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Overcoming the odds: Clarkesville man added years to his life with surgery, lifestyle changes

POSTED: December 27, 2013 11:22 p.m.

Mark Watson shows what his holiday meal looked like. After undergoing gastric bypass surgery last year, Watson is only able to eat small portions of food without feeling sick.

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Two years ago, Clarkesville resident Mark Watson faced his own death. It didn’t come in the form of a near-death experience or a trip to the hospital, but in the form of a letter from his doctor that said if Watson didn’t get his diabetes under control, he would live no more than another five to 10 years.

He weighed 312 pounds at the time, and though he didn’t look obese because of his 6 feet, 3 inch height, he struggled with Type 2 diabetes due to his weight.

“I was such a bad diabetic,” Watson said. “Most people with diabetes change out the vial in their insulin pump once every three days. I was changing it every day.

“And on top of that, I was taking oral medication and about three shots of insulin a day.”

Because his diabetes was so severe, Watson had to use U-500 insulin, which is about 500 times more potent than the standard U-100. Later doctors would also discover that he also had gastroparesis, a disorder that reduces the stomach’s ability to empty its contents into the intestines, and the beginning stages of cirrhosis.

First diagnosed with diabetes in 1997, Watson’s condition worsened continuously despite his efforts to get it under control.

“Everybody thinks ‘Oh why don’t you just lose weight,’” Watson said. “One of the side effects of insulin is weight gain, and sometimes it is almost impossible to lose weight if you are taking that much insulin.

“My doctor said ‘I think your only hope is to have gastric bypass surgery.’”

The procedure recommended to Watson by his doctors entailed surgically reducing his stomach to a pouch about the size of his thumb and connecting it directly to his intestines, which would drastically limit the amount and the types of food he could eat at one time.

Watson agreed to the surgery, but there was one problem: Gastric bypass surgery costs about $25,000 and his health insurance refused to cover the expense, claiming that it was a cosmetic procedure. When it looked like there was no way he could afford it, Watson’s brother, David, pulled money out of his 401(k) retirement plan to help him pay for the operation.

With that obstacle overcome, Watson had the surgery on Aug. 7, 2012, which was also the last day he ever took insulin, blood pressure or cholesterol medicine, and the last day he used his CPAP ventilator that helped him breathe while he was sleeping.

“It was the most amazing thing,” he said. “By November of 2012, I was told by my doctors that I had already added 12 years to my life.

“I have lost 101 pounds since then, and I am off of all my medication except for two little pills that help my liver because of my beginning stages of cirrhosis.”

Though Watson is happy with the surgery, it does come with new challenges. He has to heavily monitor his serving sizes and the types of food he eats. For the first year after the operation, a single bite of cake would cause him to feel ill. Because he can only eat small portions, he has to make sure he gets the proper amount of protein and other nutrients. He usually accomplishes this by drinking protein shakes mixed with soy milk.

One of Watson’s biggest challenges came earlier this month when his brother, who helped pay for his surgery, passed away.

“He told me ‘I want you to live,’” Watson said. “My brother who helped save my life died of a massive heart attack.

“I give him credit for my life.”

Watson is still classified as a diabetic because his pancreas was heavily damaged during his years of being overweight, but with exercise and the right diet, he hopes to end that condition.

The surgery also allowed him to become more physically active. In October, he participated in the Big Red Apple 5,000-meter run in Cornelia.

“I can do things now that I never dreamed of doing,” Watson said. “It’s just so amazing.

“Just going out and being active is just amazing.”

Now Watson shares his testimony with other people who are considering bariatric surgery, and hopes that people will see it as a life-saving treatment.

“It’s been life changing for me, and I try to tell my story to as many people as I can,” he said. “Especially people who are sick or overweight.”


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