Doctor: Weight-loss surgery more effective, less expensive than leaving obesity untreated

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - On a routine trip to the grocery store, Brandon Johannes strolls down the aisle with ease, greeting fellow customers and cracking jokes with employees.

Two years ago, the same activity would have left the 34-year-old sweating and gasping for air. Back then, he weighed nearly 500 pounds.

"I can remember being in the third grade when I really began to notice that I was different," Johannes said. "I wanted to be like everyone else, but it seemed I couldn't be."

His struggle with his weight started early. When he was 14 years old, the scale exceeded 200 pounds. By the time he was 30, he could barely walk.

"I couldn't even stand in one place for more than a couple minutes before I needed to sit," Johannes said. "I felt so uncomfortable and so sad because of how I looked -- of how I felt. You almost know that you need help, but you don't feel like there is help ... but there is."

Getting help

In February of 2011, at age 32, Johannes became one of the thousands of obese Americans to consider bariatric surgery. Doctors say the surgery is becoming more readily available because more insurance companies are covering it.

He met bariatric surgeon Dr. Niazy Selim at the University of Kansas Hospital, who describes obesity as an international pandemic.

"(Obese) patients develop heart disease. Patients develop increased high blood pressure, stroke, infertility, arthritis," Selim said. "Every system in the body gets affected and gets destroyed, eventually."

The Center for Disease Control estimates about 36 percent of U.S. adults are obese. In 2008, obesity-related medical costs were nearly $150 billion, according to the CDC. Individually, obese patients spent about $1,500 more a year on healthcare than a person at a healthy weight.

The increasing statistics and overall costs, Selim said, is why insurance companies are offering to help pay for bariatric surgeries like gastric bypass, sleeve bypass and lap band.

"The expenses on medications related to the diseases: If you treat diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiac issues, depression and so on, you will spend more money than if you spend it on morbid obese surgery," Selim said.

The Lap Band

Selim and Johannes agreed putting a lap band on Johannes' stomach would be the best option.

The band assists with portion control by tightening around the top part of the stomach and creating a small pouch above the band.

"The whole idea is the food is going to stay above the band and trickle down through the band into a normal stomach," Selim said.

After surgery, Selim said 85 percent of patients will be diabetes free, 75 percent won't need to take high blood pressure medication and 65 percent will no longer need a breathing machine.

A New Way of Life

Since surgery, Johannes can only eat pieces of protein the size of his pinky nail and pieces of fruits and vegetables the size of his thumb nail.

His lunch often times includes two or three spoons of finely shredded cheese, about five to seven chips and a few sips of Gatorade.

His grocery bill for two weeks barely gets over $20.

"This is no diet," Johannes said. "It's a new way of life."

Two years into his a new life, Johannes is down 250 pounds.

He's now enrolled as an undergraduate student at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He's the only guy in his mid-30s living in the dorm, but he doesn't care. He said he doesn't want to waste what he calls his second chance.

Doctors say bariatric surgery can impact the mind just as much as the body, so they require patients to commit to attending support group meetings, where individuals who have had or are considering surgery can work through problems and find solutions.

Resources

What to expect after bariatric surgery: http://bit.ly/Y6mgpx

Guidelines for bariatric patients: http://bit.ly/YwT22S

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