Rising demand for gastric bypass procedure keeps Yale surgeon busy and looking for reinforcements.

Americans spend $33 billion annually on products and services they believe will help them lose weight. The investment is usually a bad one, as sustained weight loss remains an elusive goal in an increasingly supersized nation. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, 61 percent of American adults are overweight or obese (as are 13 percent or more of children aged 6 to 19) and face a higher risk for diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses.

This may be why Robert L. Bell, M.D., HS ’01, is one of the busiest surgeons on the Yale faculty. Recruited in 2002 after a fellowship at the University of Maryland, Bell brought with him a minimally invasive procedure known as laparascopic gastric bypass, in which the surgeon uses special instruments to create a small gastric pouch, then attaches a y-shaped limb of small bowel to form the outlet to the intestines. After surgery the patient’s appetite is sated by very small amounts of food; a 50 to 80 percent loss of excess body weight is typical. The procedure is appropriate for patients who are morbidly obese—generally 100 to 400 pounds overweight—and for whom other methods of weight loss have failed.

Similar procedures were performed occasionally at Yale, as open surgery, about 15 years ago. Doing the bypass laparoscopically, while reducing complications and discomfort for patients, is relatively rare because of the elite skill level the procedure demands, said Robert Udelsman, M.D., M.B.A., chair of the Department of Surgery, who recruited Bell to Yale. Seeing someone perform the delicate operation guided only by video images amazes students and veteran surgeons alike. Bell, said Udelsman, “is of the Star Wars generation.” Speaking at grand rounds in September, Udelsman said Bell has a six-month waiting list and may soon be joined by a second surgeon. “It may be we’ll need seven bariatric surgeons,” Udelsman said. “I don’t know.” Patient interest in the procedure has soared nationally since NBC weatherman Al Roker lost more than 100 pounds following the surgery in 2002.

Pre- and postoperative care are as crucial as the surgery itself, said Bell, and are the factors that distinguish well-run programs. Each patient must be evaluated by a psychiatrist or psychologist and a dietician before being accepted as a candidate for surgery. All of Bell’s patients are what he terms “professional dieters” who have gone the traditional diet and exercise route many times without being able to shed weight permanently.

But for Bell’s patients, losing weight is a matter of health more than appearance. “You’re not going to be a size 2,” Bell tells them. His goal is to bring their weight down enough to reduce the health risks associated with obesity. Postoperative support is equally important. With less room to accommodate food, patients need to be sure that they are using the smaller gastric pouch to get adequate nutrition; otherwise protein deficiency and other complications can result.

Hunger is not a problem. “The brain is fooled into thinking that the body is in a full state,” said Bell. Levels of the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin, which spikes prior to a meal and dips after a meal, stay consistently low in gastric-bypass patients. This may hold some clue as to why these patients generally avoid the “yo-yo” dieting syndrome that plagues many who try to lose weight by nonsurgical means.

Acceptance of surgical treatment for obesity is growing, but societal preconceptions about obesity linger. “It truly is the last accepted form of bigotry,” Bell said. The simplistic assumption is that obese people are overweight because they are lazy and/or they eat too much, but science increasingly belies that idea. One of Bell’s colleagues is fond of giving the bariatric surgeon some advice on dealing with patients: why don’t you just tell them to eat less?

“Of course, he’s kidding,” said Bell. “Mostly.”