Seven years ago, Dr Aly Meghji, aged 19 was hoping to embark on a new adventure overseas. But obesity blocked his way.
“When undergoing a medical exam before joining the university, the doctors told me that I didn’t have too long to live. I had developed a heart condition —a weak right atrium— among other complications,” he says.
Aly had been taking steroids to control severe asthma attacks. The result was an abnormal weight gain, coupled with diabetes, mobility problems, and severe back and knee pains.
By the age of 21, he was severely obese. He was at his maximum weight at the time — 218 kilogrammes
“Being obese is one of the toughest things one can ever endure. Even breathing, which is essential to life, is a luxury. I was unable to walk, had back and knee pain every day. The pain is so much pain that sometimes you feel it is not worth living. People think good sleep is granted, but when you are obese you can’t breathe properly at night. You gasp for air, you suffer from sleep apnoea,” he says.
Besides the physical pain, Aly was bullied for being fat.
“In Form One, I weighed 100 kgs. People think that you’re a source of entertainment when you are fat. So they mock you day in day out. It’s the same repetitive jokes, taunts, and abuse until you question whether life is worth living. You become short-tempered,” he says.
After the results of the pre-university medical exam, his family decided to do something radical.
For his 21st birthday, they gifted him with laparoscopic sleeve gastrectomy in India. The surgery involves cutting out a great percentage of the stomach to limit how much one eats.
It cost them about Sh1 million. But the surgery that decreases appetite was not as simple. Aly had to wait for two years before it was done.
“You have to meet certain criteria; be above some weight, your heart and lungs have to be OK. You also can’t be too overweight. Someone above 120 kgs is a good candidate, but over 300 kgs may be too risky,” he says.
The doctors in India had some more startling confirmation.
“There are different classes of obesity; mild, moderate, to morbidly obese, which was the highest class at the time. They had to give my case a new class which the doctor termed as super obese. When we asked what that meant he said the fact that I woke up alive every day was a miracle because my BMI was in the 60s,” he says.
A normal person’s body mass index (BMI) is between 20 to 24. Over 30 is considered obese.
Before the surgery, Aly had to cut out some foods from his diet and exercise. He stopped taking soft drinks and started eating soft foods one week to the procedure to prepare his body for the surgery.
“The surgery was a last resort. I had tried so many diets from reducing intake of carbohydrates, doing the Atkins diet, the watermelon diet…,” he says.
When Aly was being wheeled into theatre he bid his family goodbye. “I told them goodbye in case I didn’t wake up,” he says.
With an increasing number of obese people opting for the surgery, the rate of complications is down, and so are the number of deaths.
For Aly, he bled internally, a complication that turned his stomach black with bruises.
Two years after the surgery, he lost 136 kgs and weighed about 82 kgs. But he needed another surgery.
“People don’t talk much about this, but after years of being overstretched by fat, the skin cannot go back to its original form on its own — you need another surgery to cut out the excess skin. After the surgery and weight loss, the skin sags like that of a very old woman or man,” he says.
Four years ago, he did reconstructive surgery in Kenya. After a nine-hour surgery, Aly got a tummy tuck, pubic area lift, a belt lipectomy to remove the loose skin and fat around the waist or “belt line”, a butt lift, breast tissue reduction, and arm lift.
The journey wasn’t over yet.
“If I had had all the reconstructive done at once it would have been too much stress on my body. They were scheduled a year apart but I opted for two years to allow my body to recover,” he says, adding that the surgery costs put a dent in their family’s income forcing them to seek more money.
“My family spent about Sh3.5 million on my weight-loss surgery. For this, I am grateful,” Aly says.
In 2018, he did a final fine-tuning surgery. Loose skin on his back and thighs were trimmed to perfection but a complication arose.
“Fluid built up in my leg. They had to stitch the skin against the muscle to remove the air gaps that caused the problem. So instead of one surgery, I had to have two. The second one was scheduled a month later,” he says.
Today, Aly is a physiotherapist with two medical degrees and running a clinic in Nairobi’s Parklands. Aly says the surgery gave him “the confidence of 10 men.”
“I am not thin. I am a built, medium-sized man now. But the fact is people look and treat me differently. It’s sad because I was the same person in that fat body. Being thin has advantages in society. When you are fat they treat you differently as when you are disabled. Being obese is like having a disability because there’s so much you can’t do,” he says.
“I did it because I wanted a better life. Reconstructive or cosmetic surgeries are not common topics but I talk about it to help even one person,” he says.
Does he fear gaining weight?
“Yes, there is always a fear of regaining the weight, but for me going back is simply not an option,” says Aly.
If you are not prepared to make lifestyle changes as well, then the surgery is likely to be a waste of time and money.
“You will still need to exercise and watch your diet. You have to be sure that not only can you do it but you can see it through to the end,” he says.