Like Brother, Like Sister? More Teens Getting Controversial Surgery

Jarvis Willis is 16 years old. He spends most of his time these days playing video games even though football is his passion. But at 320 pounds, he said his coach has thrown him off the team for being too fat to play.

But that's not his only problem: His weight has given this teenager all sorts of illnesses that you typically see in people more than twice his age, such as severe diabetes and kidney failure. Jarvis admits that his eating habits along with failing to take his medicine has had dire effects on his health.

"My diabetes has gotten bad because of all the junk I've been eating at school and around the house," said Willis. "It started to affect my kidneys."

In fact, Jarvis was hospitalized in September because he was on his way to renal failure. As is often the case, diabetes is a family problem.

"Diabetes is real bad," said his mother, Trina. "His father has type 2 diabetes, too. [Jarvis'] diabetes has worsened over the year. It has got out of control the way it has affected his kidneys."

Jarvis is worried enough about his health to ask for an extreme form of help -- gastric bypass surgery. He underwent the surgery earlier this week at the Texas Children's Hospital in Houston. Jarvis said he hopes the surgery will change his life and that he may be able to play football again, or possibly try out for the basketball team.

'Trying to Save His Life'

Dr. Mary Brand, of Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, performed the procedure that reduced Jarvis' stomach to the size of a walnut. Bariatric or gastric bypass surgery is widely used for obese adults, but the surgery is still experimental in children. Despite the risks involved, Brandt maintains the procedure was necessary for Jarvis' health.

"In children who are very ill and who are as large as Jarvis is, we feel the more aggressive surgery is indicated," said Brandt. "We're really trying to save his life by reversing his diabetes, not just make him thin."

According to Dr. Siripoom McKay, who treats Jarvis for his diabetes, he already suffers from a number of potentially life-threatening conditions due to his obesity.

"He has several complications of obesity," said McKay. "He's got sleep apnea, has kidney problems, high blood pressure. We've tried everything else and I think it's time we do bariatric surgery on him."

The procedure involves dividing the stomach into two pieces and surgeons often conduct it laproscopically, using tiny cameras to guide them. It is not commonly performed on teens because the long-term results are uncertain. But the results, according to Brandt, have tremendous possibilities. She believes Jarvis' health will now improve tremendously after the surgery.

"He'll lose a substantial amount of weight in the first month and probably reverse or greatly improve his diabetes even in the first month," said Brandt.

All in the Family

The Willis family has been through this before. Jarvis' older sister KeAira also struggled with morbid obesity before undergoing the procedure two years ago. She was also 16 and weighed 368 pounds.

She was constantly teased and tormented about her weight. Going to school was a daily ordeal. Only rarely did she let strangers see the humor and sweetness she hid behind a wall of anger and hurt.

Some kids called her "wobble" because of the peculiar way she walked down the crowded hallways. She tried to ignore the teasing but sometimes it was too much for her to take, and she would strike back.

"I just get mad and wanna fight," KeAira said -- something that would often lead a school suspension.

KeAira's repeated attempts to diet failed and so she decided to take the bold step her brother now took. KeAira has lost 208 pounds in 21 months, but not without struggle.

Though she is now a happy, healthy 160 pounds, she confesses that right after the surgery, she had some regrets. She wanted to eat, even though the size of her stomach meant she couldn't actually be hungry.

Food had been her comfort, her friend. And she hated to give it up.

"I'm used to eating when I'm depressed," KeAira said. She hopes to be able to help her brother Jarvis face some of these difficulties (click here to read more about KeAira's story).

Houston's Problem

Jarvis and KeAira are part of a staggering trend. In Houston alone, 220,000 children are obese and McKay said over the past decade, the number of children diagnosed with type 2 diabetes has increased sixfold.

Dr. William Klish, who is the head of the obesity clinic at the Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, admits that type 2 obesity-related diabetes in children is an epidemic that needs to be addressed. This is why he has devoted more research to gastric bypass surgery in children.

"I originally talked to the surgeons here about the possibility of developing bariatric surgery because I was seeing children literally dying from their co-morbidities from, from obesity," said Klish.

Klish considers childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes to be the most serious public health problem in America today, shortening the lifespans of children significantly.

"If a child develops diabetes before the age of 14, they lose somewhere between 17 and 27 years of life expectancy," said Klish. "And that life isn't gonna be a good life."

Not only do obesity and type 2 diabetes shorten life spans, but they place an enormous toll on our health care system. And Klish worries that it will only get worse.

"The medical costs of this are going to become overwhelming," said Klish. "We think we have a problem with insurance costs now, just wait another 10 or 20 years when this generation of children start developing all these diseases."

Klish believes that bariatric surgery can help alleviate the problem, but understands it is not without risk.

"And that's why we're doing this whole thing as a research project," said Klish. "We're doing it very slowly, deliberately."

He hopes the research will determine whether the benefit is greater than the risk. So far, it appears that it has been for KeAira, who is now eager to help her brother through his own surgery.

"I hope it won't be a tough road for Jarvis," she said. "But he likes to eat, and so I know he'll get depressed, and I am just going to do the same things he did for me -- not eat in front of him, encourage him to keep going and just hope for the best."

Jarvis was scheduled to be released from the hospital today.

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