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Dr. Ostrowitz, MD

This is the first article in a series that will examine how bariatric surgery is portrayed in the media.

I pooped my pants in the White House is a headline that would have been very difficult to miss in the last few months. This was a result of an honest admission by NBC weatherman Al Roker on “Dateline.” If you have yet to hear his story, he recounted that he had probably eaten something that he wasn’t supposed to with the result being an episode which is effectively captured by the headline. While this has thrust one of the potential side effects of gastric bypass surgery into the spotlight, Roker has long been one of the most notable people to undergo bariatric surgery, and his visibility and openness about the procedure has definitely led to increased exposure. Besides having his success on display every day on national television, he has conducted many interviews since his surgery in 2002, and has recently written a book called “Never Goin’ Back”, which details his struggle with eating and obesity since childhood. While most patients don’t make national headlines, there are shared experiences that bariatric surgery patients have that are represented by the spectrum of celebrity patients.

Interestingly, Roker went through a process that we see very frequently in our patients arriving at the decision to have surgery over a long period of time, and then wishing he had done it sooner. Roker’s wife, Deborah Roberts a correspondent for ABC’s “20/20” had brought up the subject of surgery with him as early as 1999 after interviewing singer Carnie Wilson, whose 1999 gastric bypass was broadcast to over 500,000 people live on the internet. Despite Wilson’s initial success going from a size 28 to a size 6, losing 150 pounds and being confident enough to later pose for Playboy magazine, Roker still felt that having the surgery was an admission of failure, telling People Magazine that he felt people would look at him and say “You weak son of a pup.” It was over two years from his wife’s original suggestion when Roker had finally made the decision that he had no other option but surgery. When I ask patients why they waited so long to have the surgery they almost never say it was because they didn’t know about it or that they didn’t think their weight was a problem. Like Roker, what they fear is being judged by others.

Like regular patients, celebrity patients have undergone different types of surgeries with various amounts of success and faced the same struggles maintaining their weight loss. Wilson had surgery to remove her excess skin, but then regained 100 pounds and underwent a band over bypass surgery last year. Sharon Osbourne had a Lap-Band placed in 1999 and went on to lose 125 pounds, but after regaining almost half of that weight back elected to have the Lap-Band removed. Roker lost almost 150 pounds before then regaining forty pounds back. “American Idol” judge Randy Jackson had gastric bypass surgery in 2003 after being diagnosed with type 2 Diabetes and has lost 110 pounds which he has maintained through diet and exercise. Roseanne Barr, who may be the first celebrity to publicly acknowledge having bariatric surgery has lost and maintained a 180 pound weight loss since her bypass surgery in 1998. New York Jets coach Rex Ryan has lost over 100 pounds with a Lap-Band which he had placed in March of 2010.New Jersey Governor Chris Christie cited Ryan’s weight loss as the reason he decided to undergo the same procedure in February. The Governor has reportedly lost 40 pounds since his surgery and has noted that he is no longer constantly hungry and that prior to the surgery, “I could not conceive of not being hungry.“ Comedienne Lisa Lampanelli has already lost over 100 pounds since having a Sleeve Gastrectomy in April of 2012. Fortunately to date, none of the celebrity patients has had a serious complication, with the possible exceptions of Osbourne deciding that the band was making her sick enough that she wanted it removed, and of course Al Roker’s mishap when he went to see the President.

One of the common themes that can be seen in all stories that have been written about these celebrities and their weight loss, is how they have had to make significant lifestyle changes to maintain their success, such as embracing a new way of eating and incorporating exercise into their routines. Surgery didn’t change the psychological forces that led to their original weight gain. Roker agrees, You have to do some psychological work.

We have seen different comfort levels among our patients in their willingness to tell friends and family about their decision to have surgery. Similarly, some celebrities have been very open with the public about their process from the beginning. Wilson wanted to educate people at a time when awareness of bariatric surgery was much lower, saying in 2006, I knew that by doing that I was going to help people, and now, knowing what an epidemic obesity is—thank God that I did it. Others like Chris Christie and Al Roker did not reveal they had undergone the procedures until the results had become evident.

Every patient has different inspirations and motivations for finally making the decision to undergo bariatric surgery to improve their health. Whether those reasons are purely personal, based on the encouragement of their physician, or based on success they have seen a friend, family member, or even a celebrity have is not important. What is important is to know that one does not have to go through the struggle of obesity alone. Support comes in many forms starting with the right bariatric surgery program, its staff and patient support groups, family and friends, and even those celebrities on television willing to admit that they have the same struggles that you do.

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