Gabrielle & Ana New Weights, New Traditions

Gabrielle Rodriguez, 25, and her mother, Ana Arroyo, 57, of Port Reading knew something had to change. Food had always been an important part of their Hispanic heritage and family celebrations, but they realized cultural traditions contributed to longtime struggles with weight.

“A lot of our foods are traditionally based on carbs like rice and beans,” says Rodriguez, an IT security engineer. “Even with protein options, the ways they’re prepared can sometimes be unhealthy. A lot of dishes are fried or covered in grease.”

Both women eventually decided to have weight loss (bariatric) surgery at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) Somerset. They also came to realize that surgery alone won’t cure obesity. For weight loss efforts to succeed, they needed to make significant lifestyle modifications as well.

“We’ve had to train ourselves to prepare food differently, like air frying or baking instead of deep frying,” says Rodriguez, who lives with her mother and sister. Now their meals look very different. “A lot of things we used to eat are not the best options for us anymore,” Rodriguez says. She has lost 125 pounds since having weight loss surgery in 2020; Arroyo has shed 55 pounds since her surgery in 2021.

Tina Thomas, MD
Tina Thomas, MD

“Bariatric surgery is just the first step in a lifelong commitment toward better health,” says Tina Thomas, MD, bariatric surgeon at RWJUH Somerset, who performed both women’s surgeries at the hospital. “We communicate to all our patients considering weight loss surgery that surgery is a tool to jumpstart weight loss. When it’s combined with dietary and lifestyle modifications, long-term weight loss success and a healthier outlook can be achieved.”

The Road to Wellness

Rodriguez’s weight loss journey began six years ago when she was 19 and tipped the scales at 300 pounds. When she developed leg pain and breathing difficulties, she decided to take action.

Another family member had done well after bariatric surgery, so Rodriguez decided to follow his lead. In 2016, she opted for a gastric sleeve procedure in which a surgeon removed a portion of her stomach and narrowed the remainder to the size of a banana.

Surgery reduced Rodriguez’s appetite and food intake, and she dropped from 282 pounds to 185. But weight crept back on, over time inching as high as 242 pounds. Health problems returned. “I didn’t make the best choices then,” she says.

“Obesity is a disease that weight loss surgery doesn’t cure, and weight loss surgery and adapting to the new eating and exercise modifications that follow it are big changes,” Dr. Thomas says. “We understand how hard it is to lose weight and keep it off, and the importance of offering a second chance. We’ve seen this even more amid the stresses of the pandemic, when many people have struggled with eating and weight gain.”

Rodriguez met with Dr. Thomas in 2020 to discuss her options for a second chance at weight loss surgery. This time, she was ready to work harder at taking and keeping weight off, staying up to date with follow-up visits and taking advantage of the long-term support Dr. Thomas’s team offers.

Rodriguez decided to have revision surgery to a gastric bypass. This procedure creates a smaller stomach pouch and reroutes the path that food follows, bypassing part of the stomach and the small intestine so you feel full faster, absorb fewer calories and have less overall hunger. “I had more awareness and made a big mental shift,” Rodriguez says. With her renewed commitment, her weight began to drop again soon after surgery.

Inspired by her daughter’s success, Arroyo, a human resources manager, decided to undergo gastric sleeve surgery last summer. “My legs and back were hurting, and I just didn’t feel good,” she says. She also had begun to have trouble breathing and was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, in which the heart muscle becomes abnormally thick and pumping blood becomes more difficult. “The way things were going, I didn’t think I’d make it to 70,” she says. “I wanted to add more years to my life.”

Life-Changing Outcomes

Gastric sleeve and gastric bypass are both highly effective bariatric surgeries, Dr. Thomas says. “Once the body adjusts to lower food volume, it begins to recognize smaller portions as just enough,” she says. “Just as important as weight loss are health improvements patients experience as they lose the weight. From the resolution of Type 2 diabetes in many to a decrease in blood pressure, weight loss surgery has longterm health benefits.”

Arroyo, who once weighed 285 pounds, is well on her way to a healthier weight after her procedure. To stay on track, she walks, uses a scale to measure food and has a meal replacement shake daily. When she craves a starchy food, she takes only a small bite. “Honestly, it doesn’t taste as good to me anymore, so it’s not worth it,” she says.

Rodriguez works out at a gym and makes better food choices. She plans meals, packs food to her job and makes healthy substitutions such as cauliflower rice instead of starchy white rice. “My life has done a complete 180,” says Rodriguez, who likes to dance and sing karaoke. “Weight loss has helped my confidence. Being able to accomplish a goal like that feels great.”

“The best part of the surgical weight loss journey is seeing my patients radiate self-confidence and self-esteem when they are able to enjoy their favorite things in life,” says Dr. Thomas. “The non-scale victories—being active with your children or feeling comfortable going to the gym again— are often the most proud moments for our patients and strong motivation for sustaining the weight loss.”

Should You Get Weight Loss Surgery?

Weight loss surgery can lower obesity-related risks including heart disease, diabetes and obstructive sleep apnea, which blocks airways during slumber. You may be a candidate for surgery if you have a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or one of these conditions and a BMI of 35 to 39.

You and your doctor decide which surgery is best for you based on individual needs and preferences.

Learn more about weight loss surgery at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Somerset.