Morbid obesity is a disease that can run in families. It is the gateway to a myriad of other medical conditions including diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer. Even in adolescents, it can limit not just the quality of life, but the length. To help stem this, the Lurie Children’s nationally accredited Adolescent Bariatric Surgery Program provides an option… for those who are ready.
At 17 and looking toward college, Avery was ready.
As a child she had a strong appetite which was considered “cute”, but as she grew up, that presented multiple problems. Avery is athletic, a strong swimmer, and had even been to a weight-loss camp in middle school, but nothing was working. She was personally motivated and wanted to lose the weight but was struggling. She even went on a strict diet, virtually starving herself, searching for a change.
“It got to the point where I was uncomfortable in my own skin,” said Avery.
When she came to the Adolescent Bariatric Surgery Program, she had a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 46, well above the more “normal” 25 BMI, and suffered from sleep apnea, a condition that can ultimately affect the heart.
It was there where she met program director Ann O’Connor, MD, a pediatric surgeon and a leading authority in the surgical care and treatment of obesity and obesity-related disorders in teens. Dr. O’Connor is the only pediatric surgeon in Illinois certified by the American Board of Obesity Medicine.
“We look at this disease from many different angles,” said Dr O’Connor. “It is more than just weight; the weight presents a whole host of social problems. It may start with bullying, which ultimately may lead to cutting or just not going to school, which further compounds issues.”
The Adolescent Bariatric Surgery program is the only such program in the State of Illinois with multidisciplinary expertise specifically dedicated to the treatment of adolescents and their unique medical, behavioral, nutritional and psychological needs.
“We look at the larger family component too,” said Dr. O’Connor. “Oftentimes there is morbid obesity in the family, making it challenging for the child to eat well even if they wanted to. And that broader family problem is often layered with economic and educational issues.”
After undergoing a series of medical tests, Avery began the journey. There is a six-month process to change behavior and make initial weight adjustments prior to possible surgery. As part of that, she worked closely with a social worker and dietician to develop a plan.
“Exercise doesn’t cause weight loss,” said Dr. O’Connor. “Diet is the key.”
Diet changes included things like no more sandwiches for lunch, but salads with protein instead.
“When the teen wants it, that’s when you see things happen,” said Dr. O’Connor. And Avery wanted it. Scheduled to head off to college, it was time to start over.
To qualify for surgery, she would need to have her weight stabilized during that 6-month time.
“As part of the program, if the patient elects to move toward surgery, they also meet with a psychiatrist to ensure there are no unaddressed issues, such as depression, which can initially get worse right after surgery,” said Dr. O’Connor. “They discuss that while surgery is a big step toward weight loss, weight control is a life-long process.”
Avery’s sleeve gastrectomy surgical procedure, which reduces the size of the stomach, limiting the amount of food that can be eaten at one meal, was done with the aid of robotic technology. This was the first robotic sleeve surgery by a general pediatric surgeon in the Midwest. “While robotics have been used for years in adult surgery, pediatric surgery has lagged,” said Dr. O’Connor.
Using the da Vinci robot allows for better freedom of movement and improved visualization during the surgery. “It really provides tight 3-D vision,” said Dr. O’Connor. “The optics are beyond great.”
In addition, patients have less pain too, as there is no torque on the abdomen wall, which can happen during regular surgery.
Surgery went well and Avery is in the post-surgery phase of trying to find her “new normal.” She has already lost 70% of her excess body weight.
Before (top) and after surgery (bottom), riding her horse is an exercise Avery continues to do.
Since her late March surgery, Avery has been doing strength training. A long-time equestrian, for exercise she also rides her horse, “Rudy.”
Avery is scheduled to head off to college this fall, stronger than ever, both in body and in spirit. A fresh start for a young lady who knows what she wants and is willing to work for it.
The Adolescent Bariatric Surgery Program is located in the Lurie Children’s at Northwestern Medicine Outpatient Center, East Clinic, Second Floor, at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield.