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VOL. 128 | NO. 105 | Thursday, May 30, 2013

Surgical Solutions

Weight-loss procedures on rise to fight obesity epidemic

By Jennifer Johnson Backer

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When Ashley Hopper crawled into bed each night she would pray it wasn’t the night she was going to have a heart attack in her sleep.

Dr. Robert Wegner with the Saint Francis Center for Surgical Weight Loss, is shown with patients Ashley Hopper, left, and Stephanie Baker, who both lost nearly 90 pounds after gastric bypass surgery.  

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

“My health got really bad when I became pregnant with my son,” Hopper, 35, said. “I was already diabetic; it runs rampant in my family. … My health just plummeted after that and things just got much more serious.”

She hoped her health would improve after her son’s birth at age 28, but instead she added high cholesterol, tachycardia (an elevated heart rate), high blood pressure, and high cholesterol to her diabetes mellitus type 2 diagnoses. Worst still, she couldn’t lose weight.

By August, Hopper’s hands and feet had begun to go numb – a side effect of diabetes.

“That really got to me,” she said. “That’s when I started looking into gastric bypass surgery, or really any kind of weight loss surgery.”

As the obesity epidemic in Memphis and across the nation has grown, surgical interventions have become a common and effective solution. About 35.9 percent of American adults older than 20 are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Memphis ranked No. 46 in the American College of Sport Medicine’s American Fitness Index, which measures the health and community fitness status of the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S.

Surgical interventions are designed for those who are more than 100 pounds overweight and have a body mass index of 40 or higher, or more than 35 with serious diseases. Three of the more common surgical options for people seeking to lose weight: gastric banding, gastric bypass surgery and sleeve gastrectomy.

Dr. Robert Wegner, a bariatric surgeon with the Saint Francis Center for Surgical Weight Loss, says he’s seeing more patients seeking surgical weight loss solutions at the encouragement of their primary care physicians.

“Once you hit a BMI of 35 all the studies will show that your chances of losing any significant amount of weight and keeping it off are very low,” he said. “Once you hit the mid-30s, to tell a patient to exercise and lose weight – it’s just not going to happen. I think in the future, that number will be revised lower and lower.”

Hopper opted for gastric bypass surgery in November, a procedure in which a surgeon creates a smaller stomach pouch and attaches a Y-shaped section of the small intestine directly to the pouch. This allows food to bypass a portion of the small intestine, which absorbs calories and nutrients. Patients feel full sooner and also absorb fewer calories.

“The recovery is very efficient; it’s not drawn out,” Wegner said. “There’s a big misconception that you will be in the hospital for weeks and weeks and in a bunch of pain. It’s just not like that.”

While Hopper’s insurance did not cover her weight loss procedure, Wegner says insurance carriers are increasingly covering weight loss surgery because of its long-term effectiveness in resolving type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, osteoarthritis, depression, infertility and some cancers.

Six months later and 85 pounds lighter, Hopper says the surgery has completely changed both her life and her habits.

“My biggest challenge is running a family with members who haven’t had a surgery and haven’t had to change their habits,” she said. “I’ve learned to eat a meal with my family when they are sitting there with their soft drinks.”

But she says it’s all worth it. She’s able to do more and she no longer goes to bed at night worrying about her health. Daily stress related to worrying about her health is gone and she’s no longer taking any insulin and is taking a much lower dose for her tachycardia.

“My biggest goal that I set all along was ‘I can’t wait to wear my wedding rings again.’ I had not worn them since I got pregnant,” she said. “Now I need to get them resized and they are falling off. I literally feel that the weight of the world has been lifted off me.”

Stephanie Baker, 46, also has lost about 90 pounds since her gastric bypass surgery. Like Hopper, Baker had watched her weight slowly creep up over the years despite her dieting and exercise efforts. In 2006, she was diagnosed with diabetes and her endocrinologist encouraged her to lose 60 to 80 pounds.

“I just couldn’t get anywhere,” she said. “I needed to change my life.”

By 2011, Baker had decided to explore weight loss surgery. She says the biggest lure was being able to come off all of her medications and improving her overall health. An added bonus was that her insurance carrier also covered the procedure. In August, Wegner performed gastric bypass surgery on Baker.

Pre-surgery Baker weighed about 271 pounds. Today she weighs about 181 pounds and continues to lose weight. She’s also no longer taking any insulin.

“I can get down on the floor and play with my nephew. I have energy to work in the yard and to do a lot of things,” she said. “I feel like a new person.”

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