A 32st 6lb beautician who so feared getting stuck in a plane seat that she bought two to fly to Portugal shed 19st 4lb after gastric bypass surgery in Lithuania and is now returning to have her “fatty apron” removed.
Despite a lifetime struggle with weight that saw her needing a tailor-made communion gown, aged seven, as she was already too big for ‘off the peg’ versions, Haleigh Walsh, 25, forged ahead – opening a beauty salon in the Irish county of Tipperary in 2020.
Haleigh had always been complimented on her 'pretty face', but was horribly conscious of her size 28 body.
But the turning point was the July 2019 holiday to Portugal. She said: “I’d tried every diet under the sun and an old friend told me a horror story of a man who’d been so big he was marched out of his seat to the back of the plane.
“I was so terrified of that happening to me that I bought a second seat, so I wouldn’t be impacting anyone. I remember sitting there on the plane and thinking, ‘I am never doing this again’.”
At her 32st 6lb heaviest, 5ft 7in Haleigh’s body mass index (BMI) used to gauge a healthy weight, was 71.11 – nearly triple the top of the NHS’ healthy range of between 18.5 to 24.9, meaning she was severely obese.
She said: “I was always overweight. I couldn’t get a communion dress in the shops. It had to be specially made for me. That’s one of the earliest memories I have.
“I ate big portions and am shocked now looking back at just how much I could get through. I’d starve all day then have takeaways, share bags of crisps, chocolates, anything I wanted. And I refused to exercise. Even walking would cause pain in my back.
“I always got compliments. People would tell me I had a beautiful face. But I knew my weight was a problem.”
Haleigh, who is single, knew her eating habits were dramatically unhealthy, but lacked the drive to lose weight and keep it off.
So, when a relative had successful weight loss surgery, her interest was piqued.
She said: “I saw how much their body had changed since the procedure.
“Then I was doing a woman’s make-up for her 40th birthday and she explained that she’d been waiting for a gastric bypass in Ireland for nine years.
“I realised that I wanted to do it too, but didn’t want to waste my 20s waiting for the operation and began researching private clinics.”
Just as she was considering bariatric surgery, she boarded her life changing flight to Portugal, which gave her the push she needed to contact the clinic in Lithuania on her return.
Just a month after the holiday in August 2019, Haleigh applied to the Nordbariatric Clinic in Kaunas, Lithuania for a gastric bypass operation – but was told she first needed to lose over 3st before the op could go ahead to make the operation less risky.
Finally, in July 2020, having brought her weight down to 29st 2lb with a primarily liquid diet, she had a £5,450 gastric bypass.
The procedure to create a small pouch at the top of the stomach connected to the small intestines makes patients feel fuller after eating less food and means they absorb fewer calories.
Now delighted to be a 13st 2lb size 12, Haleigh said: “I wasn’t nervous at all about the operation.The surgeon performed 12 procedures in the two days I was in the clinic. He was so experienced that I knew I was in safe hands.”
After taking some liquid paracetamol, she felt able to drink water on the day of surgery, before moving on to yoghurt and baby food the next day.
Two days after her operation, she was allowed back to her accommodation and, just a week later, she returned to Ireland – already 20lb slimmer than she had been on the flight out.
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Within months, Haleigh had lost sufficient weight to begin cardio exercise at home.
And last summer, she joined a gym and added weight training to her workouts.
The only drawback is that her rapid weight loss has left her with apron-like, loose excess skin on her stomach, back, legs and arms.
She said: “Since I’ve been training properly in the gym, I’ve really noticed how bad my loose skin is.
I just want it off me now. My body is toning up underneath, but then I have these great folds and flaps of skin. It’s my arms that are the worst.
“I’m really confident with my size and shape, but still have to have something covering my arms at all times as they bother me so much.”
Determined to look and feel her best, Haleigh is investing around £6,000 in further surgery at the same clinic in October to remove the baggy skin.
She said: “I just have so much more confidence now.
“I love going for walks and out on adventures.
“Before all this I couldn’t even walk down the road without getting out of breath or my back hurting.
“Now I love taking exercise. I’m the complete opposite of what I was.”
Additional reporting PA