People used to stare at her. Strangers in the street would laugh and point. All Khanyiswa Thusi could do was walk on and pretend she didn’t notice. But when she was on her own, in the shower, she’d sob uncontrollably. As she stared at her naked body, she couldn’t believe what she was seeing.
How had she become so obese? Weighing in at 185kg she was so large that when sitting down it was impossible for her to see her legs and thighs. But when she’d take a shower the extent of her problem was impossible to ignore. Khanyiswa (36) knew she couldn’t carry on this way.
She suffered chronic backache as a result of all the extra weight she was carrying and felt miserable and depressed. But the thing that really bugged her was that she was sure her appearance was a turn-off for potential employers and was standing in the way of her quest to find a job.
Khanyiswa, who lives in the village of Emaqeleni near Eshowe in KwaZuluNatal, had tried several diets but nothing worked. Finally in 2017, at her wits’ end, she wrote a desperate email to various people outlining details of her "miserable life" and pleading for help. Netcare 911 responded by putting her in touch with Dr Gert du Toit and Dr Ivor Funnel who practise at Netcare St Augustine’s Hospital in Durban.
They run the Durban Bariatric Surgery at the hospital, and have been performing pro bono surgeries since 2016 as a way to give back to the community. As soon as Khanyiswa consulted them they knew she was an ideal candidate for a gastric bypass (see box opposite). She underwent the two-hour procedure on 27 November.
Now, having shed a whopping 20kg, she has only one regret – that she didn’t have the procedure sooner. "I feel very happy," she says. "It’s unbelievable that I managed to lose so much weight in such a short space of time.” F OR as long as Khanyiswa can remember her weight had been a problem.
"I’ve been big since I was a child," she tells us when we meet her at her family home. "I come from a family of big people. My father is even bigger than me," she says. As a child she had to develop thick skin because her classmates often teased her. In adulthood her weight gain continued and intensified after she gave birth to her daughter, Minenhle Mngomezulu (8), in 2010.
"I went from 100kg to 140kg in a year," she says. This is when her endless streak of yo-yo dieting began. The first weight-loss programme left her so weak she collapsed after just two months of starting the diet. "My blood pressure was low and I became pale – it was as if I had anaemia," she says. "I became weak."
After seeking medical attention she decided to abandon the programme.She also tried the popular Banting diet but all the meaty ingredients needed proved too expensive for the unemployed single mother. Khanyiswa joined a gym but needed to travel too far to get there so she didn’t stick with it for long.
By 2014 she was sick and tired of dieting. She got a wake-up call after she tried out a weight-loss tea which left her with excruciating stomach cramps. "That’s when I decided to abandon the diets because they were going to kill me," she says. Khanyiswa decided to seek professional help.
Unable to afford a specialist she started emailing all the medical sources she thought might be able to offer advice, but received few replies. Meanwhile her weight had reached a debilitating 185kg. She felt so awful she struggled to look at herself in the mirror. Khanyiswa was extremely obese when she arrived at his consulting rooms at St Augustine’s Hospital, Dr Du Toit says.
"Her initial weight was 180kg and she has a height of 152cm, which gave her a high body mass index of 78. The normal BMI for a healthy person is around 25." Now, having undergone the operation, the hard work for her begins, Dr Du Toit says. Since her surgery Khanyiswa’s weight has dropped to 160kg.
Her goal weight is 68kg and she’s on track to achieve this by December. "Part of the success lies in the commitment to the diet," Dr Du Toit adds. Having undergone the gastric bypass Khanyiswa has to be mindful of what she eats and must stick to small meals because that’s all her stomach can handle.
Breakfast usually consists of boiled eggs and a medium-size boiled potato with cottage cheese. For lunch she has a green salad and for supper she snacks on fruit and veg or blends them into a smoothie. "I can’t eat meat yet because it hurts when I swallow it," she says.
Khanyiswa has regular check-ins with a dietician to ensure she stays on track. And as the weight steadily comes off she’s looking ahead to the future. She says her obesity didn’t only take a toll on her health, it also held her back on the career front. Although she graduated from PC Training and Business College in 2012 with A+ and N+ certificates in Information Technology, she’s been unable to land a job in the field.
She’s convinced being severely overweight held her back. "It’s very hard to get a job because I have to prove myself all the time," she says. "If I tell people I service computers they don’t believe me because of my appearance. People don’t accept people who are overweight. They don’t take them seriously."
Instead of staying at home and feeling sorry for herself she ventured into crop and poultry farming with her brother, Trevor (26), who was also unemployed, and her cousin Thembelihle (28). They secured a piece of land from their local chief in 2016 and now grow crops such as butternut, spinach, green pepper, brinjal and tomatoes which they sell to a local supermarket and a market in the area.
Khanyiswa’s aiming to grow the farming business and employ members of her community, and she hopes to establish her own fruit and veg market. And in between all this, she’d like to start a boot camp to help locals battling with obesity who don’t have access to gyms.
She wants to show them it’s possible to change; that they don’t have to live their lives feeling ashamed. "People used to laugh, stare and point at me," she says, "but I made a point of ignoring them and concentrated on my dreams and goals."