaker said, "and I would have been getting no oxygenated blood to my body. By the size of it, it had been growing for two years, and it eventually would have killed me."

Shoemaker's case is, of course, extremely rare, so the likelihood of others considering the surgery having similar results is extremely low. But, in Angela Shoemaker's mind, her gastric bypass surgery gave her a second Š and third lease on life.

"I was so much more active after the surgery, but when they told me that I was going to have to have open-heart surgery eight months after I had had major stomach surgery, I thought, 'I'm going to die,'" Shoemaker said. "But by God's grace he's let me live another day, and my quality of life is so much better now."