Anne Arundel County

Couple takes on weight-loss surgery together

When Shelby Saum first met Joseph Ayers through a game-playing club, neither one of them had a weight problem.

But the Hampden couple sure did 12 years and three children later.

There they were last year, Shelby, 35 and an Army contractor, inching toward 300 pounds and hardly able to think about anything else. And Joe, 39 and managing operations for Direct TV, popping blood pressure pills and pulling up at drive-through windows.

Joe simply ate too much and the wrong things. When he trudged through the snow last winter, just a couple of blocks to the Giant, he struggled to breathe on the way back and felt pain in his chest, arms and legs. He made it home but was scared to death, thinking it might have been a mild heart attack.

It was comfort eating for Shelby. When she was bored or stressed, she'd reach for her calming drug of choice — Starbucks java chip ice cream. Often it seemed like the only good part of the day was the Royal Farms fried chicken she'd fetch on the way home.

So on the first day at her new job, when leafing through the insurance packet, Shelby almost did a double-take when she saw bariatric surgery was covered — 100 percent. She immediately e-mailed Joe, writing, "Can you believe it?" He wrote back: "Let's pick a date."

A study released earlier this year found that having gastric bypass with a family member increased both patients' chances of success.

The study by New Jersey's Robert Wood Johnson Medical School followed 91 patients — people who had surgery with siblings, parents, spouses, grandchildren, cousins, etc. — and compared the results to members of a control group with similar body mass index, age and gender.

The family members lost more weight than patients who had the surgery alone. It was the support system that made the difference, researchers concluded.

Joe and Shelby are best friends. They turn to each other — more so than any of their friends, or even their family. "We're a team," she says. "When we have problems, we deal with them together."

In gaining weight, they were each other's worst enablers, and to get it off, they each knew they couldn't do it alone. Together, last spring, they went to a bariatric program orientation at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, remaining hand-in-hand for BMI tests, blood work, a sleep lab and four months with a nutritionist.

They booked June surgeries to get lap bands — hers Friday, his Monday. The closest they could get.

With the procedure, the couple would have silicone rings inserted around their stomachs, drastically reducing the amount of food the organ could hold. Though the surgery would be non-invasive and relatively painless, the aftermath would be anything but.

Before Shelby's surgery, the couple went to Golden Corral for a last all-you-can-eat hurrah, their plates piled high with portions they might never again experience. In the initial days after the operation, they also shared the shock of a liquid diet and then the grim, bland reality of pureed protein.

"I would have been a lot more miserable had she not been here," Joe says.

In just four months since the surgery, the couple has lost about 40 pounds each. Joe's once 46-inch middle has diminished enough to have him shopping for pants with a 38-inch waist, and Shelby is wearing things that haven't fit for years.

They bolster each other's spirits and reinforce each other's willpower.

Joe will call Shelby from the McDonald's drive-through, telling her, "Shelby, I really want a sweet tea." And she'll dissuade him from the sugary drink saying, "Think about those 38 pants."