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Women's Health

Bariatric Surgery

A Radical Obesity Fix
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How It Works

During bariatric surgery, the stomach is closed off, leaving only a small pouch about the size of a thumb for food. As a result, patients feel full on fewer calories. However, the most common procedure -- gastric-bypass surgery -- goes one step further. Surgeons not only shrink the stomach but also reroute the small intestine to thwart the digestive process, thereby decreasing the number of calories absorbed.

This is achieved by making a direct connection between the stomach and a lower section of the small intestine. The first segment, the duodenum, is skipped entirely. The duodenum's chief responsibility is igniting the digestive process and absorbing iron and calcium from food. So in the end, patients eat less and absorb fewer calories. Sound too good to be true? Consider the price.

Serious Side Effects

As with any major operation, bariatric surgery is far from foolproof. The death rate nears 1%, meaning up to 400 people may die from the procedure this year alone. As many as 20% of patients need additional surgery to mend complications, such as abdominal hernias. Due to malabsorption in the shortened digestive tract, roughly 30% of patients develop nutritional deficiencies, such as anemia and osteoporosis, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

Then there are the lifestyle changes. People who once ate freely and copiously must become hyperattentive to their diets. The new stomach requires several tiny, nutrient-rich meals a day supplemented with additional vitamins and minerals. Eating too much or indulging in rich, sugary, or fried foods can overload the sensitive pouch and cause dumping -- a term used to describe the sweats, chills, and nausea that result from food filling the pouch and overflowing straight into the small intestine.

Bailey knows the dangers of the surgery firsthand. Two days after her bariatric procedure, she was rushed back to the operating room with life-threatening complications. What began as relatively routine surgery with a three-day hospital stay suddenly became a fight for her life and, ultimately, an agonizing three-month stint in the intensive care unit. But Bailey doesn't have any regrets. "I would do it again in a heartbeat. Life is wonderful today. I feel like Cinderella," she tells WebMD.

It's the small things that mean the most to her now, like relaxing into a movie seat, scooting past people in a crowded room with grace, and enjoying flirtatious looks from men. "For the first time in my life, men take a second look at me," Bailey says. "At first I thought my husband might be jealous, but instead he just beams. I've turned into a beautiful woman."

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