Weight Loss Surgery: All in the Family

January 12, 2021

Typically, we photograph every patient appearing in HealthU. Because this story was planned during the surge of COVID-19, that contact would have been too risky. Instead, our team took a creative approach and replaced photo shoots with illustrated portraits of patients.

Some might have called it a sign. When his doctor asked then-19-year-old, 320-pound Christopher Nettles to get on the exam table during a routine physical, the table loudly cracked under his weight.

That was the impetus for an honest conversation between Christopher and his doctor about how his weight could potentially lead to a heart attack, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes. He asked Christopher, “Is it important to you to be there for your family now? Do you want to become a husband and father some day?”

Christopher, who lives in Roselle, New Jersey, listened and tried to lose weight on his own. Over time, he tried fasting, meal prepping, being a vegetarian (where he managed to gain weight), hiring a personal trainer and, as he says, “pretty much everything under the sun.”

Meanwhile, he earned a degree in political science from Rutgers University, but he felt he was missing something. He’d always loved working with food and decided to study at the Culinary Arts Institute in Jersey City.

“It was a boatload of fun. I did ice carving and cold food prep, and I worked in a couple of high-end restaurants. I was on my feet all day but was putting on weight quickly,” Christopher says. “I noticed after a year or two that if this was my life, I was in trouble.”

Considering His Future

In 2009, Christopher was given something new to think about. His mother, Miriam Nettles, lost about 150 pounds after weight-loss surgery with Karl Strom, M.D., director of the bariatric program at Mountainside Medical Center. His sister, Ashley Brown, who works in an outpatient rehabilitation facility, also had surgery with Dr. Strom and lost more than 200 pounds.

Christopher started thinking about weight-loss surgery for himself. Carrying around so much excess weight caused joint pain and exhaustion on a daily basis. He considered his long-ago warning from his doctor that his weight could lead to an early death. His life plan included a future wife and children, not an early death, and he could see a future ahead with his girlfriend.

Deciding to take the first step, Christopher made an appointment with Dr. Strom. “At the time, Christopher was only 28 years old with a BMI of 40. He had high blood pressure and weighed 365 pounds,” Dr. Strom says. “He’d struggled his whole life with his weight and the social and emotional problems that it had caused.”

After a thorough physical exam and consultation on the types of surgery available, Christopher chose the gastric sleeve surgery, just like his sister and mother had. This newer solution helps address hunger hormones and the metabolic aspects of obesity. With the sleeve procedure, part of the stomach is removed (reducing it to the size of a fist), which also reduces the production of the hunger hormone called ghrelin. This diminishes the desire to eat.

A Commitment to Weight Loss

“Some people think that surgery amounts to taking the easy way out of weight loss,” Dr. Strom says. “But it’s not. It takes a strong commitment to transform your life physically and emotionally.” In fact, he was drawn to weight-loss surgery because it allows him to build long-term relationships with patients.

One of the first steps for Christopher was taking classes every month for six months to learn about nutrition, food values, portion sizes and more. He had to be cleared by his primary care doctor, a gastroenterologist, a cardiologist and a pulmonologist to be eligible for surgery. Before and after, surgery he also met with a psychologist to help him work through behavioral changes in his personal and social relationships.

“Every potential patient has to pass these tests,” Dr. Strom says. “Sometimes a person will want the surgery but have physical problems that need attention first or unresolved emotional issues that can disqualify them until the psychological issues are properly resolved.”

Paying It Forward

Within a day after surgery, Christopher was up walking. He stayed in the hospital for three days to be sure there were no problems. Today, he raves about the caring treatment he received at Mountainside. On the day after surgery, he was feeling chilled. Right away, his nurse brought in three blankets and used them to cocoon him. Once that was done, she brought him hot tea to comfort him.

Christopher’s mother and sister have been supportive through the entire process, as well. “After seeing my brother battle his weight for years, helping him transition into a new lifestyle was such a great time for more bonding between us,” Ashley says.

Currently, Christopher is enrolled in a social work master’s program at Rutgers. He thinks his relationship to food in the past was like an addiction, and he and Ashley want to use their experience to create a program to help other people like them get healthy. He and his fiancé are planning a wedding in about a year and look forward to raising a family together.

Dr. Strom believes his program’s 95 percent compliance rate in the first five years after surgery is a function of all the components they offer, including continued counseling, support groups and exercise programs. The program performs 2,000 surgeries a year and is an accredited center by the Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery Accreditation and Quality Improvement Program.

Dr. Strom says the most common response from his patients is they wish they had done it sooner. 

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