Teens turn to weight-loss surgery to address obesity, related health issues

Medical Watch

Gabby Slazyk had struggled with her weight since childhood, but when she realized she couldn’t get healthy on her own, the teen turned to an operation in December 2019.

“I’ve always kind of struggled with my weight, it’s always been an issue,” then 17-year-old Gabby said. “You do have a lot of self-esteem issues when you are heavier, you look in the mirror and you hate what you see.”

The percentage of children who are obese has more than tripled since the 1970s. As such, the American Academy of Pediatrics says surgical treatment should be considered a safe and viable option for kids who have not shown improvement or success with diet, exercise and other lifestyle changes.

Gabby is among a growing group of young patients opting to fight obesity with weight-loss surgery, which has been shown to help reduce the risk for type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and sleep apnea.

Dr. Ann O’Connor, Gabby’s pediatric surgeon at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital, said the procedure is a life-saving option when it comes to preventing life-altering diseases.

“I try to explain to the patients, sure it’s nice to look better and feel more like your peers, but what we’re really trying to do is either treat or prevent you from getting some really bad future diseases,” Dr. O’Connor said.

Before the procedure, Gabby shared her lifelong struggle with food, saying she often turned to eating when she felt stressed.

“I go for the junk food or whatever is in the fridge, anything that makes you feel good for a little bit,” she said. “But then you eat a whole pizza, and you don’t feel good after that. It became clear I couldn’t lose the weight on my own.”

Leading up to her procedure, Gabby took medications to help her lose 55 pounds. Then a robotic surgery removed 80 percent of her stomach, shrinking it from the size of a Nerf football to a banana without a hitch.

But it’s been an adjustment. Post-surgery, patients have to limit portion sizes and learn to eat slowly. Now, Gabby said she slowly eats, “just a couple bites of everything.”

Dr. O’Connor warns surgery is not a lifetime cure, as 30 to 50 percent of patients will experience significant regain of the weight they lost.

“It’s not just a simple fix, ‘I’ll have surgery, and I’ll never have to think about this again.’ No, that’s not how it is. It’s every day for the rest of their lives,” O’Connor said. “They have to be aware of what they are eating, how they are eating, how often they are eating and staying active and fit is really important also.”

Nearly seven months later, Gabby is down 86 pounds but her confidence is up. She says she has more energy and is able to do a lot more.

“I had this giant pair of shorts, and I noticed they were getting rather loose on me. And that’s when I realized I was starting to lose weight,” she said. “It is definitely a lot easier to like what I see in the mirror right now.”

Gabby knows what she’s up against, but hopes to help herself and others by sharing her story.

“A lot of people struggle with the same thing I do, unfortunately, and I know the pain and the uncertainties that come with it,” she said. “It’s a good feeling to know I can help other people because, at the time, I thought it was just going to get worse.”

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