Family Gets Stomachs Stapled to Fight Fat

At 359 pounds, Veronica Roselle could barely walk from her bedroom to the kitchen. She even outgrew her size 32 pants.

But now, Roselle — along with her mother, aunt, uncle, cousin, friends, and even the family caterer — has declared victory in a hard-fought battle against obesity.

It wasn't a miracle diet that got them slim; they all had gastric bypass surgery, commonly called stomach stapling. Once considered radical and accessible to mostly celebrities like singer Carnie Wilson, the surgery is fast becoming mainstream, with about 57,000 people expected to have it this year.

For many of the 6 million Americans who are morbidly obese — 100 pounds or more overweight — it can be the only option left.

"I feared health issues," Roselle, a native of Long Branch, N.J., tells 20/20's Deborah Roberts. "I feared not being able to move … I was absolutely at the end of my rope, I didn't want to live."

Food as Emotional Comfort

Veronica's struggle with her weight began the same way it did for generations of her close-knit Italian family. "Everything was mangia! mangia! mangia!, and you had to eat and eat a lot." says Roselle's mother, Anita.

Growing up, Roselle — usually the tallest and biggest girl in her class — had few friends, and she felt lonely. But snacking, she says, seemed to ease the emotional pain.

During college, she became a closet eater, ballooning to more than 200 pounds.

"I was embarrassed that I was buying so much food at one store so I'd buy maybe a muffin and a candy bar at one store, and then I'd go to another store and buy some more baked goods. Then maybe I'd go to the supermarket to buy something else," says Roselle. "It was my evening. It was my social plan."

There were nights when Roselle would pass out in her bed with cookie crumbs around her. She couldn't get a seat belt around her. She tried everything from Weight Watchers to Jenny Craig to diet pills, but nothing seemed to work.

"One day I just cracked," she says, remembering that she simply ate and cried. "I knew I was in for big trouble. I knew I was in for a long road and I knew I was in a big downward spiral at that point."

Roselle had plenty of company: Her family and friends were also slowly being destroyed by food. Her mother, Anita, and aunt Marie were so overweight they were suffering from crippling arthritis. Her uncle Tony had high blood pressure. Cousin Denise was so miserable she didn't own a mirror. Family friends Joe Tuzzio and Cathy Muscleman couldn't fit into airplane seats. By age 22, another friend, Linzey Neur, hardly left the house.

"Every time I left the house, I felt so uncomfortable in my own skin," says Nuer.

Surgical Solution

Roselle turned to Dr. Rafael Capella, a New Jersey gastric bypass surgeon, who had performed 3,000 of the stomach-stapling operations.

"For the severely overweight," says Capella, "chances of losing weight with a diet are minimal, practically nonexistent."

Capella and his son Joseph, who share a practice, are inundated by inquiries from obese people desperate for the surgery — despite the risks, which include blood clots, complications, and even death.

Roselle says she was left with no other choice but to have the surgery.

"I knew it was severe, and I knew it was never going to be reversible," she says. "But I knew if I didn't do this, I would soon be a 400-pound woman and I was probably going to die."

Capella stapled off a part of her stomach, which shrunk it to the size of a thumb, making that the newly created pouch for the food to enter into. The tiny new stomach was then re-routed to the small intestine, where the digestion process continues. After this procedure, Roselle would feel full quickly.

A New Life

After two weeks of a painful recovery, Roselle needed to relearn how to eat.

"If I overeat, I vomit," she explains. "If I fill my pouch too much, I can't keep the food down."

But she happily embraced her new life. The woman who had lived on doughnuts, ice cream, and up to 10,000 calories every day was now content with fruit and tiny meals adding up to about 1,500 calories daily.

In just two months, Roselle was 60 pounds lighter. Within a year, she was down from 359 to 175 pounds. The weight loss continued, and now she wears a size 4.

Wowed by her new attitude, and also by her new figure, Roselle's obese family and friends were inspired. One by one, 11 of Veronica's eating buddies had the surgery themselves. The family that used to devour seven-course meals together now feasts on tea sandwiches, fresh fruit and salads.

The surgery isn't cheap, costing around $20,000, although insurance usually covers it. But after the weight loss, cosmetic surgery to remove excess skin is usually not covered. In Roselle's case, the droopy skin around her belly alone accounted for 13 extra pounds, so she had surgery to remove the excess.

Though it was painful, she says the body lift made all the difference in her appearance. And now, the woman who once couldn't even turn over in bed makes her living as a personal fitness trainer.

"I'm elated, I'm very happy," says Roselle. "I'm at peace and I'm still on my journey."