Damaris G A Surgical Solution

“My friends are surprised when they see me, too. I’ve gotten so many compliments!”

Damaris Garcia, a 48-yearold single mom who lives in Lawrenceville with her 26-year-old daughter, had struggled with her weight for more than two decades. Taking medications to treat endometriosis that developed after the birth of her daughter “created a roller coaster with my weight,” says Damaris, who recently left a longtime career with the Educational Testing Service. “I would gain weight, lose it and then gain it all back, plus more.”

Throughout her 30s and early 40s, Damaris tried many methods and spent thousands of dollars to get control of her weight, including through popular weight loss programs, a private trainer and medically supervised injections and shakes. “Nothing worked for long,” she says.

After she underwent a hysterectomy in 2017, weight loss became even more difficult. “I was hitting the gym six or seven times a week, had eliminated processed foods and was really watching what I was eating,” she says. “Still no success.”

Ragui Sadek, MD
Ragui Sadek, MD

By 2022, she was the heaviest she had ever been, at 5 feet, 1 inch and 184 pounds. When one of her best friends got married at a beach resort, Damaris was excited to be in the wedding party—until she saw the photographs. “I saw myself and cried,” she says. “I literally looked like I was pregnant. I said, ‘That can’t be me!’ That’s when I really started doing my research about weight loss surgery options.”

A Leading Program

She found what she was looking for with the Weight Loss and Bariatric Surgery program at RWJBarnabas Health (RWJBH). Led by Ragui Sadek, MD, Chief of Bariatric Surgery at RWJBH, the program is among the best in the nation, with a team of board-certified, fellowship-trained surgeons who perform hundreds of bariatric, or weight loss, surgeries annually with low complication rates.

“We all use the same cutting-edge surgical techniques, with minimal to no variation in how our surgeries are done, leading to more consistency, less variability and better outcomes,” says Lora Melman, MD, who met with Damaris to discuss her options in January 2023.

Lora Melman, MD
Lora Melman, MD

Preoperative testing revealed that Damaris’ obesity had contributed to multiple health problems, including asthma, sleep apnea and hyperlipidemia—an abnormally high level of lipids such as cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood, which has been linked to heart attack and stroke.

In a multidisciplinary approach, the program’s surgeons work closely with subspecialists including cardiologists, endocrinologists, pulmonologists, nutritionists and behavioral health professionals to holistically improve patient health.

Several types of bariatric surgery are available to match a patient’s needs and preferences. Dr. Melman recommended that Damaris undergo gastric sleeve surgery, a minimally invasive procedure in which much of the stomach is removed. The remaining stomach forms a narrow tube called a sleeve, which holds much less food and liquid than before surgery, so a person feels full after eating relatively little.

Careful Preperation

By the time her bariatric surgery was performed at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton in September 2023, Damaris weighed in the mid-160s. The procedure took about 45 minutes under general anesthesia. She spent one night in the hospital and was able to go home the next day.

“We have developed a fast-track surgery protocol called enhanced recovery after surgery [ERAS] to reduce the physiologic stress of the procedure,” Dr. Melman says.

Part of the ERAS process is “pre-habilitation,” in which patients work to improve their nutritional and fitness status. During surgery itself, nursing, anesthesia and surgical teams collaborate to minimize the time a patient spends under general anesthesia and reduce the use of narcotic pain medications. Teams also get patients up and walking right away. “We use nerve blocks in the abdominal wall to minimize pain,” Dr. Melman says.

For the first full week after surgery, Damaris consumed only clear liquids. Under Dr. Melman’s supervision, she gradually moved on to other liquids, then purees, then soft foods.

At her three-month postsurgical visit in January 2024, Damaris weighed 132 pounds. “They now don’t want me to continue losing weight, but instead to focus on rebuilding muscle, so I’ve been hitting the gym a lot,” she says.

These days, Damaris sometimes does a double take when she looks in the mirror. “I haven’t seen myself this thin and healthy in 27 years, and I’ve had to get all new clothes,” she says. “My friends are surprised when they see me, too. I’ve gotten so many compliments!”

But her focus remains on staying healthy for the rest of her life. “I had told myself that when I hit 50, I didn’t want to be dealing with all the medical effects that I could foresee happening because of my weight,” she says. “And now I feel great! I sleep so much better at night, and I wake up with tons of energy.”

Learn more about weight loss surgery at RWJBarnabas Health.