After gallbladder surgery, Laina Harris' resolve redoubled

She's back to focusing on losing weight and maintaining a healthy lifestyle

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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The last month has taken a physical and emotional toll on Laina Harris.

After physical pain, surgery, weight gain and a harsh reminder of her past life, the Camas woman is ready to get back to her life.

For more than a year, healthful eating and regular exercise have been the norm for Harris, who, at her heaviest weighed 420 pounds. The result of her hard work is a 100-plus pound weight loss.

But last month, Harris decided to see a physician after weeks of off-and-on stomach pain. An ultrasound revealed she had multiple gallstones — the result of a chronically inflamed gallbladder.

Harris' physician referred her for laparoscopic surgery to remove her gallbladder. She went in for a surgery consult July 1, and on July 5, she was in a hospital operating room.

Harris arrived for her surgery at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center at 8 a.m. She chose to go alone.

"I figured I was OK," Harris said. "I've got nurses around me."

Nurses and other hospital staff stopped by Harris' room, many saying they've followed her story in The Columbian and had been waiting for her arrival. They told Harris they were proud of her.

"It was like a whole bunch of moms around me, but all it did was throw me into thinking about my mom," Harris said. "They kind of touched that nerve a little bit."

Harris' mom died in March 2011.

Everything happened so fast — just four days between her consult and the operation — that Harris didn't have time to really think about what was happening.

But then, sitting in the hospital bed with only a photographer from The Columbian documenting her journey for company, the seriousness of the situation set in. As soon as the photographer left the room, Harris broke down.

"As soon as that curtain straightened up, and I knew nobody could see me, I burst into tears," she said.

She wiped away her tears as they rolled down her cheeks. She didn't want anybody to see her in a moment of weakness.

Soon after, she was placed under anesthesia and rolled into the operating room.

The procedure went well, and Harris was heading home by 4 p.m. that day.

Harris had hoped to be back at work the Monday after her procedure. But her return date was postponed by excruciating pain, caused by the air trapped in her abdominal cavity and pushing herself physically too soon. She went back to work the following Monday, July 15.

While Harris was still building up her physical endurance, she and her family took a trip to Oaks Amusement Park in Portland. She rested on the benches while her husband and kids enjoyed the rides.

The experience was all too familiar.

"That's what I did for years," Harris said. "I watched everyone else enjoy life."

"Now, I'm forced to be in that position again, and I hated it," she said. "I never want to feel that again. If nothing else, it's really pushed me to recommit myself to do something to move that scale."

On July 20, two weeks after surgery, Harris went to the beach with her family. She walked all day, taking rests when she grew tired. The next day, Harris planned to do a mile walk on Heritage Trail in Camas. She ended up walking five miles without any pain.

On July 22, she headed out to Round Lake and did her normal workout, a 3.5-mile walk with about 50 flights of stairs. She felt great.

"Those are my litmus tests," Harris said. "So I'm going to be training every day to get ready for Mount St. Helens."

Harris and a group of friends are planning an 8-mile hike along the south side of Mount St. Helens on Aug. 30. The hike begins at 4,000 feet and has an elevation gain of about 4,500 feet, ending at the crater rim.

Even though her training was interrupted by the surgery, Harris still plans to make that trip next month, just days after she turns 42 years old.

"I'm not going to give up and sell my ticket," she said. "I'm still going to attempt it and get up on that mountain."

Harris' exercise routine wasn't the only thing to take a hit the last couple months. While trying to minimize the stomach pain, Harris learned certain foods caused less pain. Those foods happened to be bread and carbohydrates -- things she cut out of her diet more than a year ago.

The weight began to creep on. Before the stomach pains began, Harris weighed 295. By the time she was healed from surgery, she was up to 308 pounds.

Since she's resumed her exercise routine and returned to her normal diet, the pounds have begun to come off.

But the experience taught Harris not to focus on the numbers on the scale. Instead, she's grateful to once again be doing what she loves: hiking.

"I needed that kick start, that reminder of how easily I could go back, at how easily I could go back to that miserable life," Harris said. "And I won't do it."

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com