For obese patients, weight-loss surgery has potential to cure diabetes, too

Jack Harper was scheduled to undergo gastric bypass surgery in September 2011 but canceled it over worries that he lacked the willpower to eat less and exercise more after the operation.

For obese patients, weight-loss surgery has potential to cure diabetes, too“Two weeks before surgery, I chickened out,” Harper said. “I couldn’t get my head around the lifestyle changes.”

Then he saw a TV news report about how the surgery can help patients who, like him, were struggling with Type 2 diabetes and sleep apnea, as well as obesity.

“That’s when I decided to start all over again with Dr. (T. Daniel) Harrison,” a Lehigh Valley Health Networksurgeon, said Harper. “I didn’t do it to lose the weight. I did it because of the diabetes.”

Since his May surgery at Lehigh Valley Hospital in Salisbury Township, the 69-year-old Quakertown, Pa., man no longer needs insulin to treat his diabetes, has lost more than 90 pounds and found the pep to enjoy life.

“Every day is a little bit better,” said Harper, who credits Harrison, his wife and the hospital’s weight-management team with helping him maintain his new, healthy habits.

Harper’s experience is common, Harrison said. The surgery cures Type 2 diabetes in about 85 percent of patients who have it; many of them see their blood sugar levels drop even before significant weight loss begins, he said.

That was the case for Harper, who still takes prescribed medication but gets to pocket the $300 a month he used to spend on insulin.

“I have more energy. I’m sleeping better. I’m not sticking myself five times a day,” he said. “I haven’t had insulin since a week after the surgery.”

Harrison performed gastric bypass surgery on Harper. The minimally invasive procedure reforms the stomach to make a smaller pouch that connects directly with a section of the small intestine, bypassing a part of the digestive tract that absorbs calories and nutrients, he said.

The surgery, in addition to causing weight loss, cures diabetes in some patients because it changes hormone function in the gastrointestinal system, Harrison said. One of the affected hormones, ghrelin, stimulates appetite and helps control sugar levels in the body, he explained.

Other weight-loss procedures such as gastric banding and gastric sleeve surgery can mitigate diabetes but to a lesser extent than gastric bypass, said Harrison, who has performed about 250 of the operations in his career. Lehigh Valley Health Network doctors perform about 400 weight-loss surgeries annually, he said.

Harrison said he often tells obese patients considering weight-loss surgery, “I’m not making bikini models. This is proven to prolong your life.”

Behind smoking, obesity is the No. 2 preventable cause of death among Americans. Complications of Type 2 diabetes, meanwhile, include blindness and limb amputation, he said.

Gastric bypass surgery is part of a larger commitment patients make to improving their health, Harrison said. That commitment isn’t easy, but it’s worth the effort, said Harper, an ex-Marine who works four days a week in material handling sales.

“It was getting to a point where I would come home, sit in a chair and get up and go to bed,” he said. Now, “I can get up and move around and not be tired right away.”

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