Bariatric surgery goes beyond simply losing weight

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Ron Ratliff is starting the new year with a huge weight off his shoulders - and everywhere else on his body.

"I began putting on weight when I was in my early 20s, and, eventually, my weight, about 10 years ago, ballooned to 275 and that's when I was diagnosed as a Type 2 diabetic," he said.

After years of frustration with diet and exercise, the health concerns prompted Ron to get serious about talking to his doctor about bariatric surgery.

"I felt like my body was a ticking time bomb," Ron said. "I'm in my mid-60s. It was a time in life where I needed to get serious about how long do I want to be here?"

Dr. Partha Bhurtel of Stormont Vail says bariatric surgery is a tool to address obesity-related health issues.

"We don't consider it as a weight loss procedure," he said.

To qualify, patients must have a body mass index (BMI) of at least 35, along with an obesity-related health condition like Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, or sleep apnea; or a BMI of 40 or greater.

The surgery can take several forms, which all change the stomach.

"Essentially what we do is we either decrease the size of the stomach, or we redo the plumbing as to how the stomach and the intestine are connected to each other, and that changes how much (a person) can eat and how much a person can absorb," Dr. Bhurtel said.

But health experts caution against thinking surgery is an easy road to weight loss.

"It's not a guaranteed magic fix," explained dietitian Amber Groeling, RD, with Stormont Vail. "It requires extreme dedication to diet - probably more than they've ever had before."

Groeling said surgery must be coupled with lifestyle changes, which is why patients at Stormont are supported through the Cotton O'Neil Weight Management Center.

Patients will be on a liquid diet immediately after surgery, then transition to smaller meals in a diet that's lower in carbs, and higher in lean protein. Groeling said too much sugar or fatty food can cause nausea or cramps.

The surgery itself carries risks including bleeding, leakage, and blood clots, although Dr. Bhurtel said those are fairly low. Patients also face risks like dehydration, malnutrition, and bone loss.

Patients will eat smaller meals after surgery, but Groeling said another side effect might help with that.

"It changes the hormonal signaling between the gut, the stomach, and the brain," she said. "A lot of times, what happens and what I hear from a lot of our patients is they don't feel as hungry."

For Dr. Bhutrtel, the weight loss is a bonus.

"People can have more meaningful lives," he said. "People can get up. They can play with their grandkids. People can do stuff they haven't been able to do for years.

Ron had surgery in May, and is down to 170 pounds. He's also off all his diabetes medications, and most other meds, too.

Everything in my life has changed - my diet, my approach to food, my approach to eating," he said. "I'm very, very grateful - that's the overwhelming emotion that I have is I'm very grateful."

Most bariatric procedures require at least an overnight hospital stay. Plus, not all insurance will cover it -- and it can cost anywhere from $10,000 to upward of $20,000 when paid out of pocket.

People interested in learning more about it should talk to their primary care doctor for a referral.