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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's lap-band revives interest in the up- and downsides of weight-loss surgery

9:59 PM, May 8, 2013   |    comments
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  • At her heaviest, Carey says she could barely walk.
  • Regena Carey was slim all of her young life before having children.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Regena Carey has struggled with obesity for four decades. 

Though she was a slim 125 pounds when she married, she ballooned up to almost three times that after she had children.

"This is me at 300 pounds," she said, showing a picture of her swimming with a stingray in the Cayman Islands. "Do you see why I got a lap band? This is what drives you to a lap band, being this size."

Today, Carey is among the more than 500,000 people worldwide who turned to gastric banding surgery for help. 

She's also part of a growing chorus of patients dissatisfied with the results.

"Of nine people I know that had lap bands," she said, "only one person still has a lap band."

The one person isn't her.

In 2011, just 13 months after she got her lap band, Carey had to have emergency surgery to remove it, after doctors say it began eroding her stomach wall. 

Though her experience was extreme, research suggests the procedure is less successful than commonly believed.  

Dr. Jacques Himpens of the European School of Laparoscopic Surgery at the Saint Pierre University Hospital in Brussels found that as many as half of all patients had to have bands removed within 12 years, and six out of 10 required a follow-up surgery.

That study doesn't sway lap band supporters.

Dr. Michael Batista is a local bariatric surgeon who has performed hundreds of lap band surgeries. He said U.S. health care providers do a better job of patient follow up than their European counterparts. While he acknowledges the procedure carries some risk, he said it's nowhere near as risky as doing nothing.

"Surgery is not a magic bullet," said Batista. "If you don't change lifestyle, and eating habits, it's not going to work."

But having baratric surgery -- even failed surgery -- is less risky than being obese, according to many recent studies.

Dr. Batista echoes that view. "You are going to have complications, but they are safer than maintaining obesity."  

That approach troubles Tommy Edwards, a Jacksonville lawyer who litigated the most high-profile malpractice bariatric case in local history. 

Clay Chandler, a veteran Clay County Sheriff's Office deputy once viewed as a possible candidate for sheriff, underwent a disastrous gastric bypass surgery in 2007.

"He all but died," Edwards said. "He was totally blind. He was in a contracted position. He could not feed himself, drink, or toilet himself. He could literally not roll over in bed."

The case made Edwards skeptical not just of bariatric surgery, but of the sales pitch some doctors use to sell it. 

"[Patients are] being told 'you need to do this, and although there are these complications, if you don't do it, the complications are worse,'" he said.

In fact, one of most controversial aspects of the surgery is the way it's sold. 

Last year, the FDA accused the prolific West Coast business 1-800-GET-THIN of violating federal law for failing to adequately disclose surgical risks. Some in Congress have even called for hearings.

Of course, some patients do have great success with bariatric surgery.

Donnie Shumake and his wife both got lap bands several years ago. Sherry Shumake's lap band eventually had to be removed after complications from a hiatal hernia, but Donnie's helped him lose substantial weight  -- and he considers it a lifesaver.  

"I don't think I'd be here right now if I hadn't of done it," he said. "My hips were hurting, I couldn't walk from here to front door without getting out of breath."

Almost six years after getting his lap band, Donnie has slimmed down from 365 pounds to 178. "The way I was going, I probably wouldn't have lived much longer," he said. 

But Regena Carey, who is friends with Donnie, thinks he is the exception to the rule. 

She regards her surgery as just one more failed chapter in a lifetime of trying to lose weight.

"What's billed as permanent weight control. It's not -- it's very temporary just like all other tides diets. Except this one is the king of costs. Cost me $15,000 to put it in and somewhere around $140,000 to lose it."

First Coast News

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