Sydney Lewis underwent surgery in the fall that changed her looks and her life.
After she tried dieting to lose weight and resolve a handful of related medical problems, doctors performed a sleeve gastrectomy, in which a large portion of the stomach is removed until the stomach resembles a banana-shaped tube.
She's trimmed her 5-foot-4-inch frame down to 186 pounds from a high of 275. She's getting smaller all over, too, shedding more than 60 inches cumulatively from her waist, thighs, hips, bust and calves.
Bariatric surgery procedures like this one have become the most effective treatment for obesity in adults. But Lewis, a 16-year-old high school sophomore from Lakewood, is among a small but growing number of obese teenagers who are turning to the operation.
"I feel as though I have a whole new life," said Lewis, who described the weight loss as "icing on the cake" in comparison to improving the worrisome health issues.
Among other things, she suffered from polycystic ovarian syndrome, a hormonal disorder that can cause weight gain, infertility and pelvic pain.
"Before the surgery, there were times when I'd be curled in a ball on the floor frozen in pain," said Lewis. "Before, it was a question whether I could have kids in the future. Now I can."
Sydney's story is being told because Tuesday, April 25, is Kids Day. Thousands of volunteers will help sell a special Kids Day edition of The Buffalo News in the morning. The proceeds from the sale of this special edition will benefit Women and Children’s Hospital of Buffalo, Cradle Beach and children in Western New York.
More than 36 percent of Americans are considered obese. Surgery has become a popular and successful treatment for those who qualify. That includes being obese with such related health conditions as type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure, and failing to lose weight with diet and exercise.
The number of procedures in the U.S. increased nearly 25 percent from 158,000 in 2011 to 196,000 in 2015, according to the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery.
Questions still arise in the medical community over whether obese adolescents should have bariatric surgery, mainly because it's not clear yet if the good results so far will last long term. Young patients must also consider the risks of complications from surgery and the potential need for additional procedures, as well as make up for deficiencies in vitamins and minerals in their diet that can result from the operation.
But a handful of studies in recent years, looking back three or five years after the procedure, indicate that bariatric surgery in severely obese teens offers the best chance of meaningful weight loss and improvements in the medical conditions related to obesity.
"It isn't just weight loss and social stigma that is driving the discussion about bariatric surgery in adolescents. Over the last 20 years, we have seen kids getting diseases related to obesity, such as type 2 diabetes and hypertension, that we once thought were just in adults," said Dr. Carroll Harmon, surgical director of Healthy Weigh of Buffalo, a comprehensive weight-loss program at Women & Children's Hospital that also includes bariatric surgery.
Harmon, chief of the division of pediatric surgery at the University at Buffalo and also surgeon-in-chief at Women & Children's, is a co-principal investigator in a continuing national multi-center study of weight-loss surgery in teens. In a report last year in the New England Journal of Medicine, three years after bariatric surgery in 242 adolescents, the researchers found significant improvements in the patients' weight, cardiovascular and metabolic health, and quality of life.
Patients saw an average weight loss of 27 percent — at least 100 pounds in most cases — and 95 percent saw remission of type 2 diabetes, 86 percent had abnormal kidney function return to normal and 74 percent had remission of hypertension.
The study noted that the number of teen bariatric surgeries in the United States doubled from about 800 cases in 2003 to 1,600 in 2009. Harmon sees the operation as an effective option, particularly considering the modest results for losing significant weight and keeping it off by eating less and exercising. However, he cautioned that doctors don't know yet if the weight loss in teens from surgery will hold up over the years. He also described the surgery as "the last door in the hallway" in weight-loss treatment for young people after other efforts have failed.
Lewis started the Healthy Weigh program last March and lost 40 pounds before her surgery in September. In addition to polycystic ovarian syndrome, she suffered from other health risks related to obesity, including an insulin abnormality. She didn't fret over the uncertainty about the durability of the operation in teens because of the experience of her mother, Jo Ann, who had undergone a bariatric procedure 10 years ago for obesity. Her mother kept 90 pounds off after initially losing 130 pounds. The risks from the medical issues seemed to exceed those of the operation.
"Sydney saw my success. She saw the benefit," said Jo Ann, who handles accounts at Chautauqua Hospice.
Still, the decision to opt for surgery requires consideration of the unanticipated complications and the responsibilities afterward. Lewis participates with her mother in a post-surgical program that includes exercise, changes in diet and regular medical checkups. She takes vitamins and calcium supplements, as well as a drug to reduce stomach acid.
"It's not just about a surgery. You have to learn and stay with changes in your life for long-term benefits," said Jo Ann.
Harmon's Healthy Weigh program has seen around 500 patients since it started 1.5 years ago, with ages ranging from 3 to 19. He's performed six bariatric surgeries on teens, the youngest 13, but expects the number to increase to as many as two cases a month.
As for Lewis, she's found new self-confidence, in addition to better health, since the operation.
"I get compliments almost every day," she said. "It has raised the bar so high for me. I feel as though I can be myself."