High blood pressure, diabetes, asthma, sleep apnea — these are all diseases that typically afflict adults. Today, a growing number of children are suffering from these ailments because of what some doctors are calling an epidemic among American kids — obesity.
The big after-school hangouts used to be playgrounds, where kids got a lot of physical activity. Today, kids spend their time in front of televisions or computers or hanging out at shopping malls. Throw fast food into the mix and this is what happens — a nation of overweight kids.
"This is an epidemic. This is the new plague," said Dr. Christine Ren, a gastric surgeon at New York University Medical Center.
"They're developing diabetes as children," she said. "There are children now with asthma, with high blood pressure. There are children with obstructive sleep apnea — they stop breathing in the middle of the night because fat tissue in the throat and the tongue is falling back over their windpipe."
A Drastic Solution?
The number of seriously overweight children in this country has tripled in the last 20 years. The situation is leading some parents and doctors to resort to drastic solutions to get them down to healthier sizes.
Gabby Ptasinski, 14, and her 16-year-old sister, Angie, have been obese — at least 50 pounds heavier than they should be — for years and are desperate to lose weight. Angie's highest weight was about 315 pounds. Gabby said her highest weight was about 280 pounds.
The sisters say their lives have been miserable because of their weight. "Just day-to-day life in school was a nightmare. You just prayed for the bell to ring," Angie said.
The feelings of sadness and isolation led the girls to eat more to cope with the pain.
"When I was full, and I had eaten as much as I could possibly eat, I felt like some part of me was full," said Angie. "Something that wasn't there, I guess — a friend who wasn't there; a teacher who wasn't there. You know, somebody just [to] tell you, you that you were pretty."
Angie said she and her sister have tried hard to lose weight but have always failed. Angie even spent a summer at a weight-loss camp. Over four years, she lost 50 pounds, but she can't seem to drop any more.
Angie's got plenty of company, which is why hospitals all over the country are setting up therapy groups so kids can try to help each other. But many of the truly obese, like 16-year-old Melissa Panei, are taking a bolder step.
Melissa once weighed nearly 300 pounds. For six months, she was on Meridia, the adult diet pill, and lost 65 pounds.
Other obese teens are turning to something many doctors find shocking — stomach-stapling surgery.
The surgery reduces the stomach to the size of a small pouch, or a band can be tightened around a portion of the stomach, so the patient feels full much more quickly while eating. And after the surgery, there's a strict diet.
Ren has performed gastric bypass surgery on more than 800 patients. She has begun performing the operation on teenagers — five so far — because, she says, sometimes it's the only option.
"I feel that I am saving their lives and I am preventing them from developing medical problems or at least treating their medical problems," she said.