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Bariatric Surgery: Why I Do What I Do

Doctor talking with patient about results on tablet, wearing masks

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If you had asked me after I graduated from college what I’d be doing in 16 years, I never would have guessed “bariatric surgery” — much less as a director! School doesn’t teach you how to work with insurance companies, check benefits or fight an appeal. Now I do these tasks every day and train my team to do the same. Why? What makes the paperwork, the administrative tasks, and all the hours of music I’ve heard while on hold with insurance companies bearable?

One simple answer: the results. Bariatric surgery is one of the few areas of medicine where people actively come to get well. Unlike appointments for the flu, acute gallbladder pain or a life-threatening diagnosis, seeing a medical weight loss expert is a choice. People come through our doors to feel better, move more, change lives and pursue their dreams. They come to make a positive change. I am so blessed to be on that journey with each person who walks into our office.

Finding the "Why" for Weight Loss

Over the years, I have sat down with thousands of patients and asked them the same question: "Why now? What made now the time to pick up the phone?" Everyone has their own personal reason, but very often I hear:

I am afraid I won’t be here for my grandkids
We want to get pregnant and can’t
I want to travel
I want to coach my kids’ soccer team
I am sick and tired of feeling sick and tired

Though the "why" for weight loss might be different for everyone, I’ve learned from these conversations in my office that most of my patients have one thing in common. They’ve thought about getting bariatric surgery for months, sometimes even years, but have been held back by the same worries. What will people think? Is weight loss surgery safe?

Surgery for weight loss is, unfortunately, one of the few health decisions that can be swayed by social pressure. Nobody delays getting treated for lung cancer because of what their friends might think. It shouldn’t be this way. That’s why I encourage people to think of obesity as a disease, the same way lung cancer is a disease. Fat sends out chemicals to all areas of your body that make you sicker and make it harder to lose weight. Bariatric surgery is simply a way to reset that process.

As for safety, people are often surprised to learn that weight loss surgery is actually safer than many common surgical procedures. According to data from the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery, the overall mortality rate for bariatric surgery is an extremely low 0.1%; hip replacement surgery, for comparison, has an overall mortality rate of 0.93%. Clinical evidence also shows that morbid obesity poses a far greater risk to one's health than any weight loss surgery. A body mass index of 30 or higher can double your risk of premature death.

These are excellent questions to ask before surgery. About a month after surgery, though, the question I hear most often from patients is "Why did I wait so long?"

Bariatric Surgery: Before and After

One of my favorite parts of my job is prepping my patients for their surgery with a pre-op class. It gives us a chance to talk about success strategies and where we’re headed. We go through the ins and outs of what to expect before and after the procedure. Best of all, my patients get the time they need to ask me any questions they might still have, so they can head into the OR free of anxiety.

Everybody is curious about they will get to eat. I love seeing the relief on their faces when I tell them that everybody eats "normal" food within a month of surgery. We’re not in the business of deprivation; there are very few foods that will need to be dropped from your diet forever. I ask people to eat normal, healthy, whole foods, limit processed carbs and — most importantly — to sit down and enjoy eating. It is so much easier to feel satisfied without the bread, pasta or potato when your body is naturally managing your hunger and portions.

Bariatric surgery is just the beginning. A person’s long-term success is a result of their work and effort. What surgery does is remove a major obstacle. It takes away the nagging hunger and cravings that make lasting change such a challenge. Patients tell me it’s "like someone turned off my brain from thinking about food; I used to think about food all the time." Once someone starts to feel better and lose a little weight, it becomes easier and easier to lose more.

Small Victories Lead to Big Changes

My favorite days are when I get to see post-op patients in the office. Their stories are powerful and inspirational. We cry with them and share their joy. Even the smallest victories can have a wavelike impact that ripples through their entire life:

I walked up the stairs to get to your office and didn’t have to use an elevator
I bought my first pair of jeans in 20 years
We are pregnant!
I can finally put on shoes that tie
Because I changed, my entire family is eating better

Big or small, we help people profoundly change their life. I am humbled that my patients let me join them on this journey.

Everyone has to make their own decision about weight loss surgery. If you’re still making yours, I invite you to come in for a consultation. Our goal is to help you learn more, understand your insurance benefits and promote healthy, sustainable weight loss in any way possible (even if it doesn’t involve surgery). 2020 could be the year you find your "why" and achieve a personal victory that lasts a lifetime.

About the Author:

Tina Musselman, LPC, RD, LDN, CLT, is a regional director of bariatric surgery at Adventist Medical Center Bolingbrook. She graduated with a BS in Human Nutrition and Dietetics from University of Illinois at Chicago and a MA in Counseling from Governors State University. She has been helping people before and after weight loss surgery for 15 years. Outside of work, she likes to spend as much time with her two children (5 and 2.5 years old), family and friends as much as possible.

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