Bariatric surgery at 18: Jewel’s story
In July 2016, I attended a bariatric surgery information session with my mom. I went to support her, but I guess I looked like I needed help, too. Someone handed me a weight-loss surgery form to fill out, and I did. I was 17.
Weight has been an issue for me for a long time, and while the thought of weight-loss surgery had briefly crossed my mind at times, I had never seriously considered it until that day.
Obesity increases the risk of multiple health problems, such as diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. These conditions run in my family. I knew if I stayed on the path I was on, those risks could become reality for me down the road. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to buy cute clothes in smaller sizes.
I also had another reason to consider bariatric surgery: I plan to become a physician, and I want to follow the healthy lifestyle I recommend to my future patients. For example, if I recommend that a patient reduce carbs from their diet, I’ll have the insight to be able to say, “Here’s how I go about it.”
I know some people may raise an eye at the thought of a teen or young adult having bariatric surgery. It’s a big life decision for anyone, no matter their age. As with any surgery, there are risks. And it’s a lot of work to prepare for surgery and maintain a healthy lifestyle once it’s over. But I look at it as a chance to give myself a longer, healthier life.
Taking the first steps toward weight-loss surgery
During the MedStar Washington Hospital Center bariatric surgery information session my mom and I attended, we met the bariatric team and learned about the surgical options and the process leading up to and after surgery.
It got me thinking that I could do this. So I spent the next couple months doing loads of research. I watched countless YouTube videos of doctors discussing the surgery and people describing their experiences with it.
In fall 2016, my mom and I scheduled our initial appointment with Dr. Timothy Shope. During that meeting, we discussed the health complications obesity can cause, and he told me that I didn’t need to wait until I developed such conditions to have bariatric surgery. In my case, it was a preventive measure.
My mom and I both decided to have gastric sleeve surgery, also known as sleeve gastrectomy. Over the winter and spring, we underwent various medical exams and attended monthly classes that covered nutrition, diet and exercise.
I was lucky to have gone through the entire process with my mom. It was comforting to have someone who truly understood what I was going through at each step of the journey. She had her surgery a month before me, so I also got to see firsthand what I would be experiencing soon.
What others thought of my decision
Before my bariatric surgery, my program required me to see a psychologist. The psychologist I saw initially was concerned about someone so young making such a life-changing decision. However, after speaking with my mom and me at length, she agreed that I had done my research and was mature enough to know what I was doing.
That initial concern was expressed by others as well. But most people didn’t say anything to me—they told my mom. I think some people wanted her to pressure me not to have the surgery because they thought I was too young.
My immediate family and friends were extremely supportive. I was nervous about telling my friends. I worried they would think I was taking the “easy way out” or urge me to lose weight on my own without surgery. When I asked one of my best friends what she would say if I told her I was thinking about bariatric surgery, she responded, “I would say, ‘What time should I be at the hospital?’” I love her for that. While many friends had questions, they all accepted my decision immediately.
Surgery and recovery
Going through bariatric surgery requires a six- or seven-month preparation process. To reduce the amount of fat around the liver and spleen, I had to follow a liquid diet for a few weeks before surgery. The low-carb beverages made me feel lethargic and miserable! But I reminded myself that it was only temporary and the surgery would make a long-term impact on my health and life.
I had gastric sleeve surgery in April 2017. Eight months post-op, I feel great! That’s not to say there haven’t been bumps in the road, but they’ve all been worth it. Bariatric surgery isn’t magic. You still have to put in the work to reach your weight goal.
"Bariatric surgery isn’t magic. You have to put in the work to reach your weight goal.” - Patient Jewel Francis-Aburime via @MedStarWHC
While most weight-loss surgery patients find they can eat less food and still feel full after surgery, I have not experienced this. I’m often hungry and thirsty. Because of this, my weight loss has been a little slower than most. However, the scale is moving in the right direction, and I’m OK with that.
After bariatric surgery, patients continue to see a dietitian periodically. My dietitian recommended that I include more protein in my diet to curb my hunger. I was born in Nigeria, and while I’ve lived most my life in the U.S. and became a citizen in 2009, my family has generally followed an African-style diet—and that means lots of rice! I’ve had to adjust to eating smaller portions of carbohydrates as side dishes of the proteins I eat, instead of the other way around. This has been a challenge, but I’m getting used to it.
Before surgery, I struggled a bit with mobility. I couldn’t run or even walk very far without getting winded. Stairs were difficult. But surgery has motivated me to take control of my health. My mom and I finally are putting to use the treadmill we’ve had for years!
My advice for young adults considering bariatric surgery
Bariatric surgery is not a decision to be taken lightly. While people of all ages may be met with skepticism from others about their decision, I think younger weight-loss surgery patients face even more of this.
You may find that people will try to sway you with statements such as, “You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.” To combat these arguments, genuinely do your research and be confident in your decision.
I recommend watching YouTube videos and reading and listening to others’ experiences with these types of surgeries, including videos of people who regret having bariatric surgery. Think about the reasons they give, and ask yourself if those are things you can see yourself feeling. However, keep these stories in perspective. For example, if someone complains that they are in constant pain after surgery, look at how long post-op they are. If it’s only two weeks, maybe take it with a grain of salt.
And remember, your experience may be different from the positive stories you see. For example, my mom and I had the same surgery, but she had less pain post-op, feels less hunger and has lost more weight. This doesn’t mean my surgery was a failure. I’m doing the work, and it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing, just in a slightly different way.
Be aware that there may be bumps in the road or less-than-fun moments in the process, but remember these are short-term negatives in what will be a long-term investment in a healthier future.
Finally, follow the diet prescribed by your healthcare team. It’s not always fun—especially the liquid diet right before surgery—but there’s a reason for it. I admit I’ve fallen off the wagon a couple times, but you can learn from my mistakes. If you eat or drink something you shouldn't, forgive yourself, and reach out to your dietitian for advice. Also, take your multivitamins. They’ll make you feel better and keep you healthy.
My advice for loved ones of bariatric surgery
I mentioned that my mom encountered some people who doubted my decision to have bariatric surgery. I think she would tell other parents in this situation that they need to determine if their teen is emotionally mature enough to make such a decision, and then trust and support that decision.
If a loved one tells you they are considering weight-loss surgery, keep an open mind. Help them with their research as you may be able to uncover different angles to consider. Ask questions, but be patient and give them room to make the decision on their own.
And be supportive after surgery, but don't be the “diet police.” It’s a myth that bariatric surgery patients can never have dessert again, but that doesn’t mean they should eat the entire box of cookies. So if you see your friend or family member reaching for another cookie, gently remind them of this.
My goals going forward
I graduated from high school in June 2017, and I’m deferring college for a year to work and make money. I’m also using the time to prepare myself to become a pre-med student by using online resources to beef up my knowledge in a few subjects I’m not as strong in, such as physics. I know that by fall 2018, I’ll be pumped to get back in the classroom and start the next chapter in my life!
As for my health, the diet and exercise changes I’ve made since surgery are little by little becoming second nature. I’m seeing progress and that motivates me to continue on this path. I don’t let the short-term challenges derail me. I look forward to continuing to live a healthier, more active life—and buying new clothes!