Not the easy way out...Locals share their experience with bariatric surgery and their reasons behind choosing the procedure

By Kay Braddock

  It wasn’t an easy decision. But nearly 18 months after choosing to undergo gastric bypass surgery, 38-year-old Patty Davis now readily shares its one choice she’s glad she made.

“I’m healthy,” she said. “I never did it to be thin – it’s just a good side affect. I did it to be healthy.”
After a friend’s teenage son died due to complications from obesity, Davis said she became even more keenly aware of her own medical conditions directly caused by her weight. Watching her mother suffer from syndromes due to her weight intensified Davis’ concerns. 
“I didn’t want that for myself,” she explained. “I wanted to be around for my grandkids.”
The mother of three, who had been diagnosed with high blood pressure, diabetes, depression and heartburn, now points to her monthly prescription costs. It went from around $250 a month to just about $4. Within a week after surgery the syndromes she had previously suffered from were gone. She now only needs to take medication to treat a thyroid disease – plus plenty of vitamins and protein shakes.
Because the intestinal route for consumed food is made considerably shorter for patients who undergo gastric bypass surgery, absorption of nutrients is always a primary concern. Much of the body’s absorption of nutrients from consumed foods occur in the small intestine. Patients are required to drink protein shakes to keep the body’s nutrient levels high, before and after surgery. 
Gastric bypass surgery makes the stomach smaller by creating a small pouch at the top of the stomach using surgical staples.  The smaller stomach is then directly connected to the middle portion of the small intestine, bypassing the rest of the stomach and the upper portion of the small intestine. 
Having to drink protein shakes, eat smaller portions of food and abstain from carbonated drinks and caffeine is a lifestyle change patients who undergo gastric bypass surgery must be willing to make.  Not following these dietary and eating habits will lead to serious medical complications, which can result in death. 
Davis said the pre-operative classes explained the lifestyle changes required from patients who plan to undergo the surgery. 
“They kind of drill it through your head, ‘This is what you have to do to make it work,’” she said of the five-month period of pre-operative classes she attended. A strict diet to lose weight and build up protein, along with an exercise routine and psychological evaluation were all part of the pre-operative classes Davis underwent.
“They want to know you’ll stick to a regimen after you’re done,” she said.
St. Vincent Healthcare Weight Management Clinic in Billings is one of three facilities within the state that performs bariatric surgery, according to St. Vincent’s Bariatric Nurse Educator Misty Curtiss. The other two facilities are located in Missoula and Great Falls.
“We have a very low complication rate,” Curtiss said, pointing to the pre-operative classes the hospital requires before surgery as to the reason for the low rate.
Two of the most common complications include, leaking at staple areas and strictures, according to Curtiss.  Leakage can cause infection within the abdominal cavity while strictures are caused when scar tissue develops at incision points, blocking food from passing. Complications are generally recognized within the first six weeks after surgery, according to Curtiss.
Since first accepting patients for the procedure in 2003, Curtiss estimated about 275 people have undergone gastric bypass surgery at the hospital. The majority of patients are women, the average initial weight is 306 pounds and the average age of patients is 50. Most of the hospital’s patients who have undergone the surgery come from rural areas in Montana and Wyoming.
Most patients require at least a two-day stay in the hospital after the surgery. Patients living outside of Yellowstone County generally stay within Billings for a week afterwards, for monitoring purposes. Most patients are back to work within four weeks.
“It’s really been refined,” Curtiss said of the procedure, which has been around since the 1960’s. “They have just gotten better and better.”
Much of what pre-and post-operative classes at the hospital teach patients deal with how to live healthier lifestyles and to recognize overeating habits as addictive in nature. Once overeating no longer becomes an option, some patients will transfer that behavior to other addictions, such as gambling, shopping or drinking.
“That’s where a lot of that post-operative support becomes necessary,” Curtiss explained, noting finding and maintaining healthy coping habits is one component taught.
“We still have some people that are getting to the four-year post-operative and they’re still coming,” Curtiss said, but noted many stop after the first year.
Patients who undergo gastric bypass surgery must maintain a liquid diet several weeks before and after the procedure. About three weeks after surgery, patients can begin eating blended food, which then moves to soft foods like scrambled eggs and hot cereal. Typically within about three months regular food can be consumed, but never more than about a half a cup.
Although the required change in diet and eating habits may be a deal breaker for some, for 60-year-old Ken Lacquement who had the procedure done in December, 2007, undergoing gastric bypass surgery was a life or death matter and worth taking on the required changes.
“It was either I’m going to have a heart attack and die or I’m going to do something about this,” Lacquement shared. “I may be anxious to go to heaven, but I don’t want to rush it and miss anything I’m not supposed to down here.”
Suffering from high blood pressure, high cholesterol, sleep apnea and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Lacquement knew most of his health problems were due to weight. He became interested in the procedure after his daughter underwent the surgery.
As a man who self-admittedly could once sit down and eat a Thanksgiving meal, get up, only to return to have another one, the small-portioned food requirements seemed an impossibility. 
“Surprisingly enough, I thought, ‘Boy, I’m going to starve to death,’ but I didn’t,” he shared. “I had no desire to eat. I felt full all of the time.”
Lacquement, who lost 223 pounds after the surgery and went from a 62 to 42-pant size, now admits his life before the surgery revolved around food.
“Before I lived around food. What am I going to have for breakfast, lunch? And when I got done (with the surgery) it was, ‘What am I going to do today?’”
Although both Lacquement and Davis assert the advantages to undergoing the procedure, they each acknowledge the pain involved with it and the difficulties each have had to endure.
“It hurt,” Davis said of the pain experienced due to the surgery. Lacquement’s description painted a more detailed picture.
“You kind of felt like somebody took a baseball bat to your stomach,” he said.
Davis, who suffered from leakage at the incision points, become ill shortly after the surgery due to the infection it caused. After being given antibiotics the infection cleared and the pain subsided. Lacquement said he has suffered from two bouts of gallbladder attacks, likely caused by eating greasy foods, he said.
But weighing the negative against the positive, both point to the procedure’s end results.
“Your legs feel better. Your body feels better,” Lacquement shared. “You can get up and do things.
Davis shared similar testaments, including one comment made by one of her children shortly after the surgery. “I can fit my arms all the way around you, Mom.”  
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