Tipping the scales: Edinburgh surgeon fights off 'super-obesity'

Share this article

Edinburgh surgeon Chris Oliver has made a career out of saving other people, but he put his own life in danger when his weight ballooned and he became 'super-obese'. Here, Maria Croce looks at how he managed to save himself

ALL his time was taken up saving others, but leading Edinburgh surgeon Chris Oliver was risking his own life by ignoring his own obesity. As a consultant trauma and orthopaedic surgeon at Edinburgh's Royal Infirmary he is tasked with trying to put back together broken bones and lives. He was one of the trauma surgeons who looked after Olivia Giles, a former lawyer turned campaigner, who lost all four limbs after meningitis complications.

He has a whole line of letters after his name, has saved countless lives and helped give back people's futures, but his own life was in danger when his weight spiralled out of control to the point where he had a body mass index of more than 50 and was classified as "super-obese". He says now if he hadn't managed to lose 11 stone (70kg) he'd probably be dead.

At his heaviest he topped the scales at 27st (171kg) with both his chest and waist measurements at 56 inches (1m42cm). He'd be out of breath just trying to climb a few steps. Like many successful career people, so much of his time was dedicated to work that he lost sight of what he was doing to himself.

As his career took off, the weight piled on, as he gave up exercise and ate what he wanted at irregular times. But Oliver, now 50, has managed to turn his life around following gastric band surgery and is not just a walking example of what a difference shedding 11st can make, he's also a cycling, kayaking, triathlon-competing example.

And, through writing a blog about his experiences, he's hoping to inspire others. He's now half the man he once was. When we meet at the caf of the One Spa in Edinburgh's Sheraton Hotel before he's due to have a session with his personal trainer Colin Wycherley, he fits right in, looking lean in a tracksuit, sipping a coffee.

It's hard to imagine just four years ago he was super-obese, especially as he talks about how he was a super-fit teenager. He tracks down a photo of himself at 19 on his iPhone and I try to disguise my shock as he shows me the snap in swimming trunks where he looks almost like a teenage film star.

"I was teaching kayaking … in a nudist colony in France," he says with a chuckle. "But I actually feel fitter now than I did then." He regrets that just a few years after that photo he piled on the pounds: "I feel like I wasted 20 to 25 years of my life being obese."

He's proud that he has had two daughters, Alexandra, 22, and Catherine, 19, who are both at university, and has saved and improved lives through his work, but says he thinks he "could have done a lot more": "When I was a medical student I was really fit: ran marathons, went whitewater kayaking, played rugby and did regular exercise. I was exceptionally fit. I was not a fat child, teenager or young adult.

"It was only when I started doing clinical medicine and surgery that I began to slowly gain weight. As a surgeon I just trained and trained and lost the work-life balance.

"Chasing professional exams and a surgical career put a considerable stress on myself and family. I am now one of the most qualified orthopaedic surgeons in the United Kingdom.

"I do not think I have ever had an eating disorder, ever been a binge eater or any substance abuser. I have just worked hard over the years for my career and patients. I do not think I have ever really overeaten, it's just been normal eating without enough physical energy expenditure. If you do not exercise and maintain a normal food intake you will put on weight, it's not putting too much food in your mouth."

Oliver's mother, who died last March, was obese, and he remembered growing up watching her battle with her weight and failed

diets. "That's the thing, diets don't work. Whatever you're going to do, you have to do it forever. You have to change your life."

For Oliver the turning point came in 2006 when he went to China on a business trip. "I went to the Great Wall of China and I couldn't get up the steps. I thought I'd rather be dead than live like this. I think my weight was depressing me. It had stopped me doing so many things. You can't sit in an airline seat, you can't cross your legs, you can't go to a normal clothes shop when you're that big."

After years of failed diets, Oliver put his trust in a fellow surgeon, consultant David Galloway and underwent laparoscopic adjustable gastric band surgery in February 2007.

He trusted his surgeon, but he was aware of the dangers. "As a surgeon you have seen and know too much about the complications of surgery. I was certainly afraid pre-op and had some fear of a pre-assembled list of complications I was going to suffer. I even wrote a living will."

He subsequently had the band gradually tightened over the following months and has had to dramatically cut his food intake.

He says the surgery has definitely been worth it, as he has shed that 11st and is now down to 16st (102kg). His chest has shrunk to 42in (107cm), his waist to 38in (97cm).

He knows surgery isn't for everyone: he says his wife, Josephine, is obese but she won't consider surgery.

As his weight began to drop he collected a "trouser dynasty" of different sizes in his wardrobe, and had to cut links out of his watch strap. Even his shoes became too big.

He donated his super-size surgical blues, which he'd worn since 1995, to the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh Museum.

"It's a bit of bariatric social surgical history," he says, referring to the branch of medicine that deals with obesity. He was motivated to get fit, and losing weight was enforced because, with the band, he couldn't physically eat too much. "The band is a tool to help you change your life. It's a permanent restriction. I have a different relationship with food now. If I eat too much I'll be sick within a couple of minutes," he says.

"I can eat small portions but I don't eat bread or rice. My typical daily diet would be a small bowl of porridge, then later a banana, soup for lunch and in the evening fish and vegetables.

"Going to restaurants can be a scary experience because you don't know what you're going to get – the portions might be too big.

"I wish I'd had more discipline when I was younger with food. Now it's enforced. I accept it as the way it is. It's fine, because it allows me to do all these other things in life."

His motivation throughout was imagining the activities and sports he'd be able to do again once he'd lost the weight.

He has returned to his action-man roots: completing triathlons, kayaking down the Sun Kosi river in Nepal. And he cycled from Land's End to John O' Groats to raise money for 500 Miles, Olivia Giles's charity that supports FlySpec – a flying medical service which takes orthopaedic and reconstructive plastic surgery to remote parts of Zambia from a base in Lusaka.

"I feel I've wasted a couple of decades really. But I think that's the message – it should never be too late to turn things around," he says. "I knew the risks to my health. If I hadn't lost the weight I'd probably be dead by now. I'd probably have died of a heart attack or had a stroke. I don't think I'd have been working, I'd probably have had to take early retirement. My weight was getting physically dangerous."

He says he feels lucky that he's been given another chance and feels more should be done to help others struggling with their weight.

"Obesity is a disease but it's a societal disease. There's a lot of education that needs to be done, right from midwifery, encouraging mothers to breastfeed, through to getting children on to the right kind of healthy diets. It's the sort of stuff Jamie Oliver does – he's a hero. And we need to make the environment sympathetic to exercise."

The surgical route can work well – though not for everybody, he says.

"I once went to the transplant games in Edinburgh and I feel I can now relate to people who have had transplants because I feel like I've been given a second chance of life.

"I realise that every single day that I have is pretty incredible. But you've got to want to lose weight. You've got to want to get the motivation. Every day is now a bonus."

Losing weight has not just meant a physical change: "I feel more confident, I'm a much more positive person and probably more tolerant. Mentally, I now feel like I'm 25. I felt quite old before when I was overweight. I get e-mails from people saying they have read about my story and they're going to try to lose weight or have surgery. I feel good that I have had an effect on people's lives."