By Jennifer Wulff
March 21, 2005 12:00 PM

Weight loss sparks headlines, but gastric bypass isn’t always about I getting thin: Recent studies, including one by the American Medical Association, have shown bypass can help beat diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and sleep apnea. Although it carries risks for many patients, says Salt Lake City surgeon Dr. Hugh Stoneburner, “it saves lives.”


The first symptoms—trembling, sweats, labored breathing—started right in the middle of a school meeting: Dawn Fitzpatrick was on the verge of cardiac arrest. An echocardiogram showed her heart pumping at only 10 percent capacity. At 297 lbs., Fitzpatrick was told to drastically change her lifestyle—or else. In addition, “we had to lighten her heart’s load,” says Dr. Alex Gandsas, who performed her gastric bypass. Fitzpatrick’s 143-lb. weight loss has helped bring her heart up to about 50 percent capacity. The single Baltimore special education teacher is hoping to improve that number with daily mile-long walks and her protein-and-fruit diet (with the occasional treat of sugar-free chocolate). “I have a lot more energy now,” she says. “And I just feel lighter!”


“You have 60 days to live” That’s what Dick Stucki’s doctor told him in late 2002. At 558 lbs., the Salt lake City writer was on 23 medications and confined to a wheelchair. To head off the near-certainty of a heart attack, he decided to have gastric bypass. He not only survived but thrived, losing 323 in just one year. “He’s gone from death to life,” says his wife, Pam, 51. Today, Stucki teaches cooking classes for bariatric patients and has written a cookbook called Cookin’ for Weight Loss Surgery Patients, which includes recipes for mock-apple pie and almond chicken. “I’ve been given a chance to complete more work on earth,” he says. “My time wasn’t up.”


She had already ruptured one disc in her back and was warned she’d damage another. With sleep apnea, painful arthritis and high blood pressure and blood sugar levels, “I was a walking time bomb,” says education advocate Dana Tenas-Hewankorn, a Kootenai Indian who lives on a reservation near Elmo, Mont. After gastric surgery in December 2002, she switched from fast food to lean protein and began exercising daily—and is now 144 lbs. lighter. The operation “absolutely saved her life,” says her family doctor Steven Palmieri. And her outlook: “I can see myself being an 85-year-old lady, full of life,” says the mother of three. “Before, I couldn’t see two weeks into the future.”


“My doctor said I would be dead before 30 if I kept on like I was,” says Amy Flannery, who lives in Denton, N.C., with her husband, Michael, and two children, Chase, 8, and Kayla, 4. “I didn’t want my kids to be without a mom.” Carrying 260 lbs. on her 5’1″ frame, she suffered from sleep apnea, asthma and an irregular heartbeat, which landed her in the ER at least once a month. She tried losing weight “the old-fashioned way” but always gained it back. So in September 2003 she had gastric bypass. Now 151 lbs. lighter, she goes bowling, plays tennis and is hoping to pursue a career as a police officer. “Her outlook on life has changed,” says Michael, 30. “She cares about herself now, and that thrills me to death.”

By Jennifer Wulff. Carolyn Campbell in Salt Lake City, Maureen Harrington in Los Angeles, Vickie Bane In Fort Collins, Constance E. Richards in Asheville, Michaele Ballard in Charlotte and Rose Ellen O’Connor in Baltimore