Cover Story: Shedding Her Skin

Covington teen doesn't want to 'sit on the couch and be dead'

Toni Lynch is tired of being the "overweight friend." The 16-year-old is tired of having her friends visit, then watching them leave to hang out at Newport on the Levee. She's tired of being the one everyone looks at when she's in public.

"You feel like you're wearing a mask," she says, sitting in a wheelchair in her room at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in late December. "And I felt like the gastric bypass surgery would remove that mask."

Leaping is out of the question. Walking for more than several minutes is her goal now.

Toni had gastric bypass surgery Dec. 12. She had part of her stomach removed, then the remainder reshaped into a new stomach that'll eventually be about the size of her fist.

About a week later, she woke up late at night with a pain in her left arm.

It hurt when she moved it. She remembered that as one of the symptoms of a leak in her digestive system, so she called the hospital.

Not wanting to take chances, they told her to come in so they could look at her on the inside. Dr. Victor Garcia, the surgeon who had performed the operation, found a tiny leak where her stomach attaches to her intestine.

Today, six days after her complication, three tubes individually keep her hydrated, fed and free from infections. She hasn't had anything in her mouth in those six days. Nurses have swabbed her mouth to keep it moist. But that doesn't mean the leak is a major setback.

"It just happens every so often" with these operations, Toni says. She expects to leave the hospital in a few days.

But if she drinks water and it leaks into her body, it could give her an internal infection. So the tubes stay in for now.

'I'd rather take a chance'
The Covington teenager never had an Ozzie and Harriet life. She has two sisters — Jamie, 18, and Kelsey, 11 — but her mother has only briefly been involved in her life. She has other sisters but hasn't met them.

Another sister, Zoe, died in 2000 of neglect when she was 6 months old, having suffocated after being left alone in a bed overnight.

But that hasn't held back Toni, according to her father, Mark Lynch, 38. His daughter has "such a great heart and personality," he says, sitting near her in her hospital room, with the shusshh of her machine in the background. Lynch cares for Toni with her grandmother.

Food was more than physically nourishing for Toni.

"I went on so many diets," including a low-carb one, she says. She never could stay away from the few liters of Mountain Dew she drank each day, to cite one bad habit. Lynch wasn't aware of everything his daughter was eating because she hid some of it from him.

"McDonald's was my best friend," Toni says.

She never really committed herself to the diets. She wanted to be loved for who she was — or so she thought — which led her to quit the diets too soon. Food took a lot of her pain away.

"It's like a drug," she says.

Toni heard about gastric bypass surgery from Cindy Schict, her home-school teacher, who lost 200 pounds after having the procedure a few years ago. Schict has lots more energy than before, Toni says.

Toni's family doctor pointed the Lynches to the HealthWorks intervention program for overweight kids and teens at Children's Hospital. A six-member team of a doctor, dietician, psychologist and others all must agree to accept candidates for the surgery, which isn't for everyone. It's a last resort.

Luckily, Toni has medical coverage from the state of Kentucky and was ready to commit to the lifelong regimen the surgery demands. She realized she had to do something when she saw obese people on TV in their mid-20s unable to walk.

"That is really an eye-opener," she says.

Toni wants to be an active, normal person by that age.

"You have to think about your future compared to what's going on right now," she says.

Very obese people don't have healthy futures. Toni's obese maternal grandfather died in his 50s.

Even without the surgery, Toni was eventually going to face death, her "greatest fear."

"I'd rather take a chance on dying than to sit here on this couch and be dead," she says.

Family members "just got tired of seeing Toni trapped," Lynch says. Toni made the final decision to go ahead.

In the weeks leading up to her Dec. 12 surgery, she needed to lose 10 pounds to shrink her stomach enough for doctors to examine her liver. Instead, she lost 22 on her diet of salads, chicken and vegetables.

Lynch offered to let Toni cheat once a week, but she refused.

"She's got more willpower than I do," says Lynch, who weighs 280 pounds and used to work in the restaurant business, but played semi-pro football for four years. Now he works in his brother's construction company.

Toni cried a lot on the day of her surgery. She had doubts until the minute she went under. As the nurse put on the anesthesia mask, Toni pushed it a little to the side, thought about calling it off, then relented. She'd come too far to back out now.

After the surgery, which lasted six hours, the first thing she said to the nurses was, "I love you guys. You didn't let me die."

In the days after the surgery she also asked herself, "What did I just do?" It's not uncommon among patients to second-guess themselves a little.

A future in jeans
Toni began her post-surgery life by drinking an ounce of water each hour for eight hours. That doubled to 2 ounces for each of the next eight hours, then 4 ounces for the next eight. Her normal diet will have 90 ounces of water a day and four 6-ounce protein shakes a day. She won't eat solid food for at least four weeks.

When she first looked at those tiny shakes, it didn't seem possible one would fill her up without some sort of solid food to go along with it. But it did.

"You don't really think about all that junk food as much as you used to," Toni says.

Except for hamburgers. She'd still like to have one of those. So her dad and grandmother don't eat them around her.

She also must walk as far as she can each day. Right now that's about eight minutes. It used to be four minutes. She also must exercise at least four times a day, including kicking her leg and other simple movements.

She is taking nine medications, which eventually should be reduced to one or two.

Toni lost 9 pounds the first week. She wants to lose 150 to 200 pounds in her first year. Most patients see the most dramatic weight loss in the first six months.

Toni will also be in touch with her sister's great aunt, who also had the surgery and lost at least 175 pounds, Lynch says.

"You want to make sure you have somebody for support," Toni says.

Her stomach leak brought her spirits down, but she knows it'll heal soon. She expects to leave the hospital in a few days. The staff, particularly the nurses, have made her time there much easier, according to Toni and her father.

"They're angels," Toni says.

Even some of Toni's best friends don't know her weight. Months from now she looks forward to that being no longer an unmentionable number. She's planning to wear jeans for the first time since she was a child. Ideally, she'd like to be 140 to 160 pounds.

Lynch speaks of Toni's last goal with cautious optimism.

"She'd have to go to the gym for real then," he says.

Toni's home-school teacher works out in the gym to keep weight off. So far Toni has lost 22 pounds since her surgery.

Toni's also looking forward to pursuing her interests in sociology, criminology, working in special education and singing.

Despite the leak, potential future complications and the long road ahead, Lynch says Toni has been blessed to have the surgery.

"I think it saved her life," he says. ©

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