Wilmington's A.I. duPont Hospital for Children is studying whether weight loss surgery can help severely overweight teens.

During gastric band surgery, doctors buckle a silicone strip around the stomach, so patients feel full sooner. The procedure is not approved for patients younger than 18, but the hospital got special permission from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to test the technique among adolescents.

"Fair to say there's a lot of skepticism," said surgeon Kirk Reichard. "A lot of pediatricians believe this is what you would call preventive surgery, that these children aren't really sick yet and why don't we wait until they are older and start manifesting the diseases."

Reichard, who leads the hospital's weight-loss surgery program, disagrees with those skeptics. He said his team is working to help morbidly obese teens. The hospital only accepts adolescents who weigh 100 pounds more than their ideal weight.

"These kids as a group have about the same quality of life as a child with cancer, so it's a really serious disease," Reichard said. "They come to us pretty desperate, they are out of other options."

Yusuf Thomas, a college sophomore from Bucks County had the surgery when he was 16.

"I physically couldn't keep up with the other kids," Thomas said. "And that held me back from making real emotional connections to a lot of people. Whenever I felt lonely, I'd just go get something to eat instead of going outside and play."

Thomas shed more than 170 pounds. He rediscovered outdoor sports and says he's happier, but the journey was rocky.

"It's not an easy thing to undergo. It's a lot of pain involved and involves a large lifestyle change," he said. "The band, believe it or not, is not the easiest way out. The easiest way out is exercise and dieting. Think about it before you jump in, it's not really something that you can take back."

Surgery is a small part of a larger, longer-term weight loss program at duPont Hospital. Teens work with counselors, exercise experts and nutritionists

Gastric band maker Lap-Band pulled its application to market the surgery for patients younger than 18. There was public pressure on the company to scrap its plans, says Amy Allina, program director with the National Women's Health Network.

"We tried to exert some of that because we have some real concerns that gastric banding isn't as effective as it's claimed to be and that there are some real safety problems," Allina said.

Her group has reviewed gastric banding studies conducted with adult participants.

"Research that's been done on gastric banding shows a very high re-surgery rate," Allina said.

Officials at duPont Hospital said the surgery can cost from $35,000 to $65,000 depending on the patient and their insurance.


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