At just 29 years of age and weighing 841 pounds Altovise Renee Williams from Austin, Texas set a record on 20 February 2007 when she became the heaviest women ever to undergo gastric bypass surgery.
Just two weeks after surgery however, on 4 March 2007, she suffered a massive heart attack and tragically died.
Renee Williams had struggled with her weight from an early age and by the time she was just 13 years of age she had already reached nearly 300 pounds. Two years later, at the age of 15, she married and by 21 she had two children. Her weight continued to rise and in her early twenties hovered around 400 pounds.
It was in 2003 however that her life changed dramatically when she was involved in a car accident when a drunken driver crashed into her SUV and suffered severe injury to her left leg which left her unable to walk and confined her to bed. From that point onwards her weight began to rise steadily and, by the start of 2007, she had passed 800 pounds.
Unable by this time to get out of bed at all, Renee’s only contact with the outside world was through the television and her laptop computer and she became increasingly desperate to lose weight so that she could realize her dream of marrying her new fiance and becoming a mother once again to her children, who had not seen her out of bed for more than a year. With this aim in mind she began searching for a bariatric surgeon who would be willing to perform the necessary weight loss surgery.
Gastric bypass surgery is routinely carried out these days on morbidly obese patients whose body mass index (BMI) typically ranges from about 40 to 60. Indeed, it is expected that some 140,000 operations will be carried out in 2007. Weight loss surgery is not however without it risks for the average patient, but these risks increase considerably as BMI rises and, with a BMI of 137, Renee was turned down by no fewer than twelve surgeons before finally being accepted for surgery by two surgeons from the Renaissance Hospital in Houston.
Her laparoscopic gastric bypass surgery went well despite the fact that it lasted five hours, required two operating tables and some considerable adaptation to existing operating equipment and techniques. Her initial recover also appeared to be going well and, in the two weeks following surgery, she lost no fewer than 67 pounds which was a good start towards her surgeon’s predicted loss of 650 pounds over a three year period after surgery.
Tragically however, without any warning, she began suffering chest pains which were quickly followed by a massive heart attack from which doctors were unable to revive her.
For many people today Renee Williams is seen as an inspiration and this is especially true for those who were able to listen to her speaking in a number of interviews both before and shortly following her surgery. But, for others, her death serves as a warning. The risks of gastric bypass surgery are well known and, in particular, it is well understood that, as BMI increases, so too does the risk of developing cardiovascular problems.
Was Renee Williams brave or foolish to undergo surgery in her condition? Were the surgeons right to perform this operation? These and many other questions will be debated for some time to come. One thing is certain however and that is that the problem of obesity should be tackled as soon as it arises and that those who wait are far more likely to find their hopes and dreams shattered.