Weight-loss surgery slims Heart singer Ann Wilson

Wednesday, July 23rd 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) _ Ann Wilson fueled countless adolescent fantasies as a 1970s sex symbol, a rocker who looked as good as she sounded on Heart hits like ``Magic Man,'' ``Barracuda'' and ``Crazy On You.''

But as the hits kept coming for the dark-haired half of the Wilson sisters, so did the extra pounds.

By the mid-'80s, the 5'7'' Wilson was 90 to 100 pounds overweight. Her voice remained powerful as ever, and her songwriting talents with sister Nancy produced more hits like ``Alone'' and ``What About Love?'' But video directors were using funhouse-type lenses to make her appear taller and thinner on TV.

Wilson's problems continued offstage. Her knees and joints ached. Her back hurt. She tired easily, and it was hard to play with her two children, Marie, who was 10 at the time, and Dustin, 3.

``That was really what did it,'' said Wilson, 52. ``I was really starting to feel helpless about my health. When you can't even roll around and be rambunctious with your kids, I'm too young to be out of commission that way.''

In late 2001, a health care company recruited Wilson for a new kind of weight loss surgery. Called the Lap-Band, it involves surgeons inserting an inflatable silicone band around the upper stomach to create a new, tiny stomach pouch. Patients feel full quicker and therefore eat less.

Nearly a year and a half later, Wilson has lost about 60 pounds and looks noticeably slimmer than she did in the mid- 1990s.

``I feel great,'' she said, resting in a softly lit dressing room after a recent concert at the Trump Marina casino, where she and the rest of Heart earned repeated standing ovations with a mix of old and soon-to-be released songs.

``I've got 35 to 40 more pounds to go if I want to get really down there, which I do because in my line of work, I've got to be photographed and all that stuff,'' she said. ``But to be honest with you, my show biz career isn't the reason why I got the Lap-Band. It's my health and my two young children. I'm a single parent, and I'm it. They look at me and if I seem sick, it scares the hell out of them.''

Unlike many other weight loss surgeries like gastric bypass, where internal organs are modified, the Lap-Band is reversible.

The band is inserted laparoscopically through several tiny incisions in the abdomen. The surgeon uses long, slender instruments to place it around the stomach. The band is filled with saline liquid to adjust how tightly the stomach is constricted. The liquid enters through a port under the skin that connects to the band via tubing.

The band can be removed later and the stomach will gradually return to its original size.

Manufactured by the Inamed Corp. of Santa Barbara, Calif., the Lap-Band was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2001. Worldwide over the past 10 years, more than 100,000 patients have had them implanted, according to the company. In 2002 alone, about 65,000 Americans had weight-loss surgeries of all kinds, with an expected 75,000 in 2003.

``I had a really poor opinion of weight-loss surgeries,'' Wilson said. ``I thought it was freakish and too far, you know, `Do the work and lose the weight.' But at the same time, I had been on every diet in the world all my life since I was a little kid, including fasting and all the liquid diets, stupid diets. I hit a wall where you fail enough times and you just kind of give up. I was just kind of like, `This is how I'm going to be.'''

Wilson had the surgery in January 2002 at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach, Calif. She stayed overnight and was discharged at 1 p.m. the next day.

She has had to learn to chew her food more thoroughly, since it has to pass through a narrow opening about the size of a pencil eraser. The only time she feels the port in her abdomen is when she twists while doing yoga.

Wilson gleefully emptied closets of the flowing plus-size dresses she once had to wear, and is now fitting into clothes she last wore in the early '80s.

She also was scared about whether the stomach band would slip once she reached for the highest of the high notes onstage, because true vocal power comes from the abdomen.

So far, so good. The high notes keep coming, and the pounds keep dropping.