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Fat teens get stomach operation { August 5 2003 }

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More teens get tummies downsized
August 5, 2003


Amy Topel had tried exercise, weight-loss pills and every diet, real or fad.

But at age 15, the northwest suburban Bartlett girl had reached 260 pounds and a difficult decision: It was time to try surgery.

Operating was scary, but her mother had undergone it and lost 100 pounds--and Amy was tired of classmates' taunts. So in June, the same surgeon shrank Amy's stomach. She's dropped 30 pounds and counting.

Gastric bypass surgery has long been a dramatic solution for obese adults, but more doctors are operating on teenagers, too. Now the first pediatric guidelines are due out soon, and they'll urge doctors to put more limits on teens' surgery than on adults'--because nobody yet knows the long-term outcomes of such a radical operation on a still-developing body.

The main recommendations:

*To qualify, teens should have obesity-caused problems, either physical or, like Amy, from the stigma of being fat--and a starting weight at least 30 pounds higher than adult candidates.

*Don't operate before teens nearly reach their full height potential--usually around age 13 for girls and 15 for boys--because the surgery limits nutrient absorption.

*Hospitals should establish a panel of experts in adolescent obesity, psychology and nutrition to evaluate teens' physical and psychological well-being and pick the best candidates.

Surgery will help some teens, but ''it made sense to all of us to set the bar a bit higher,'' says Dr. Thomas Inge of the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, who co-authored the guidelines.

The guidelines have been submitted to a medical journal for publication later this year, and promise to be somewhat controversial.

Some surgeons say there's no reason to be more cautious with teens. After all, heart disease, diabetes and other obesity-related illnesses can take root in childhood.

''There's no doubt surgery is a drastic measure. It is a risk to life. But at times, living with a condition like this obesity--it is a risk to life by itself,'' says Dr. Constantine Frantzides of Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center on the West Side, who operated on Amy.

The operation entails stapling closed part of the stomach. Typically, patients lose 70 to 80 percent of their excess body weight in about a year.

But the surgery itself comes with risks, such as wound infections, the possibility of stomach leaks and occasionally life-threatening blood clots.

Recovered patients must follow rules: They eat small servings, counting to get enough protein.

Gorging causes vomiting. The body no longer processes sugar properly, so too much causes dizziness and diarrhea. Regularly breaking the rules can bring back the weight.

''You name it, I tried it,'' Amy recalls. ''But high school started and kids became mean and I take all my stress out on eating.''

Life now is about nutritious rationing, she's learning after half a hamburger one day was enough to make her throw up.

''My brain's telling me to eat, my stomach's telling me no,'' Amy says. But her friends are ''amazed. They say, 'You're so skinny!' ''


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