After losing 225 pounds, Philly woman tackles Broad Street Run

Linda Oakley, 29, returns to Einstein for her 3-year follow-up appointment with her gastric bypass surgeon in Elkins Park, Pa.

When she weighed nearly 500 pounds, Linda Oakley could barely walk, much less run.

“I used to tell my friends, If you see me running, you better start running, too, because something is coming after me,” Oakley joked.

But that all changed when she underwent bariatric surgery and lost nearly half of her body weight.

On Sunday, there may be few runners who feel prouder of just making it to the starting line of the Broad Street Run than the 29-year-old Lawncrest native.

“I’m excited to do something that I never thought in a million years I would be able to complete,” she said.

Losing control

Growing up, Oakley said, she had always been a chubby kid.

But her weight soared after her father, a big man who had diabetes, died in 2004 from complications of heart and kidney failure.

Oakley fell into depression.

“I ate a lot of comfort food,” said Oakley, who works in telecommunications at Einstein Healthcare Network, where she had her surgery. “My portion sizes were very big.”

Oakley estimates that by the time she graduated from high school, she weighed  225 pounds.

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Linda Oakley before her weight loss surgery.

She remembers the humiliation of being told she couldn’t join her friends on an amusement ride at Hershey Park because she was too big to fit into the seats.

“It just really crushed me,” she said.

She tried Weight Watchers a couple of times, but she always grew tired of the program and went back to her unhealthy eating habits.

“A lot of people probably think, ‘How do you let yourself go like that?’ ” Oakley said. “But after a while, it’s so hard to stop.”

Eventually, the excess weight took a toll that was physical as well as emotional. Her overburdened lower back hurt so much that Oakley couldn’t even walk a full block.

“She was unable to participate in life in the degree that she wished to,” said her bariatric surgeon, Ramsey Dallal. “She was kind of in prison by her extreme weight.”

Back pain became a part of her daily life, as did hypertension and sleep apnea.

“The breaking point was when my doctor told me I was diabetic,” Oakley said.

It wasn’t really a surprise; type 2 diabetes is common on her father’s side of the family. Many of her relatives died young of causes related to the condition, which is made worse by obesity but which also can make it harder to lose weight.

“I didn’t want to be like them,” Oakley said.

The surgery

To qualify for gastric bypass surgery, patients generally have to be 100 pounds over their ideal body weight.

Oakley was over by 230 pounds.

In August 2014, Oakley underwent the one-hour procedure, during which doctors shrank the size of her stomach.

Dallal cut across the top of her stomach, dividing it into two sections. He sealed the smaller “pouch” off from the rest of the stomach and connected it directly to the small intestine.

This new path ensured that food would not pass through the larger, remaining portion of the stomach, and the first few feet of intestines.

As a result, Oakley’s stomach can accommodate only smaller portions of food at a time; if she overeats, or consumes too much fatty food, the consequences can be painfully unpleasant.

Research has found that the surgery also alters the nerves and hormones that communicate with the brain’s hunger centers, and can reverse type 2 diabetes within days.

“The real way it works isn’t by making you fuller quicker but by changing how your brain interacts with food,” said Dallal, who performs 500 bariatric surgeries a year. “Food just doesn’t become as important.”

“Patients generally don’t feel as hungry, or crave foods as much, even though they may be eating only a fraction of their previous diet,” Dallal said.

Gastric bypass is considered the most successful form of bariatric treatment for sustained weight loss. However, there is a small risk – about 3 percent – of regaining weight if patients are not vigilant about following the recommended lifestyle changes.

After the surgery, Oakley traded in junk foods for protein shakes and home-cooked grilled chicken dinners. Her new favorite dessert is sugar-free whipped topping.

“I’m completely sugar-free,” Oakley said. “I don’t want to go back to my old habits.”

Camera icon jessica griffin / Staff Photographer
Linda returns to Einstein for her 3-year follow-up appointment with her gastric bypass surgeon Dr. Dallal at Einstein hospital in Elkins Park, Pa.

‘Truly remarkable’

Days after being released from the hospital, Oakley no longer needed her diabetes and blood-pressure medications.

Dallal said 80 percent of patients have normal blood sugar levels after gastric bypass. He considers Oakley’s diabetes to be “in remission.”

Six months later, she no longer relied on her continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine to manage her sleep apnea.

On average, gastric bypass patients can expect to lose 75 percent of their excess weight. Half of that weight is typically lost in the first six months.

Dallal said the operation rarely “cures” obesity, but it does bring people down to a more manageable weight.

Almost three years after the procedure, Oakley has lost a total of 225 pounds.

Though she is still considered obese at her current weight of 265 pounds, she is satisfied with maintaining for now.

“Not everybody is meant to be a certain size,” Oakley said.

Oakley’s transformation, Dallal said, was “truly remarkable.”

But it’s the unremarkable conveniences that she cherishes now.

“There are all these little things that I can do now that I couldn’t do back then,” she said, “like wearing a seat belt comfortably.”

Oakley’s long-term goal is to get her weight down to 200 pounds. As much as she has achieved, she says she still is a bit lacking in confidence and hopes losing more weight will help.

Crossing the finish line

Shortly after the surgery in 2014, Oakley wasn't comfortable joining a gym, so she got creative with her workouts.

“I would just go walk around stores like Walmart, Sam's Club, or Target,” she said. “I have been a walking machine ever since the surgery.”

When walking became easy, Oakley gained the confidence to join a local gym, and tried another challenge. Last year she signed up for a 5K race.

She heard about the Rocky Run, named after the iconic Philadelphia movie, from coworkers who are members of Black Girls Run!, a local running group.

“I was afraid I wouldn’t be fast enough, but they encouraged me,” Oakley recalled.

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Linda proudly displays her Rocky Run 5K medal with her gastric bypass surgeon Dr. Dallal.

On Nov. 12, 2016, Oakley finished the 3.1-mile race in 56 minutes and 50 seconds, averaging a pace of 18 minutes per mile.

“Rocky was an underdog, but he kept it at,” Oakley said. “I felt like him when I crossed that finish line.”

Then she set her sights on an even bigger feat: the Blue Cross Broad Street Run.

In January, after winning a bib through a contest at work, Oakley started training for the 10-mile race.

She worked out four times a week, logging miles on the treadmill at her gym or on the streets around her neighborhood.

Over the last four months, she gradually increased her mileage, setting out to run three to six miles each workout.

“I’m just listening to my body,” Oakley said. “If it tells me to slow down, then I slow down.”

Often, Oakley’s mother, Debra, accompanies her. Debra had gastric bypass surgery in late 2016 after watching her daughter’s transformation.

“I’m lucky that I have a support system of friends and family pushing me toward my goal,” Oakley said.

Camera icon clem murray / Staff Photographer
Linda gets some advice from trainer Lina Rush as she works out at the YMCA on Knights Road in Northeast Philadelphia. At left is her mother Debra, who also had the surgery.

Oakley’s bariatric surgeon is among her biggest supporters.

“I’m so enthusiastic about her running,” Dallal said. “We’ve had so many patients like her who have completed 5Ks up to marathons. We’re excited for her.”

Dallal, 45, is also a runner, having completed marathons and an Ironman competition.

“I have to set an example for my patients,” Dallal said.

In 2016, he finished the Broad Street Run in 1:22:32, averaging 8:15 per mile. Achilles tendinitis has sidelined him this year, though.

On race day, Oakley will be careful not to put too much pressure on herself.

“As long as I can say I did my best at the end of the race, that’s a win in my book,” she said.

Mostly, she’s excited to try something that she never thought would be possible.

“I keep surprising myself every time,” Oakley said.