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Some find gastric bypass surgery changes lives for the best

Darlene Pierson of Modesto opted for gastric bypass surgery for medical reasons.

Her osteoporosis caused so much hip pain that her husband almost had to lift her into the passenger seat of their motor home. Her doctor suggested that dramatic weight loss would relieve the pressure on her hips.

Starting at 235 pounds, all of the weight came off within nine months of the 2004 surgery at Memorial Medical Center. Today, she maintains her weight at 130. The joint pain is gone and she goes on motorcycle rides with her husband, Ken.

"I can do things like fit into a regular airplane seat," she said wryly. "Now there's lots of room on both sides of the seat."

Pierson, 57, is one of the success stories of bariatric surgery, which is widely accepted as an effective method of weight loss for people facing obesity- related health conditions.

Doctors stress that the operation isn't a magic bullet, and Pierson was aware of that from the start. What patients do after the surgery to comply with guidelines and change their lifestyle is just as important to achieving weight loss goals.

The surgery reroutes the gastrointestinal system to restrict food intake and the absorption of calories. So Pierson, like all bariatric surgery patients, had to change her eating habits.

"You drill it into your mind — protein, protein, protein all day long," she said. "That first year, you find out what you can eat and can't eat. What you can't eat you don't do anymore."

Pierson eats about six times a day, including a small lunch that fits on a dish the size of a coffee cup saucer. During a recent lunch, she finished two-thirds of the sliced barbecued chicken and hard-boiled eggs before she was full.

"My stomach is less than the size of my fist," she said. "Now, I know when I am full. In my former life, I never knew when I was full."

For dinner, she makes sure to include corn, green beans, carrots or other vegetables. Because bariatric patients are prone to vitamin deficiencies, she takes eight supplements a day. She also takes a pill for her osteoporosis, which can be a long-term effect of bariatric surgery.

Bariatric patients have to be careful with foods rich in carbohydrates, starch and sugar to avoid the dreaded dumping syndrome. When these foods pass quickly from the pouch into the intestine, it creates a rush of blood sugar, followed by sweating and nausea.

Pierson teaches disabled children at Sherwood Elementary School in Modesto and is one of several Sherwood employees who've had success with bariatric surgery.

Gena Douds, a teachers aide, had it done in 2005 because of sleep apnea and a family history of diabetes and heart disease. She was never able to succeed with dieting.

The surgery took away her hunger pangs, allowing her to lose 110 pounds and keep it off. She enjoys hiking and running half-marathons.

Douds and Pierson believe they were mentally prepared for the surgery and the required lifestyle changes. Douds had some intestinal bleeding after her surgery, but she's had no issues since then and her lab tests are normal, she said.

Despite her achievement, it's common for many bariatric surgery patients to regain most of their excess weight.

"I think we need to spend more time getting people ready to do this," Douds said. "If you are not mentally ready to do it, it is not going to be as effective."

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or 578-2321.

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