It was hard for Kristi DelBene when she lost her mother in 2014. Her mother died young, in her 50s, and DelBene was left without one of her most trusted confidants.
Shortly after that, she looked at her own three children and decided she would do anything to spare them the pain of losing a parent at a young age, she said. For DelBene, 38, that meant undergoing life-altering weight-loss surgery to treat her obesity.
Some people have overcome obesity and excess weight with constant physical activity and healthy eating. But for others, the path to a healthy body is more complicated. With new bariatric techniques and devices, weight-loss surgery remains a strong treatment option for people struggling with obesity and its severe health consequences.
“My mom was really young, only 54, and I didn’t want my kids to feel what I felt because of the circumstances,” DelBene said. “I really have to set an example for them.”
An estimated 193,000 weight-loss surgeries were performed in the United States in 2014, according to the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery. What started as experimental procedures in the 1950s, has grown into several minimally invasive options half a century later.
Obesity affects about one-third of the nation’s population and that number is predicted to rise. Health experts say people should choose the most affective weight-loss method for themselves, whether it be medication, exercise, clean eating or a medical procedure.
Advanced techniques, including laparoscopic surgery with small incisions, and new U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved devices have reduced risks associated with surgery.
“The risks are low now,” said Dr. David Russo, bariatric surgeon at Cape Regional Center for Bariatrics in Cape May Court House. “(It’s) lower than hip and even gallbladder surgery. Prior to the widespread use of laparoscopy, the weight-loss procedures were considerably more risky.”
Not everyone with excess weight is eligible for surgery. Qualifications include a body mass index of 40 or greater, or a BMI of 35 or greater with at least two chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension or heart disease.
DelBene, of Folsom, struggled with her weight since childhood. Since her teenage years, she has looked at different weight-loss options, including surgery. Russo said only a small percentage of morbidly obese people achieve significant weight loss through exercise and healthy eating alone.
In 2014, DelBene decided to have gastric sleeve surgery, a popular option today. In the procedure, surgeons remove a large portion of the stomach, creating a smaller one to reduce the amount of food that can be stored and ingested.
DelBene nearly went through the surgery three years ago.
“I had gone through the weight-loss surgery (preparation) before, after I had twins in 2012, but didn’t go through with it (surgery),” DelBene said. “I needed something that wasn’t going to take me out for months, because, as one of the reasons to have the weight-loss surgery, I have three kids.”
Family and close friends were, for the most part, supportive of her choice, she said. But others, even some of her friends, judged her decision. DelBene said they accused her of “taking the easy way out.”
“As far as surgery, people don’t get it. There’s a huge stigma,” she said. “What’s easy about having your stomach cut out and then making permanent lifestyle changes? The hard part is what comes after the surgery.”
Experts say patients lose the most weight within the one or two years immediately after surgery. Only through persistent maintenance, including eating healthy and exercising, does the weight stay off.
Sheila Baroni, of Upper Township, knows that all too well. She was excited when her first grandchild was born, but she had trouble holding the baby on her lap or while walking. She had developed too much weight in her mid-section and her body became too fatigued to lift much.
When her second grandchild was on the way, she decided to look into weight-loss surgery so she could fully interact with her grandchildren. Baroni had a gastric bypass in 2000 in California when bariatric surgeons were first incorporating laparoscopic surgery.
“I missed a lot of things with my own children. I never threw a ball with them or ran around with them,” she said. “When you get a second chance with grandchildren, it kind of hits you.”
Now the grandmother of five, Baroni said the best thing after the surgery came when she was able to walk around holding her grandchildren or play with them outside. She lost 250 pounds after the surgery and has regained 50.
For the past 15 years, the retired school teacher has helped with educational programs for bariatric surgery candidates.The thing Baroni stresses most is that surgery is “not the magic fix.” People such as Baroni and DelBene have to maintain the weight loss and deal with health conditions they developed.
“For an operation to be considered successful, if they lose 50 percent of excess body weight, it is a success,” said Dr. Lucian Panait, a bariatric surgeon at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center in Galloway Township. “Weight is important, but resolution of other medical problems is more important. The quality of life improves in most of the patients.”
DelBene was diagnosed with diabetes leading up to her surgery. Baroni had developed foot and back problems and would later undergo a double-knee replacement that was long overdue. Having weight-loss surgeries allowed both women to tend to their other medical problems more quickly.
Panait and Russo said patients need to adjust their eating and exercise habits for the rest of their lives after surgery if they want to continue to beat obesity. Discoveries that show genetic and hereditary factors for a predisposition to obesity also are helping patients and physicians.
The FDA recently approved a new gastric balloon in 2015 that would be inserted through the mouth and into the stomach through an endoscopic procedure. Russo is hopeful this type of procedure will result in fewer weight-loss surgeries for the future.
“When you have hundreds of pounds to lose, it looks like a mountain you cannot even begin to climb,” DelBene said. “I want to be able to fight diseases, be able to fight for my life and kids. I just want to be healthly.”