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Weight Loss Surgery Now an Option For Obese Teens


BOSTON (FOX 25 / "Sooner or later, reality hits you and that's what happened to me and I noticed I was really big and I needed to lose weight," says 17-year-old Nellie Paulino, about her lifelong battle to lose weight. 

"I tried dieting, exercising, everything," Nellie says. 

Nellie's mother had weight loss surgery in 2010, and Nellie followed her mother's healthier diet, but it didn't help.  By her 15th birthday, she weighed over 300 pounds, and had a heart condition, as well as borderline diabetes.  That's when her family considered gastric bypass surgery. 

"Frankly, it's the only thing that works for treating obesity," says Dr. Janey Pratt, the Director of Mass General's Weight Center and it's Weight Center for Children.  It was the first program in New England to specialize in weight loss surgery for adolescents beginning in 2009.  "To deny children and effective treatment for a disease that's more aggressive and more severe didn't make any sense to me," Pratt says. 

Nearly 17% of American children and teenagers are obese, a number that's tripled since the 1980's. 

An estimated 11% of high school students here in Massachusetts also struggle with obesity. 

Pratt says if gastric bypass is done early, it can reverse obesity-related illnesses in teens, curing them of diseases like Type 2 Diabetes.  The surgery closes off most of the stomach, causing patients to feel full after eating smaller portions.  Though performing gastric bypass on teens didn't come without controversy.  It's not a procedure the center takes lightly.  There's no age requirement, but patients start working with doctors at least six months before the operation to make sure they're physically and mentally ready for their new lifestyles.  One thing the patients have in common, is the surgery is their only option.

Nellie was 16 when she had the surgery.  She started noticing her weight loss about two months later, and while gastric bypass doesn't come with higher risks for younger patients, complications can happen to anyone.  Nellie developed an ulcer and needed a second surgery to remove scar tissue.  But the bigger challenge was changing her diet and lifestyle, eating several smaller meals that are high in protein.  Large meals with a lot of carbs or sugar are simply no longer an option.  "Sometimes you do forget, I have to eat slow and take my time eating and measure my fluids," Nellie says. 

This surgery is not something a patient can do without support.  "The entire family has to be onboard, making sure there's healthy foods, there's an emphasis on physical activity, and they have a lifestyle that's conducive to that," says registered dietician Joan Salge Blake.  Weight loss surgery for teenagers is becoming more common.  Mass General has done a total of 15 to 20, with four more scheduled for June.  Nearly all insurance companies now covering the costs. 

Just over a year since her surgery, Nellie has lost nearly half of her original body weight.  She is a teenager who now walks with her head held high and a new figure, but more importantly, a healthy, new lifestyle. "I'm healthier, I'm more active, I'm more social, I have more confidence.  I'm proud," Nellie says.