Patients angry over St. Mary’s ending of weight loss program

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LEWISTON — Over the years, Ethel Bowden had tried everything she could think of to lose weight.

Weight Watchers. Exercise programs. Semi-fasting. More exercise.

Bowden could lose weight, but it never stayed off for long. She got bored or tired or just did not have the support she needed to keep going.

Then, about a year ago, Bowden and her husband, Jeff Stewart, joined St. Mary’s weight management program, part of the Integrative Medicine & Weight Management practice on Main Street in Lewiston.

As a pair, they lost more than 90 pounds.

“This is by far the most weight I’ve lost on any program,” said Bowden, 62. “And (keeping it off) feels doable.”

Doable largely because of the education and support the couple has gotten through the program, including regular group meetings with people who are working, just like they are, to maintain their weight loss.

But soon, that education and support will stop.

St. Mary’s will shut down its weight management program Aug. 25.

It is a move that has upset many patients.

“I’m shocked. I’m saddened. And I do in some ways feel abandoned,” Bowden said. “If I were a heart patient … would you just close shop and say, ‘Good luck, you’re on you’re own.’ Or not even tell me, or not refer me to someone?”

A St. Mary’s spokesman previously told the Sun Journal he did not know how many patients or staff members would be affected by the closure, but he estimated that it would be “a small number.”

However, patients, including one who is also a retired program employee, disagree. They say the weight management center has about a dozen employees and serves 300 to 500 patients.

They say those hundreds of patients now have nowhere else to go. They know of no other place in Maine that helps people lose weight by customizing a plan that can include medical supervision, nutrition, behavioral changes, exercise, medication and support groups.

A small group of patients and employees gathered privately last week to talk about the closure and what they could do to stop it. Other patients said they have written letters or emails to hospital officials lambasting the decision and begging them to reconsider. Some have taken their cause online with a Facebook page called Save St. Mary’s Weight Management.

“I just feel like people are going to be devastated,” said Nancy Boulanger, a retired nurse who worked for the program for five years and has been a patient there. “The ones that I actually come in contact with are just (saying), ‘What can I do? Who can I talk to?'”

But Chief Medical Officer Christopher Bowe said Monday that St. Mary’s has received and responded to fewer than 10 questions about the program’s end. St. Mary’s senior leadership team made the decision to shut it down, he said, and that’s still the plan.

“We understand their concerns and frustrations. We are proud of the care we have delivered in the past. We have been trying to make this program successful and sustainable for some time,” Chief Medical Officer Christopher Bowe said in an email.

“In the end, reviewing the program at the time of the lead physician’s departure, we concluded that our current model was unfortunately not sustainable.”

He added that “St. Mary’s will continue to explore opportunities to provide this care in the future in a sustainable model,” but he did not elaborate in the email. St. Mary’s spokesman Jason Gould did not respond to a request for clarification.

About a dozen patients have reached out to the Sun Journal over the past two weeks, seeking to talk about their experience with the program.

One said he spent two months as a patient and did not like it. He felt the program focused too much on expensive classes and not enough on actual weight loss.

All others lauded the program, saying it helped them lose between 20 and 200 pounds and keep it off for months or years. In some cases, that weight loss reversed their diabetes, eliminated the need for hip replacement or improved their health in other ways.

“I went off blood pressure medicine within the first four, five months,” said Sarah Abacha, 44, who started with the program 15 months ago and has lost 70 pounds. “They’re constantly monitoring you. It’s not like when you go to your primary (care doctor) once a year. They look at everything you’re doing in your life.”

Many of the patients said they liked having a doctor involved in their weight loss plan, particularly since she could point out which previously prescribed medications might be adding to their weight-loss trouble and could offer alternatives.

They liked the nutritionist, who showed them how to eat right within their budget and without getting bored. They liked learning how their bodies processed different foods.

They really liked the regular support.

“It’s sort of like a family. It’s been a huge, huge help to me,” said Deborah Prescott, 62, who’s lost 149 pounds in two years and last month participated in St. Mary’s Commit To Get Fit Challenge.

Because it’s like a family, many patients are now concerned about their fellow classmates and support group members.

“They’re still fighting (their weight) all the time and the groups are there to help them fight. So I worry about those folks not having the groups,” said Jeff Stewart, Bowden’s husband. “It’s a great program, a wonderful program. I’ve written to St. Mary’s about it. I just had to vent to them, you know, ‘What are you thinking? You’re just dropping these folks off the edge of a cliff and wondering which direction they’re going to start walking.'”

He believes the closure goes against the Catholic hospital system’s mission to help people.

“They should have cut corners elsewhere. I think this is a disservice to folks who really rely on that service,” he said. “It’s not very charitable, which St. Mary’s is supposed to be. It’s certainly not very God-like, which St. Mary’s is supposed to be. It’s not very Jesus-like, which St. Mary’s is supposed to be.”

Two weeks ago, Bowe told the Sun Journal that St. Mary’s would soon formally notify patients about the closure and that the letter would “provide specific information about clinical needs during this transition time.”

“We are also working closely with our primary care providers and additional resources outside of our system to be sure that the patients have options for ongoing care,” Bowe said in a statement at the time.

But patients say they still haven’t received any information from St. Mary’s about the closure or their options.

“I just find it unconscionable,” Bowden said. “I love St. Mary’s. I’ve been been going to St. Mary’s since I moved to town, which was in ’84, I think. And I’ve always gotten great care, which is why I chose the weight management program. I have a lot of faith in their mission. I have faith in the people who work for them. I’m just still a little bit stunned, I guess, that this is going down so badly.”

Bowe said Monday that letters are being mailed now.

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Ethel Bowden, left, and Nancy Boulanger say it is the educational component of the St. Mary’s weight management program that is key to them. The program “explained what my body does with the food that I eat,” Boulanger said. “We are hoping that our voice is heard and they will realize that they are making the wrong decision.” (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

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