By Alexandra Becker
The bride beamed as she walked down the aisle, clutching her bouquet of wildflowers. Today, she was marrying the love of her life, their combined four children were officially becoming siblings, and she was, in every sense of the word, happy.
Had her wedding taken place just a few months earlier, however, Nikole Hubenak Tolson would have felt a nagging sense of discomfort on what would be one of the best days of her life. After all, between December 21, 2020 and May 22, 2021—her wedding day—she had lost more than 100 pounds.
“I was never someone who didn’t like myself—I always said that my personality was the biggest thing on the scale—but it was a struggle,” Tolson said. “It was an emotional struggle and a physical struggle.”
Tolson, who works as a senior vascular sonographer and cardiac sonographer for Memorial Hermann Medical Group and has been an employee with Memorial Hermann Health System for 20 years, began her weight loss journey in 2017.
“I was actually diagnosed with a heart problem myself,” recalled Tolson, who performs echocardiograms on heart patients. “It was related to electrical function, but I had some health issues and I needed to get some weight off. I tried everything under the sun, and I just wasn’t having any luck.”
After years of different diets, exercise programs, and “every gimmick you could think of,” Tolson decided to look into weight loss surgery. In July 2020, she had her first consultation at UT Physicians Minimally Invasive Surgeons of Texas with Dr. Shinil Shah, an associate professor of surgery and medical director of research for the Division of Elective General Surgery at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth and a bariatric and general surgeon with Memorial Hermann Health System.
“He was amazing and had a great personality and put me at ease about everything,” Tolson said. “I was ready to sign up after that.”
Over the course of a few months, Tolson underwent preparations for the surgery, verifying her financial responsibility with her insurance and undergoing tests to ensure she met the clinical criteria.
Finally, on Dec. 21, 2020, her life forever changed.
In what totaled just an hour and a half, Shah performed a gastric sleeve procedure, removing part of Tolson’s stomach to create a “new” stomach, also known as the sleeve. This new, smaller stomach helps people feel fuller more quickly and decreases hunger, which leads to an overall reduction in calorie intake and subsequent weight loss.
“These procedures can be performed in a safe and minimally invasive manner, and they can change the course of a person’s health—and their life—in a long-term and meaningful way,” Shah said. “Mrs. Tolson’s story is certainly one to celebrate, and it reflects her commitment and the effectiveness of weight loss procedures when combined with diet, exercise, and close, long-term follow-up.”
Tolson said her recovery was completely manageable, with just a two-day hospital stay and minimal pain management medication. Two weeks later, she was back at work sharing her story with anyone who would listen.
“I felt like a whole new woman,” Tolson said. “As soon as the weight started coming off, my joint pain was gone almost instantly, and the more I lost, the better I felt.”
Now, she recommends the surgery to everyone who asks, especially patients who have certain health issues related to their weight.
“I have patients who come in here and get clearance for surgery, so I get to share my story all the time,” Tolson said. “At home, our kids are all involved in sports, and so being able to move more and be more resilient and keep up more—it’s just an amazing thing. It’s not only been good for me, but for my family, too.”
Tolson reiterated, however, that while her surgery has greatly benefitted her health, her worth was never tied to a number on the scale.
“Everybody should be proud of themselves, no matter what,” Tolson said. “I don’t care how big or small you are. I’ve always loved myself and that hasn’t changed, but now, I feel this certain sense of freedom. I just feel better.”
It’s a feeling she’ll soon get to share with her new husband. In the coming weeks, he too will be undergoing weight loss surgery with Dr. Shah.