Obesity Surgery: Breaking the 'Quick Fix' Stereotype

At her sweet 16 party, Stacey Halprin weighed 250 pounds.

In the years that followed, she more than doubled her weight before she decided five years ago to opt for gastric bypass surgery.

"What I inherited was depression," she notes, "and it manifested itself in food."

A lot of food. Halprin says she could never get full, and recalls eating entire pizzas, half-gallon containers of ice cream and whole pies.

As an actress, Halprin concealed her depression from the public eye, using her stature and charisma to land roles in an off-Broadway production and the movie "The Dress Code," which had her acting alongside Shirley MacLaine.

But even on the set, her weight took its toll.

"I could barely get through the filming," she says.

Coincidentally enough, it was a world-changing event that spurred Halprin to make dramatic changes in her life. On Sept. 11, 2001, when she was at her peak weight of 550 pounds, Halprin received a call from her friend.

Minutes later, she watched the Twin Towers collapse from the window of her Manhattan apartment.

"I vowed to myself that if the world made it through this," she says, "I would lose the weight."

No Quick Fix?

Halprin's situation made her an ideal candidate for gastric bypass surgery. After all, she says, she'd tried every diet solution available to her at least once.

Still, she was reluctant.

"I did not believe in gastric bypass," she says. "To this day, I don't believe in it unless it is medically necessary. It is a really terrible thing to go through."

Yet, as the morbidly obese population in the United States continues to grow, so too does the popularity of a wide range of procedures designed to limit the amount of calories the body absorbs from food.

"This has gathered a lot of publicity, because obesity is now so prevalent," says Dr. Dominick Artuso, a bariatric surgeon based in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. "What we are seeing now is that more people are becoming candidates for this procedure."

The popularity of the surgery has even reached the point, Artuso says, where the public is beginning to view it as an easy way out of obesity -- a misconception that Halprin says could not be further from the truth.

"There are a lot of things that happen to overweight people when they lose a lot of weight," she says, noting that the sudden limitation in nutrition from the procedure caused her to experience hair loss, fatigue and other side effects before her condition stabilized.

And these aren't the only risks. While the death rate for the lap banding is about one in 3,000 -- hardly higher than the risk one takes from undergoing anesthesia -- that of gastric bypass surgery like the one Halprin opted for is about one in 200.

But for many, the health risks of not having such an operation clearly outweigh the perils of the operating table.

"I don't think it's an easy or a cowardly way out," Artuso says. "I think it's a courageous choice."

Even after surgery, patients face tremendous challenges in the recovery from surgery. But even as she suffered, Halprin's weight did come off. Following her gastric bypass operation, she lost 200 pounds after one year, 100 more pounds at the end of the next year and 40 pounds in the third year.

Turning the Corner

Now at 188 pounds, Halprin says her difficult decision to go through gastric bypass surgery changed her life.

"I am OK with who I am right now," she says. "Coming from where I was at 500 pounds, 188 is a perfect place for me. I am not embarrassed by it. I feel sexy."

More important is the fact that she has now maintained the results of her surgery for five years -- a point commonly considered a benchmark of success among medical professionals in the field.

Her success story has led to an appearance on the "Oprah" show, where she became the beneficiary of free plastic surgery to remove 20 pounds of redundant skin left over from her dramatic weight loss.

She has also written a book, titled "Winning After Losing," about her experiences. It in, she outlines the struggles and strategies of keeping the pounds from coming back.

And she says that every facet of her life -- even her romantic life -- has been touched by her weight loss.

"I went through dating late in life," she says. "My whole life has changed. People ask me, 'What are you going to do now?' My reply is, 'What am I not going to do?'"

But she says that her continuing struggle against her weight will likely have no finish line.

"The pain in your life does not disappear with the pounds," she says. "People are in for a huge awakening when they realize that.

"Eventually, you have to face the demons of the things you have to change about yourself."