Slimming down through surgery

Thursday, November 28, 2002

hey tried fad diets, weight-loss programs and pills, but nothing seemed to work for very long. After years of carrying around extra pounds -- pounds that put their lives at risk -- several area residents decided surgery was their best chance at survival.

Called gastric bypass surgery, it is suggested only for the most obese people. Many doctors won't recommend it because there are serious risks associated with the surgery, including death. But for some people it's their only hope at long-term weight loss.

The procedure takes about a half-hour in the operating room and essentially cuts the size of a person's stomach. Doctors create a small pouch at the top of the stomach and then cut part of the intestine and connect it to the pouch. The effect is to make the stomach smaller so the person eats less and feels full faster.

There are no doctors in Cape Girardeau who perform the surgery so Bruce and Barbara Melvin of Cape Girardeau and Tricia Gilmer of Scott City had to go to St. Louis for the procedure.

All would say the surgery and the lifestyle changes it brings were well worth their time and effort. Many insurance policies even cover the expense of the surgery.

"I would recommend it to anybody," Gilmer said. Since her surgery two years ago she's lost 152 pounds. "It's weird because I say things like 'I can sit in this chair and put my arms beside me.'"

Gilmer planned her surgery at a time of year when most people like to splurge on foods and treats they don't eat the rest of the year. She had the gastric bypass procedure done on the Monday before Thanksgiving two years ago. People asked her why she chose that time rather than waiting, since the holiday is associated with an excess of food.

"I said I'd rather have it done then and not eat than have all that weight on," she said. Within five months of the surgery, she'd lost as much as 80 pounds.

The weight loss is rapid at first but as people adjust their diets after the surgery, they can expand their stomachs to hold more food. There are some diet restrictions: no fried foods, no red meat, no sugars or carbonated beverages.

But the restrictions don't outweigh the benefits of the surgery, patients say.

While Gilmer heard all about the horror stories about the procedure, she also realized that many of those disasters happened because patients didn't follow doctor's orders. So she committed herself to this surgery and the changes it brought to her life.

"I had tried to lose and just couldn't," she said. "It's not easy to get the weight off fast and I would eat all the time. You have to change everything, and your attitude about food," she said.

That's exactly what Bruce and Barbara Melvin did. Instead of planning their day around meals and snacks, the Melvins are apt to eat low-fat or nonfat foods and more fruits and vegetables than before their surgeries.

Barbara has dropped more than 160 pounds since her 2000 surgery; Bruce lost 90 pounds since his surgery in May. Both say they want to lose more weight.

There are foods they still like to eat but the key is moderation and eating small meals more often, the Melvins said.

"We eat a lot more fruits and vegetables," Barbara said. Dinner might be just a taco salad. "That's something we can't get enough of -- salads."

The change in eating habits is only part of the health benefits. All three people said they have more energy than ever before and are exercising.

"I can do a lot more. The mobility is worth it and I can do a lot more things for myself than before," Barbara said.

She doesn't get tired just walking from room to room or doing simple household chores. Carrying those extra pounds put too much pressure on her heart and caused other health problems, like repeat hernias, that have been nearly eliminated now.

Gilmer also said she feels more energetic than before. She used to walk up a few steps and then need to rest before going the rest of the way. "After I lost the weight I was running up the steps."

Though the weight loss has meant amazing changes in their lives, both the Melvins said they still struggle with some emotional issues.

Food took the place of cigarettes for Bruce once he gave up smoking. "It's an addiction," he said.

Barbara struggled with some self-esteem issues and tried to counteract her depression by eating.

Gilmer said there are still issues she's resolving. "Sometimes I look in the mirror and see the person I was and that's a 152- pound-heavier me. But that side of me is gone now."

ljohnston@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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