Does weight loss surgery work?

Celebrating loss – hundreds and hundreds of pounds of it.
Nov. 21, 2017

Peer support groups in hospitals often discuss loss. This one was about a whole lot of loss – loss that, in turn, yielded huge gains.

Michael Mayberry with a collage of his former, much heavier self.
Michael Mayberry with a collage of his former, much heavier self.

We’re talking weight loss that subtracts 80, 90, 100 pounds and more from the readings of bathroom scales, set in motion by scalpels and laparoscopes but maintained over months and years through diligence, willpower and hard work. If there’s a lesson to be drawn from those who shared their stories at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital last month, it’s that bariatric surgery works; that it works to no small degree because of the hard work of those who have the courage to undergo it; and that the payoff is worth the effort.

This was more than a support group gathering. Mylar balloons shaped into red and gold stars pulled at their ribbons at intervals around tables arranged in a horseshoe; potluck chili, zuppa Toscana and European cabbage and white bean soup (from an American Heart Association cookbook) steamed in crockpots along the wall. The second-annual “Celebrating You” event was a sort of anniversary of monthly support group meetings.

Lisa Kassel, RD, CNSC, the dietician who works with patients coming through the UCHealth Surgical Weight Loss Center, organized it. CU School of Medicine bariatric surgeon Dr. Jonathan Schoen, and his colleague Dr. Kevin Rothchild, who between them do the Surgical Weight Loss Center’s surgeries, were there, too. But, Schoen made clear up-front, this night was about the patients.

“This is your journey and the success that you’ve put yourself through. We just gave you the tools and provided you the program and have given you the support,” Schoen said. “None of these operations is a magic bullet.”

Stories of weight-loss successes

One by one, more than a dozen of them stood, walked to horseshoe’s open gate, and told their stories. Some brought photos of themselves before the surgery. Others brought pants they’ll never fit into again.

ennis Lawson, right, with the pants he wore the day of his bariatric surgery a year before. Jonathan Schoen, MD, left, performed it.
Dennis Lawson, right, with the pants he wore the day of his bariatric surgery a year before. Jonathan Schoen, MD, left, performed it.

Michael Mayberry, 69, had his gastric bypass surgery six-and-a-half years ago. He showed off a poster board of photos, to which he added a single sentence of text: “This is why it was necessary for me to make changes.”

“I was huge” he said, inspecting his former self.

His five grandkids were his motivation. “I couldn’t keep up with them,” he said. At the zoo, he stopped to rest as they kept going. He pointed to a photo of his 5’9”, 330-pounds way back in a recliner. A baby grandchild lay on top of the giant pillow that was he; Mayberry noted a granddaughter next to the chair.

“She’s trying to get me up,” he said. “I couldn’t get up.”

Mayberry lost 140 pounds; his beltline shortened from 54 to 34 inches. He had to take lessons to re-learn his golf swing because his belly wasn’t in the way anymore. He now competes in master’s track and field, throwing the javelin.

His daughter, Rae Ann McCardell, 42, spoke next. She had had her surgery on Sept. 11. Her father having done it, she said, “was definitely a factor.”

“I’ve struggled with weight my entire life,” she said. “I’ve spent the last 30 years trying to lose weight and couldn’t.”

She’s already down nearly 60 pounds from her peak weight of 320, she said.

“I’m wearing pants I haven’t worn in two years,” she told the group. “And another big victory: I was actually able to bend over and tie my shoes the other day.” There was applause.

Sherry Bockelmann, 62, had created a poster, too, this one with the words, “I believed I could and… I did it!!!” In her case, that meant losing 110.9 pounds before and, mostly, after her surgery in August 2016. The poster includes images of her pre- and post-surgery, including shots of her hiking and snowshoeing, which she couldn’t have done before. The loose belt she wore outside her black T-shirt was hooked into the fifth hole. It wouldn’t have stretched around her waist before, she said. She’s off the blood pressure medications she once needed, she said.

“I am so grateful for you, Dr. Schoen, and for you, Lisa,” she said, motioning toward Kassel. “There are so many times I called Lisa with crazy, crazy questions and she was always there.”

The importance of support

It was not all roses. (If it were, there’d be no need for a support group.) Claudia Remacle, 48, who had a gastric bypass, said she lost about 90 pounds from her peak of 300 pounds. But, she said, “I’ve not been the ideal patient.” Her voice was breaking as she explained, “I’ve gained back a few pounds and I’m trying to get back on track, which is why this is so important because nobody knows the importance of just getting support and being positive like you do.”

Sherry Bockelmann with her own collage, which highlights activities she couldn’t have done before.
Sherry Bockelmann with her own collage, which highlights activities she couldn’t have done before.

“Just come to support group and we’ll help you,” someone said amid the clapping.

Similarly, Nancy Wolfe, 56, confessed to the group, “I’m not feeling the greatest about myself.”

Her surgery 20 months ago had brought her weight down 70 pounds, but she’d plateaued, she said. Part of it had to do with a nasty ski accident last winter. It had put her in a wheelchair for four months with a badly broken wrist and ankle. When she was able to stand on a scale again, she had gained five pounds.

For those who haven’t committed so much to weight loss, that might sound like a trifling amount of added heft. Those in the room recognized what it meant to her, though. She said the fact that the others were sharing their stories was a help.

The challenges don’t necessarily disappear as time goes on, said Denise Street, 63. She had her surgery two-and-a-half years ago. She said she feels great, and that she’s gone from not being able to keep up with her grandchildren to her grandchildren not being able to keep up with her. Pointing to a photo of herself pre-surgery, she said, “I still can’t believe that was me!”

But after about two years, she says, you can hit a wall.

“You’ve lost the weight. You’ve bought the new clothes. You’ve gotten the compliments,” she said. “The excitement’s gone, and all of a sudden, this is you.”

Zip zip

Diane Hopmann was there with her husband Dan, both 65. Schoen performed gastric sleeve surgeries on both within three weeks of each other in late 2015. Diane had lost more than 100 pounds by her first-year checkup; at her second, earlier that day, she had regained 14 pounds. But she had gotten some good ideas, she said and intended to lose it again. Meanwhile, she had had no trouble chasing down her grandkids on a recent visit, and she had been just fine walking around Pikes Peak the previous weekend, which would have been unthinkable before.

“We have the opportunity to go ziplining on Friday and I’m considering it,” she added.

“Do it!” more than one person hollered through the applause.

Dan Hopmann, who is down about 110 pounds from his 330-pound peak, reminded those assembled that bariatric surgery “is a forever deal, for those of you who haven’t seen that yet.”

Misty Garcia holding a plus-size jean
Misty Garcia and jeans she’ll never wear again.

Jeanie Roe’s forever deal would have started years before had it not been for a family tragedy. In the 1970s, a family member who topped 400 pounds went in for gastric bypass surgery. She died a week later. Roe, still in her early 20s, took in her three teenage daughters.

“I fought this surgery for 30 years,” she said.

In 2015, she overcame her longstanding fears and underwent a gastric bypass. Now she weighs about 135, nearly 200 pounds less than her peak.

“I’m grateful for everything – especially for the support groups and the exercise classes and everything because to me, that’s where it’s at,” Roe said.

Not quite ‘never’

Misty Garcia, 39, whose adventures in bariatric surgery started with a failed gastric band at a different hospital in 2011, told a tale of autoimmune problems and steroid treatments that conspired to balloon her into the 300-pound range. Rothchild performed her gastric sleeve surgery in January 2015. Garcia said she hasn’t weighed herself recently because she’s waiting until a November check-up, but was down 125 pounds last time she checked.

“So yes, I know it is up to us, but at the same time, it is because of the amazing doctors that we find here because, without them, we wouldn’t be where we’re at,” she said.

Ashley Sommers, 30, said she’d done her surgery after battling gestational diabetes during her first pregnancy. Her voice broke as she recounted how a doctor had said she’d never be able to get pregnant again.

She was pregnant again shortly after her surgery in 2015; she gained just 15 pounds this time, far short of the 50 she added during her first pregnancy. She would have brought along a pair of way-too-big pants, she said, “but I’ve learned to get rid of my big clothes because when you have little kids, they pull them down!”

“I love being here and I love sharing people’s journeys,” Sommers told the group. “It inspires me.”

Lynn and Dennis Lawson spoke last. Lynn, 55, had her surgery in Indiana in 2006. She lost 140 pounds and has gained 42.3 pounds back, she said. “I know exactly,” she added.

Jeanie Roe holding large stretch pants she use to wear.
Jeanie Roe weighs about half of what she did when she wore these.

She admitted that “this past year has been really tough. I travel the world, so that doesn’t help.” But, she said, she’d recently been ziplining in Hawaii, “chasing moose and bear” in Alaska, and is headed for Dubai, where, she said, “I’m going to ride a camel, like it or not.” More applause.

Dennis, 60, emphasized how much better his blood sugar and other health markers have gotten since his October 2016 surgery. A tall man, he weighed 365 pounds when he had surgery; this morning, the scale read 205, he said.

“I’m going to tell you, this past year has been an up-and-downhill battle,” he said. “There were days when I just hated my life.”

The transition from living to eat to eating to live was a tough one, he explained. But he declines excess food now. He’s even developed a tic, he said – he sneezes when he’s full. Others at this supportive celebration said the same thing happened to them.

“This is just part of our journey we’re going to be on for the rest of our lives,” Lawson said.

About the author

Todd Neff has written hundreds of stories for University of Colorado Hospital and UCHealth. He covered science and the environment for the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado, and has taught narrative nonfiction at the University of Colorado, where he was a Ted Scripps Fellowship recipient in Environmental Journalism. He is author of “A Beard Cut Short,” a biography of a remarkable professor; “The Laser That’s Changing the World,” a history of lidar; and “From Jars to the Stars,” a history of Ball Aerospace.