Bariatric Surgery Helps Teenager Gain New Confidence and Health

When Amanda Rodriguez celebrated her 15th birthday at a traditional Cuban quince, she weighed nearly 300 pounds. Already pre-diabetic, she could not climb the stairs at her high school and, though she had a lovely voice, was hidden in the back row when the school choir competed.

Today, the 19-year-old has not only a state alto soloist award and a full college scholarship under her substantially slimmer belt, but also the confidence to “interact with really cute guys,” a transformation she owes to the bariatric surgery she underwent at University of Miami Hospital the day before she turned 17.

Describing how her 100-plus-pound weight loss improved her mental and physical health at a news conference at UMH last week, Amanda presented herself as living proof of the safety and positive outcomes of bariatric surgery for morbidly obese adolescents, which her surgeon, Nestor de la Cruz-Muñoz, M.D., chief of the Division of Laparoendoscopic and Bariatric Surgery, and other Miller School researchers recently documented in the first large-scale study of its kind.

“I was seeing a therapist for a while before I decided to get surgery,” she said. “I was just really unhappy with myself. I couldn’t even walk up the stairs. It was really embarrassing. … Now I have more friends. I confide in more people and I do not see a therapist anymore.”

Led by Sarah Messiah, Ph.D., M.P.H., research associate professor and perinatal/pediatric epidemiologist in the Department of Pediatrics, the study in Surgery for Obesity and Related Disease showed that bariatric surgery safely and substantially reduced weight and related physical and mental health problems in morbidly obese adolescents. The researchers found that the average weight loss one year after surgery was more than 66 pounds, and hypertension, diabetes and depression improved substantially.

For the study, “Changes in weight and co-morbidities among adolescents undergoing bariatric surgery: 1-year results from the Bariatric Outcomes Longitudinal Database,” researchers analyzed data from the national BOLD database, which included all reported bariatric cases performed on patients aged 11 to 20 from every state except Vermont and New Mexico – a total of 890 morbidly obese adolescents.

Noting that most pediatricians and family physicians over-estimate the risks and would not recommend bariatric surgery for morbidly obese adolescents, Messiah and de la Cruz-Muñoz said they hoped the data-driven study will help convince them that waiting for patients to reach adulthood may be far riskier.

“So many people have spoken out against bariatric surgery for adolescents but, to me, you’re just kicking the can down the road, and getting them sicker,’’ Messiah said. “Why wait? If a patient is morbidly obese in their teenage years, if there is an intervention that is not only safe but proven effective by scientific evidence to help them live healthier lives as an adult, why not? It could potentially be a game-changer for this age group, in terms of not only stopping diabetes, but preventing it.”

De la Cruz-Muñoz, who previously performed bariatric surgeries on Amanda’s mother and father, said many physicians “don’t understand the benefits and are scared of the risks. What we’re hoping the study will do is help provide a framework for more discussion with primary care doctors and families.”

Amanda, who is attending the University of Connecticut on a full scholarship and plans to be a psychologist, hopes so, too. “I would definitely recommend the surgery,” she said. “It really changed my life so much for the better.”

To watch Amanda’s June 18 appearance on NBC’s “Today Show,” visit the website.

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