Fellow classmates ridiculed 16-year-old KeAira Willis nonstop. They called her "Wobble," because of the peculiar way she walked down the crowded hallways.
For many students, high school is a rough time filled with awkwardness and discomfort, but for KeAira, who was 5 feet, 1 inch and weighed 368 pounds, going to school became a particularly rough ordeal.
Taunted and Ignored
Kids teased her and teachers, she said, looked the other way. And when she struck back, overcome with anger and frustration, KeAira found herself suspended for fighting.
"I get mad, I wanna fight," she said. Only rarely would she let strangers see the humor and sweetness hidden behind a wall of anger and hurt.
As is often the case for children who struggle with obesity, KeAira's whole family is overweight. Her mother, Trina Willis, knew only too well how painful life was for her daughter.
"I can't stop everybody from staring," said Trina Willis. "Our family's big. You've never seen nobody fat? You've never seen a fat family before? They just see the weight."
For KeAira, repeated attempts to diet failed, and finally fed up with the stares and the persecution, she took a controversial and bold step. She decided to have gastric bypass surgery (also known as bariatric surgery), an operation that would turn her stomach into a pouch the size of a walnut.
Gastric Bypass Surgery
The procedure is not commonly performed on teens because the long-term results are uncertain.
"I first talked to the surgeons here about the possibility of developing bariatric surgery because I was seeing children literally dying from their co-morbidities from obesity," said Dr. William Klish, the head of the obesity clinic at the Texas Children's Hospital in Houston.
But when it comes to children, gastric bypass surgery becomes controversial. The controversy stems from not knowing how it will affect growth. Doctors still do not know the effects it will have on growing brains and bodies.
"[That's] why we are doing this whole thing as a research project. We are doing it very slowly, very deliberately," said Klish. He said KeAira was an extreme example of where American children are heading.
"In my estimation, obesity is the most serious public health problem we have in America today," said Klish. "There is a huge price tag at all levels. First of all, just the medical costs of all this could become overwhelming. We think we have a problem with insurance costs now, just wait another 10 or 20 years when this generation of children starts developing all these diseases."
Houston, where Willis and her family live, certainly has a weight problem. Considered one of the nation's fattest cities, Klish said the degree of childhood obesity there was staggering. "We know in the city of Houston that 22 percent of our children are obese. That means that there are 220,000 children in the city of Houston who are obese."
But kids aren't only getting fatter; they're also getting sick earlier in their lives. Obesity isn't just a cosmetic problem; it's a medical problem.
Type 2 diabetes, which 15 years ago was virtually nonexistent in kids, is now becoming much more common. Some young patients at Texas Children's register very high blood sugar levels.
"That means there are 55,000 children in this one city who either have diabetes or are in the process of developing it," said Klish. "If a child developed diabetes before the age of 14, they lose somewhere between 17 and 27 years of life expectancy. And that life is not going to be a good one."
So without the surgery, what did the future hold for KeAira Willis, whose father has Type 2 diabetes, and who has lost two cousins to heart failure caused by obesity? She hopes to get down to at least 230 pounds.
Dr. Michael Helmrath, a pediatric surgeon, agreed to operate on KeAira at Texas Children's Hospital because he believed if she didn't lose a lot of weight soon, her life would be at risk. "I don't want to be on the list of people who has to die … so that's why I'm doing the surgery," said KeAira.
No Going Back
There is one main worry: Once the procedure is done, it is impossible to reverse completely. That is one reason only 11 other teenagers have had the surgery here at Texas Children's Hospital, and only a couple of hundred teenagers have had it nationwide.
"There are a lot of ethical issues that need to be considered," said Helmrath. "The children who have life-threatening illnesses that will decrease their life expectancy are the ones to get the greatest benefit from this surgery."
KeAira had to persuade the doctors that she could change how she ate and exercised after the surgery, and that she would attend the required group therapy session before and after the procedure.
KeAira's mother and her best friend came to support her when she became the 12th teen to have the surgery at Texas Children's Hospital.
"I'm scared. That's all. And I'm just gonna be strong," said KeAira. On a special gurney designed to support her weight, she was wheeled into the operating room for a surgery she hoped would change her life.
Inside the OR
Once inside the operating room, KeAira had her stomach turned into a tiny sack, large enough to hold a few ounces of food. The surgery was done laprascopically, using tiny cameras to guide the surgeon.
Her case posed an immediate problem. The instruments weren't long enough to reach through her fat.
"Her abdominal girth was so big that the ports that we use to put the camera in weren't long enough to get into her abdomen," said Helmrath. "That was a problem for us that day. We dealt with it, but it was difficult." Three-and-a-half hours later, KeAira came out of surgery.
Twenty-two days after the operation, "Nightline" met up with KeAira and her mother at the hospital. She weighed 368 pounds before the surgery. In just three weeks, she'd lost 38 pounds.
Results but Some Regrets
KeAira confessed she had regrets about having the surgery. 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," she said.
"What you are seeing is a young adolescent who is overwhelmed with the count of stuff that she has to develop," said Helmrath. "The surgery is a tool, and that tool she has to use to redevelop lifestyles that are healthy. It is hard. There is nothing easy about it. The work starts the second the surgery is done."
And so the work began. But it wasn't easy for KeAira. In the months following the surgery, she fell into depression, didn't take her vitamins, had to be hospitalized and even used a walker for a while.
"I got depressed," KeAira said, "because food was my friend and they took my best friend away. So I went to my room and watched TV, but I could smell all the food."
But the bumpy road soon became smoother. This past week, 15 months after her surgery, "Nightline" went back to check on KeAira. She's lost an astonishing 198 pounds and feels great about her new body.
"Before I had the surgery, I was depressed. I didn't like going to school because the kids picked on me all the time. They constantly called me fat and that I was overweight and that I just didn't belong at school," she said. "But now, I don't care about what they say. I'm confident in myself. You can see me always with a smile on my face when I'm at school. I just think I'm the stuff now."
KeAira, now in her junior year of high school, is working to raise her grades so that she can earn a scholarship to college. What does she hope to be? A nurse. KeAira wants to help other young women and men, who are in the same position she was, to get through bariatric surgery.