GMA: Weight Loss Surgery Poses Health Risks

N E W   Y O R K, March 28, 2001 -- Patsi Parker felt fat and was eager to find a solution. She thought she'd found it when she decided to have her stomach surgically stapled, drastically reducing its size.

But there is mounting evidence that some doctors are performing weight-loss surgery on patients who are not obese enough to require it. Parker soon discovered that she was one of them.

Before the surgery, Parker stood 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighed 218 pounds. The attractive 45-year-old brunette had tried the standard weight-loss tactics, including diets and aerobics, but she couldn't stick to any of them.

Then Parker ran into two colleagues who had undergone gastric bypass surgery. Once very overweight, both women were now remarkably slim.

Parker immediately asked the name of their weight-loss surgeon, made the call and prepared for her own operation. In order to qualify for the procedure, she actually put on additional weight.

Recently, however, Parker was featured in Self magazine's investigative report on the dangers of weight-loss surgery — especially for those who undergo it for cosmetic reasons.

Struggling with abdominal pain, vomiting and an inability to gain weight, she wishes she had stuck with her old body.

'No Going Back'

Dr. Edward Livingston, director of the University of California at Los Angeles Bariatric Surgery Program, says the weight-loss surgery should be reserved for people who have problems that result from obesity.

"You do this once and there is no going back," he told ABCNEWS' Good Morning America. "They have to be emotionally prepared to change their eating habits for good."

The American Society of Bariatric Surgery says weight loss surgeries have increased from about 20,000 in 1995 to an estimated 45,000 in 2001. It estimates a 7 percent complication rate.

But Livingston's own study of 800 patients found complication rates of 20 to 40 percent, with everything from intestinal leaks to nutritional deficiencies.

Gastric bypass surgery entails shrinking the stomach from about the size of a small melon to the size of an egg. Doctors reroute the intestinal track so that patients eat less, absorb fewer calories and lose weight — fast.

Obesity and Surgery

Surgeons recommend the procedure for patients whose obesity is life-threatening and who can't lose weight any other way.

For that group, the dangers are real: Every year about 280,000 obese people die from illnesses related to their excess weight, including diabetes, heart disease and sleep apnea.

And some who have undergone the surgery have seen these complications disappear.

The surgical option for the obese gained media attention when pop singer Carnie Wilson had it done and began trumpeting her success on television and in magazines.

Wilson lost 150 pounds in the 18 months after weight-loss surgery (also called WLS). Prior to that, she weighted 300 pounds and suffered from sleep apnea, a potentially deadly breathing disorder, so she was an appropriate candidate for the procedure.

Undesirable Consequences

Parker, however, feels she was not.

Within a week of her surgery, she felt awful and was vomiting constantly.

"I started having complications almost immediately post-op," she says. "I've had two surgeries since… to remove adhesions. And unfortunately, they're back again."

After the operation, patients are supposed to slowly begin eating spoonfuls of solid food, but sometimes they cannot digest certain foods and may experience vomiting, explosive diarrhea, or cramping and faintness (known as "dumping").

Patients have to take vitamin and mineral supplements, because they are prone to deficiencies. Complications from the procedure include chronic malnutrition, osteoporosis, infections and intestinal leaks.

According to the National Institutes of Health, a candidate for WLS should suffer from "clinically severe obesity," with a body mass index (BMI) of 40, or higher. BMI measures the weight to height ratio, and is used by doctors to calculate obesity.

Parker had a BMI of 37 when she got the operation, but it is unclear if that is why she had complications.

Livingston worries that as the procedure becomes more popular and people see it as more of a diet aid, such complications will rise.