Gastric sleeve procedure opens doors for adolescents

The rates of severe childhood obesity have tripled in the last 25 years and some adolescents feel they have no choice but to turn to controversial weight loss surgery.

But now there’s a new option that’s helping teens drop the weight with less risk.

19-year-old Amber Blakeman is down 10 dress sizes from a year ago.

“It takes a while for your eyes to adjust to what you see in the mirror,” she says.

Her weight battle started in the third grade.

“I turned to eating as stress relief and comfort,” she says.

At age 15 she was 300 pounds.

“I tried Curves, Weight Watchers, vigorous exercise, but they just weren’t right.”

She turned to Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital’s “Weight Smart Program” in Baltimore. After six months of thorough evaluation, Amber qualified for bariatric surgery. She opted for a new procedure – the gastric sleeve – where three-quarters of the stomach is removed.

The sleeve shrinks the stomach from the size of a football to a banana. Surgeon Kimberly Steele says its use on adolescents has rapidly risen over other types of weight loss surgery because it’s less risky.

“It’s restriction only. No malabsorption. It seems to be a better procedure as far as safety for the adolescent,” says Steele.

Ann Scheimann, a pediatric nutrition doctor, warns long-term data of the new procedure isn’t available and that’s why every adolescent patient should be screened both medically and psychologically before surgery.

“We want the child to have gone through it for the right reasons. There have been concerns for addiction and depression in some people that have gone through the procedure,” says Dr. Scheimann.

Amber says she still struggles at times.

“With finals I’ll get stressed out and I’ll start going back to food.”

Instead she turns to exercise. Now 80 pounds lighter since surgery, she’s not only shed the weight, but also has her old self-image.

“I just feel like I can be me again,” she says. “They say there’s a skinny chick inside of you and I think she sort of came out.”

Most hospitals in the U.S. have strict criteria for adolescent gastric sleeve surgery. Typically patients are no younger than 16 and have a BMI of at least 40.