By Carolyn Comeau
When attorney Robin Merrell, 44, tired of the laundry list of weight-related health problems that plagued her, like sleep apnea and arthritic pain in her back and knees, she knew she needed a healthy, long-term solution.
“I struggled with weight for much of my life, as many do. Food has been a coping mechanism at times, and the older I got, the more challenging losing and keeping weight off became. I also developed hypothyroidism, which made losing weight that much harder,” said Merrell. She said that the number of weight-loss programs she tried over the years was no less than 17.
Weighing the Options
It was only a matter of time, Merrell worried, before serious health problems emerged, like diabetes and hypertension. Ultimately, her physician referred her to Mission Weight Management. She attended one of their many free information sessions and learned about the diverse nonsurgical and surgical weight-loss programs available.
“I was impressed with the options and the professional, compassionate staff. I even noticed that the facility’s furniture was designed for larger people’s comfort. I appreciated that,” said Merrell. “I encountered no judgement about my weight from anyone there, which was important.”
After a thorough physical screening, writing her life history through the weight lens and talking to staff, she began considering gastric bypass surgery, but worried whether she’d be a good candidate because of her health problems. Merrell was in for a surprise. “I was actually an ideal candidate, because I hadn’t yet experienced serious weight-related health problems,” she said.
Choosing a Surgeon
Merrell then met Katherine Habenicht Yancey, MD, FACS, a general and bariatric surgeon at Mission Surgery. “She’s honest, and a terrific communicator. And, I wanted a woman surgeon who understood women’s weight issues,” said Merrell. “Dr. Yancey fit all these criteria.”
Dr. Yancey cited Mission Weight Management’s multidisciplinary approach as a reason it serves so many well. “Each patient is evaluated by a dietician, an internal medicine physician, a behavioral health specialist and an exercise specialist. If approved for bariatric surgery, they and their surgeon determine the surgery appropriate for them,” Dr. Yancey explained.
Merrell underwent Roux-en-Y surgery, a laparoscopic procedure in which the surgeon creates a small pouch from the stomach’s upper portion and connects it to the small intestine. When ingested, food will go to the pouch, bypass the first part of the small intestine (the duodenum) and go directly to the next section, the jejunum. Postsurgery, the patient can ingest only small meals.
A Family Affair
There’s another unexpected twist to Merrell’s story. Since her surgery, Dr. Yancey has operated on her two closest family members. “She performed lengthy emergency hernia surgery on my brother, Rodney, and operated on my mom, Christine, who’s 70, this past January,” said Merrell.
Dr. Yancey believed that family support contributed to each of the Merrells’ recoveries. “We encourage patients to connect with a strong support person,” she said. “This is linked to better outcomes.”
Though Merrell’s surgery was successful, she developed a common complication several weeks later. “It was no one’s fault, but again Dr. Yancey came through,” Merrell said. The opening from Merrell’s stomach to her small intestine narrowed to four millimeters, making her unable to keep anything down. “I was hospitalized for dehydration and underwent three endoscopies to stretch it back out to an acceptable 15 millimeters,” she said.
Still, Merrell would choose the same path again. “I’ve lost 92 pounds, no longer have sleep apnea, and my back and knee pain vanished,” she said, with a touch of incredulity in her voice.
There are postsurgery adjustments, but Merrell adapted quickly. “I eat only small quantities, but miss out on nothing. I’ll enjoy cake at a birthday party, just not half of it,” she said. “My family’s trust in Mission Surgery and Dr. Yancey is complete.”
Roux-en-Y (RYGB) Gastric Bypass Surgery
- Laparoscopic procedure that permanently changes the gastrointestinal anatomy
- Often a choice when other weight-loss methods have failed over a long time period
- Candidates for surgery must go through in-depth physical and emotional screenings
- After surgery, patients will be able to ingest about one cup of food at a time
- Calorie and nutrient absorption are limited, so patients must take dietary supplements and eat nutrient-dense food to ensure they’re receiving adequate and proper nutrition
Katherine Habenicht Yancey, MD, FACS, is a general and bariatric surgeon at Mission Surgery.