NEW YORK – In a sign that teenage obesity is spiraling out of control, a top New York hospital has become one of the first in the nation to open a center specifically to perform drastic “belly band” surgery on overweight children.

The Center for Adolescent Bariatric Surgery at Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital of New York-Presbyterian has already performed at least six operations on teens. About 40 children now in a six-month weight loss program may be eligible by spring.

More than 30 percent of America’s teens are overweight, and 15 percent are obese, according to the American Obesity Association.

Obesity in teens has become such an epidemic that about a dozen new patients a month from all over the country are trying to sign up.

“We’ve come around to the opinion that it’s actually much better to try and intervene very early,” said center director Dr. Jeffrey Zitsman.

Another hospital – New York University Medical Center – has already performed nearly 90 gastric banding procedures.

A handful of hospitals perform the surgery on adolescents, but Morgan Stanley, NYU Medical Center and the University of Illinois at Chicago are the only hospitals approved by the Food and Drug Administration to operate on children as young as 14, Zitsman said.

In the procedure, doctors place a silicone band around the top of the stomach to create a pouch that holds just a little food. Patients feel full quickly and stop eating.

One doctor cautioned that surgery is “a radical step” that should not become common for super-size teens.

“This should not be open season on America’s kids,” said Dr. Julio Teixeira, chief of minimally invasive surgery at St. Luke’s Hospital.

“We need to be very, very careful of surgery with patients at a young age,” Teixeira said. “We need to start with education and not with surgery.”

With procedures costing $15,000 to $30,000, “bariatric surgery is profitable for hospitals. … The interest is going to be there for developing a pediatric program,” Teixeira said.

Doctors said dropping pounds helps obese kids shed more than social stigma. It can address related ailments from diabetes to sleep apnea.

“It just gives these kids a shot at a normal life,” says New York University surgeon Dr. George Fielding. “These people are really fat, really unhappy – and often, really sick.”

Zitsman said he agrees surgery should not be the first choice.

“I tell everyone right upfront that we’re not interested in selling operations. This is a program. The surgery is just one piece of it,” Zitsman said. “If society would put us out of business, we’d be happy to close.”

Ashley

Ashley, age 17; height: 5-foot-5; previous weight: 271 pounds; current weight: 230 pounds

Around age 10, “Ashley” (not her real name) was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome, a reproductive ailment that often brings on obesity as a side effect. Her weight began steadily climbing – and it brought out the worst in her classmates.

“They used to taunt me and tease me, and they used to break into my locker. I had food thrown at me. I had name-calling all the time, from the guys. … It was really taking a toll on me,” said Ashley, now a high school senior.

“My self-esteem just went down to the point where I couldn’t enter the lunchroom without having a friend next to me.”

After learning about and then undergoing gastric-band surgery on Aug. 29, Ashley dropped 23 pounds in the first month. Now, instead of downing huge fast-food meals, breakfast consists of an egg and a pear.

“My headaches have gone away. … My acne cleared up,” Ashley says. “Now I’m eating so much more protein, vegetables that I never used to eat.”

Ashley – whose mom is so pleased with the results that she plans to undergo the surgery – says her self-esteem is blossoming, and she feels more confident as she prepares to choose a college.

“It saved my life,” she says. “I think it’s going to help me be a better person in the long run.”

Kyle

Kyle, age 16; height: 5-foot-8; previous weight: 329 pounds; current weight: 210 pounds

Even when he lugged around more than 300 pounds, Kyle Kupfer says it wasn’t cruel classmates that made him consider bariatric surgery. In fact, he had a lot of friends.

But he was just eating way too much – bread was a favorite – and by age 15, diabetes was setting in and his overburdened knees were causing him trouble.

Although he had lousy eating habits, “It wasn’t like I was binging and going crazy. Some people assume that,” he said. “I was always very active. I guess it was, I don’t know, luck of the draw.”

He had tried to lose weight.

“I’ve gone to a nutritionist. Gyms. Personal trainer. I played sports. Diets. Everything,” said Kyle, now 16. Eventually, he opted for gastric-band surgery. Since May, he has dropped more than 100 pounds. He wears size 34 pants instead of a 48 or 50. His knees hurt less, he sleeps better and his mood, energy level and schoolwork have improved.

“Everybody’s like, “He’s a completely new person, weight, attitude, the whole mind frame,”‘ said Kyle, who is considering culinary school. “People are recognizing it and they’re complimenting you, and you never felt like that before.”

In light of his earlier health problems, he thinks his family made the right move in helping him get the surgery.

“(If) it can’t be solved any other way, would you like (your kid) to be happy and healthy and live longer? Or would you like them to suffer?” he asked.


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