Healthwatch 16: Benefits of Bariatric Surgery Beyond Weight Loss

MAHONING TOWNSHIP, Pa. -- Bariatric surgery is one option for people who are obese and having a hard time losing weight, but a doctor at Geisinger says 30 years after it started, he's starting to see how beneficial the surgery can be when it comes to reducing disease.

It's a dreary, winter-like day -- maybe not the time to crave ice cream, but it's always on the menu at Becky's Soft Serve in Northumberland County.

"We serve soft serve ice cream and smiles. Lots of sprinkles, too," Rebekah Carl said.

Becky's is Rebekah's family business. Here in Milton for 10 years, Becky's is also on the carnival circuit. Maybe you've spied them at the Bloomsburg Fair.

But if you saw Rebekah years ago, you may not recognize her now.

Rebekah, at her heaviest, weighed 313 pounds despite repeated attempts to lose weight.

"I would lose pounds, and they would come right back," she said. "The down part would only be about 30 pounds and that's it. It would just come right back, tenfold."

Eventually, she sought help from Dr. Anthony Petrick, director of bariatric surgery at Geisinger Medical Center. He knows bariatric surgery is seen mostly as a weight loss method, but he'd like for people to think of it as health improvement surgery.

"It really causes a lot of the major diseases that cause us to die in this country to go into remission, things like diabetes and cardiovascular disease and cholesterol problems and things like that," Dr. Petrick said.

Dr. Petrick points out in some cases, as in Rebekah's, there is a genetic or hormonal component involved with obesity.

And he says only 1 percent of patients who may be eligible for bariatric surgery are being treated.

"Most of the operations we do are treating the end of the illness or disease, the last event that puts a patient's life at risk. Bariatric surgery is one of the very few that saves money," said Dr. Petrick.

That means patients have fewer doctor visits and use far fewer pharmaceuticals.

Rebekah is an example of that. She lost more than 170 pounds and has kept it off for eight years. She's no longer pre-diabetic, and her joints don't hurt like they used to.

"I'm no longer on blood pressure medicine. My cholesterol is great."

Both Rebekah and Dr. Petrick underscore that bariatric surgery is a big commitment that requires life changes. There is a months-long process to determine if you're right for the procedure, counseling. and support groups.

If you want more information, you should talk to your own doctor about your options.