Katie Peterson, 44, weighed nearly 900 pounds.
Living in Lusk, Wyoming, a two-stoplight town with fewer than 2,000 people, she had been confined to her home for almost two years. Each morning she moved from her bedroom to the living room couch and then back at night with help from her then fiancé and her 17-year-old daughter.
Like many people with a food addiction, eating made Peterson forget about life, so she’d have half of a pizza rather than a few slices. Chips and dip, cookies, candy — she didn’t care what it was. Eating dulled the pain she felt in her hips, back and legs from years of carrying the weight.
Food smothered her emotions, fueled by a series of traumatic events in her life.
Peterson tried to get help before, calling medical facilities nearby and in neighboring states. But it was always the same answer: she was too heavy — she needed to lose 200 pounds before they would see her.
Desperate, Peterson decided to scour the internet one last time, and a form popped up. She filled it out – name, address, telephone number — and hit the send button. Why not?
“I knew I was already on my way to dying,’’ she said.
A few days later, her phone rang. The woman on the other end gave Peterson a feeling she hadn’t had in years: hope.
Within days, her life began to change.
A large child from the start
Peterson struggled with food addiction since childhood, exacerbated in adulthood by feelings of failing as a wife, mother and a daughter.
She was born in a small town about an hour southwest of Lusk to a teenage mother who put her up for adoption. Her adoptive parents, Steve and Jeanne, lived about 50 miles northwest of Lusk. Their family had homesteaded the area, and Steve ran his cattle and sheep ranch, along with breeding and training Border Collies.
Peterson was a chubby baby; by age 5, she was heavier than her peers. But she loved riding horses, and her father, who seemed to understand her better than anyone else.
“As I got older, I knew I was different from others because of my size,” said Peterson, a 5-foot, 10-inch fiery redhead. “I was born in the late 70s. At that point, it was something you were doing wrong. Obesity was your fault. It wasn’t hereditary. You ate too much.”
Steve and Jeanne had one daughter before adopting Katie. Being adopted was never a secret, but it wasn’t until Peterson was older that she discovered she was genetically prone to obesity and heart disease.
“I’ll be the first to say I have a food addiction. But at (a young) age, you don’t want to hear that. I started at age 12 seeing a therapist, my parents telling me there must be some tragic thing that happened for me to eat the way I ate.”
Food addiction and obesity continue to adulthood
Peterson remained heavy into adulthood.
In 2001, she married her first husband and had a son that July. Her marriage wasn’t happy, and her health continued to decline to the point that she weighed 646 pounds when she found out she was pregnant with her second child. In 2004, Peterson traveled to a Denver hospital for the high-risk delivery of her daughter.
By 2006, Peterson decided it was time to address her weight. The Food and Drug Administration had approved the lap band for weight loss just a few years earlier. Peterson traveled to Scottsbluff, Nebraska, for the procedure. Over the next year, she lost 250 pounds.
“I kept trying to get into the 300s (pounds) but could never break that 400 mark,” Peterson said. “Then I plateaued for a few years. Yes, I was still 400 pounds, but I felt good and could get around. There were a few things, like if I went to a carnival, I was too big for the rides. But I felt pretty good.”
But the marriage wasn’t good. In 2008, Peterson got a divorce. Her ex-husband soon remarried and vanished from her young children’s lives.
With her kids in school, Peterson decided to attend college. She’d always wanted to follow a career in health care and thought she could pursue radiology. She then met her second husband.
That marriage turned out to be worse than the first. Peterson said she endured physical and mental abuse while they lived in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Peterson again started to gain weight.
In 2013, she found her biological father living not far from her. They had just built a relationship when he died of leukemia.
“Things were not going well,” Peterson said. “He (husband) convinced me I was this white girl from Wyoming that didn’t know the country. I like to travel, so we decided to move to Philadelphia.”
Peterson left her two children with her parents for the summer and headed east to get settled before moving the kids out there for the new school year. But the plan caved almost as soon as she got there. She spent two weeks sleeping in her car in the East Coast humidity before she left her husband and headed back to Wyoming.
Her parents helped her get back on her feet.
“I started working again, and things started leveling out.”
Then tragedy struck.
A sense of failure leads to continued weight gain
Peterson was running a daycare in Lusk when she got a call from her father. He wasn’t feeling good. She told him she’d head out to the ranch once the parents could pick up their children.
By the time emergency personnel and Peterson arrived, Steve was dead. He’d suffered a massive heart attack. Doctors told Peterson there was nothing she could have done because the heart attack was too severe. But Peterson still felt guilty for not getting there sooner.
“I beat myself up for years thinking if I’d called 911 quicker, maybe they could have saved him,” Peterson said. “I dove into food like it wouldn’t be there anymore. I kept eating large amounts of things. It was horrible.”
In 2016, Peterson’s then fiancé, who’d also been her caregiver since her dad died, moved in with her and the kids.
“Life was getting back to normal, at least that’s what I thought,” she said.
While Peterson was struggling with her food addiction and emotions from her father’s death, she missed the emotional turmoil her son was experiencing. He was 15 when his grandfather–the only positive male and father figure he had in his life– suddenly died. Being on the ranch with his grandfather was everything to him, but Jeanne couldn’t manage it alone and had to sell.
“That was hard. You have those memories, but the new owners bulldozed everything. My son didn’t take it well,” Peterson said. “I was so wrapped up in my own emotions that I didn’t realize my son was getting in so much trouble.”
The news of her 17-year-old son’s arrest was too much to handle.
“I tried to take my own life by swallowing a bottle of pills,” Peterson said. “My mom and friend got me to the hospital, but no place would take me because I was too big to be transferred to any mental health facility to get me through my situation.”
Lusk has critical care services because it’s home to the Wyoming Women’s Center, the state’s main female correctional facility, as well as having a railroad depot. Its Niobrara Community Hospital offers a 24-hour emergency room and services like infusion therapy, radiology and lab. The adjacent Rawhide Rural Health Clinic provides primary care services. But Lusk lacks access to in-home physical therapy, home care, and in-patient mental health services.
Peterson remained at the hospital until a judge agreed to let her return home to her kids. She had to continue talking with a therapist. While her son adhered to his legal punishment, he refused to talk to his mother for over a year. Peterson’s guilt was immense.
“I again stress ate. I was eating this whole time. From when I woke up to when I went to bed, I was eating something.”
It was then that she reached 700 pounds and struggled to walk. But her Casper doctor told her she must lose at least 200 pounds before he’d perform a weight loss surgery.
“I was depressed. I felt terrible. I was a terrible parent.”
But her son rebounded from his legal challenges, and in 2020, he graduated from high school. They began mending their relationship, and her son’s accomplishments inspired Peterson. She again started her search for help, and that’s when she found UCHealth.
Bariatric surgery challenges overcome
General guidelines to qualify for weight loss surgery
- You must have a BMI of 40 or more, or a BMI of 35 or more, plus a serious obesity-related health problem, such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, or sleep apnea.
- You must be healthy enough to have surgery.
- You will be required to have a psychological evaluation.
- You must have tried to lose weight by other means, such as diet and exercise.
Most importantly, you have to be committed to the long-term process of weight loss. By following the post-surgery recommendations, you give yourself the best possible chance to begin successfully.
When Peterson made her initial trip to meet with bariatric surgeon Dr. Robert Quaid in June 2021, she needed a wheelchair. She couldn’t go down her steps, and her ramp was too steep to safely get down without calling upon a half-dozen local firefighters to help. The men assisted her into the back of her mom’s minivan. The seats had been removed, and for the three-hour drive to Colorado, Peterson had to sit on the floor, facing backward.
At UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital she weighed in at 890 pounds.
“I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t believe I’d let my life go that far where I was almost half a ton,” she said.
Peterson worried Quaid would repeat what other surgeons had said, and she’d be back at square one.
But that wasn’t Quaid’s answer.
“Our philosophy has always been to help the patient,” Quaid said. “The difficult part is the risk, but that’s where we begin the conversation.
“If we did nothing for her, she would die in a short time. That’s the balance. Someone must step up and help, or you leave her alone and she dies at home. And because of our experience in terms of a program and staff, this is not something we or I would normally say no to. Quite the opposite. We’d say, ‘Let’s try to help you.’”
Quaid discussed his care plan with Peterson.
He would perform a sleeve gastrectomy, and try to remove her lap band at the same time. Then after significant weight loss — most patients’ weight loss levels out in about a year and a half — he would go back in and put in a SADI (single anastomosis duodenal switch). That would further help in her weight-loss journey. And after some more time, Quaid said Peterson may want to consider another surgery to remove the excess tissue and skin, which could amount to another 100 pounds.
A sleeve gastrectomy is where surgeons remove about 80% of the stomach, leaving a “sleeve” shaped tube as a stomach and limiting the amount of food that can be eaten. In the SADI surgery, Quaid connects the end portion of Peterson’s small bowel to a duodenum switch near the stomach. This procedure allows food to bypass 60-75% of the small bowel. SADI changes the gut-brain signals and leads to less hunger and feeling fuller.
But first, like any bariatric surgery candidate, Peterson had to make demanding lifestyle, diet and exercise changes to show her commitment to a positive outcome.
Requirements before bariatric surgery
To help guide Peterson on that journey was Michelle Carpenter. As a nurse navigator, Carpenter is there to answer questions, coordinate appointments and nutritional classes, and help patients meet program and insurance requirements. She’s there to support the patient in every way possible.
Peterson needed to prepare physically and mentally for surgery. She attended virtual nutritional classes, support group meetings and saw a therapist. She had to quit smoking and begin focusing on the food she ate and her portions. Over the next 10 months, Peterson and Carpenter talked almost weekly, and the two developed a friendship.
“Katie’s dealt with such prejudice her whole adult life. I didn’t want her to think she is out there alone,” Carpenter said. “I knew Dr. Quaid would take good care of her, but I wanted to give her support and compassion before the surgery to get her to that point.”
Finally, surgery was scheduled.
On the day of surgery
In May 2022, Peterson again had to go through the strenuous and painful process of traveling three hours to Poudre Valley Hospital for surgery.
Everything about Peterson’s surgery was more challenging, Quaid said. It all had to be carefully coordinated from transporting her within the hospital to administering anesthesia and monitoring blood pressure to inserting a breathing tube and IV. Everyone played an essential part in making it happen, he said.
For the surgery, Quaid relied on a surgical robot to make the movements of his hands.
“I’m not sure I could have done this surgery without the robot,” he said. “The robot helps me overcome the strength required to work through the thick abdominal wall. Using your own hands and arms can be difficult because it’s fighting against you. The robot takes a lot of that stress away.”
Surgery went well. Peterson spent five days in the hospital before returning home to Lusk.
Recovering from bariatric surgery
Since the surgery, Peterson has continued to see a therapist, attend bariatric support groups, and talk with Carpenter.
“I’m not going to say it’s been easy, but it has been much better than before,” Peterson said.
When she returned to Poudre Valley Hospital for her three-month follow-up, she was able to ride in the front seat of the minivan.
She is still adjusting to additional skin sagging and weight shifting. She’s dealing with excess water retention and has been on and off a catheter. Her goals since returning home start small: walk from her bedroom to her living room, then within her house a few times a day. She can use a cane now to get around. She hopes to be able to get outside and walk with her dog. Last fall, a local nonprofit installed a lift to her front door so she can bypass her dangerous steps.
In late November 2022, Peterson had her six-month follow-up appointment at Poudre Valley Hospital. She weighed 648 — 242 pounds less than when before surgery. Her next appointment is in March. Meanwhile, Quaid encouraged her to increase her activity to include venturing outside. She’s got the Wyoming winter ahead of her, but she promised to try.
Peterson’s fight isn’t over — it never will be. She has a food addiction and a predisposition for obesity that will follow her for the rest of her life. But she also has a few things she hasn’t had in a while: Hope. And a whole UCHealth support team rooting for her.
“Never give up. There is always hope,” Carpenter said. “From the get-go, I said to Katie, “This will be work on both our parts. We are going to do this together. Don’t think you’re in Wyoming all alone. I’m always a phone call or a Team’s (virtual) meeting away.”
Katie calls Quaid and Carpenter her guardian angels.
“Something led me to UCHealth. I shouldn’t say something. God led me because if not, I would be dead,” Peterson said.