The Washington Post Sunday

A Backstage View of Weight Loss Surgery at Sentara

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“Inever thought my weight would affect my profession­al life.”

That’s how my conversati­on with Shaqueasha started when we talked about her incredible weight loss journey. In one year, she went from 317 pounds to 195 pounds. Her inspiring story began in the most unlikely place: the U.S. Army.

An Air Force veteran, Shaqueasha landed a coveted overseas assignment with the Army in August 2013. The only remaining task before her deployment was her medical clearance. Unfortunat­ely, she didn’t pass because of her weight. She lost the job.

While some people may have looked at this as an ending, Shaqueasha saw it as a beginning. From tying her shoelaces, to getting out of her car, every day tasks left her exhausted and short of breath. She didn’t want to live like that anymore. The lost Army opportunit­y was a wakeup call. A week after she lost the job, she looked into weight loss surgery, an option that she had always seen as a last resort.

“I was against weight loss surgery for a long time,” Shaqueasha told me. “I wanted to do it on my own. After trying for years, I knew surgery was the only option left.”

From the first orientatio­n session at Sentara Northern Virginia Medical Center, she felt them take a personal interest in her decision and process. She was inspired by the success stories of other Sentara patients who shared their experience­s at the orientatio­n session. The warm and reassuring nature of the Sentara team showed her that she had found the perfect partner for her weight loss goal. Even a year after her surgery, her surgeon, Dr. John Dockins, and the compassion­ate team members at Sentara Surgery Specialist­s continue to play an important role in her life.

I asked Dr. Dockins how he defines success for his patients and how the Sentara program compares to other weight loss programs.

“The ultimate goal,” he said, “And the one I set for my patients, is to lose 100% of their excess weight, have their weight-related medical problems disappear, and maintain that weight loss for life. I think those are lofty goals, but with the right dedication, combined with bariatric surgery, they are attainable. The Sentara Weight Loss Surgery Center is accredited by the Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery Accreditat­ion and

Quality Improvemen­t Program (MBSAQIP). We are proud to hold this designatio­n, as MBSAQIP accredited centers must meet rigorous criteria to advance safe, high-quality care for bariatric and metabolic surgical patients.”

To be ready for this life change, Shaqueasha took a three-month nutrition class. Then she had to complete an extensive task list and work through copious amounts of paperwork from Sentara and her insurance company to make sure she was physically, mentally, and emotionall­y ready for weight loss surgery.

“Insurance companies require a three to six month medically supervised weight loss program prior to approving patients for surgery,” said Dr. Dockins. “It’s during this waiting period that we complete the necessary tests and education. The goal is to make sure patients get through the surgery safely and empower them with tools and knowledge to reach their weight goals.”

“Did you ever have any doubts after that initial meeting with Sentara?” I asked Shaqueasha. She laughed.

“Oh yes,” she said. “It took me months to decide that I could commit to changing my entire lifestyle for the rest of my life. I needed that time to be 100% sure of my commitment to this change.”

That time has served Shaqueasha well. In addition to the weight loss over the past year, she’s completely reversed her Type II diabetes and high blood pressure. Her success requires a daily commitment to her health and wellbeing. She weighs and portions out her food (which today consists mostly of protein and vegetables), has completely eliminated soda from her diet, was required to restrict alcohol for one year after surgery and still limits her consumptio­n, and she now works out four or five times per week.

“I got three gym membership­s after surgery,” Shaqueasha said. “One near my office, one near my house, and one that’s open 24/7. I know myself and I had to set up a system so that I wouldn’t have an excuse to not work out.“

What I found most remarkable about Shaqueasha was her desire and commitment to lift and inspire others during her own weight loss journey. She created a Facebook group called Super Stars of Weight Loss Surgery. In the year since her surgery, she’s grown the group to 50 members strong. All members live in the Virginia / D.C. / Maryland area and all but one member received weight loss surgery at Sentara. The group has been so successful that now Sentara tells every one of its weight loss surgery patients about Shaqueasha’s Facebook group and encourages them to join.

“You need this kind of outlet,” she said. “You can’t do it alone and be successful. You need other people who really understand exactly what you’re going through. I’ve formed close relationsh­ips during this process.”

In addition to Shaqueasha’s personal initiative­s to build community, Sentara makes a concerted effort to support patients post-surgery. Dr. Dockins explained, “We offer support groups to our patients, which include counseling from our dieticians and behavioral health counselors, as well as engagement from the surgeons. I see all of my patients every 3 months after surgery for the first year, every 6 months during the second year, and once yearly for life. The best part of my job is when I see my patients after surgery in follow-up who are losing weight, and feeling happy and motivated to continue their journey towards a healthy life.”

Shaqueasha and I spent a lot of time talking about how she feels now with so much success to her credit. She is proud of herself and her effort, though she is also quick to explain that success is a process, not a destinatio­n.

“Every day, every minute, I have to resist temptation,” she said. “I hate to hear the pop of a soda can. I hear that and all I want is a soda but I don’t let myself go there. I don’t ever want to go back to the weight I was before surgery so I stay away from anything like soda that would take me off track.”

For anyone else thinking about weight loss surgery, Shaqueasha encourages them to follow their heart and stand firm in the decision to take care of themselves.

“No one else can live your life for you,” she said. “No one else understand­s your struggles the way you do. You have to do what’s best for you, and for your health. You have to be ready to change and be 100% committed to this process. It will be the hardest yet most rewarding experience of your life. Because of weight loss surgery, I now have a second chance at really living my life.”

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