Two years ago the Sunnyvale resident discovered that she had severe diabetes, resulting in off-the-chart sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure levels. At the time of her surgery, the 5-foot-3-inch White was close to 380 pounds.
Intrigued by the possibilities of weight loss surgery, White originally went to Camino Medical Group for a consultation. But after seeing the results of her blood tests, doctors rushed White into surgery at El Camino Hospital to save her life. Now 49, White says that ever since the operation she has been exercising regularly, attending support groups and eating healthier.
Two years later, she has lost close to 200 pounds and no longer has diabetes.
"I was a walking time bomb," she said. "I needed something that would hold me accountable, and without the surgery I would be dead."
Surgeons on El Camino's bariatric team see approximately 200 patients each year. Many of them, like White, need the surgery for health reasons. The doctors say most patients have been trying different diets for years, and hope the operation will be the first step in losing weight and improving their health.
"If you are 100 pounds overweight and have sleep apnea and diabetes, these are problems that will go away," said Dr. Pamela Foster, a surgeon with the center. "We can take care of them."
Although White is now down to 173 pounds, and can finally buy her clothes from department stores, she and Foster both said they do not measure success by weight. Instead they look at the decrease in risk factors like hypertension, sleep apnea and high blood pressure.
Typical patients at El Camino range from 18 to 60 years in age, with a few exceptions, and they must have a body mass index of 40 to receive the operation or 35 if they have severe illnesses associated with obesity.
According to bariatric nursing specialist Karen Thomas, the index uses weight and height to determine if someone is underweight, average weight, overweight, obese or morbidly obese, with a score of 30 being obese.
There are four types of bariatric surgery available at El Camino: gastric band, vertical sleeve, gastric bypass and the duodenal switch. All of these mechanisms give patients the impression they are full, and after the surgeries, "people won't eat as much, but feel fully satisfied," Thomas said.
All of the procedures either reduce space for food or decrease the amount of food that is absorbed, requiring patients to take protein supplements and vitamins.
The hospital recently received a national Bariatric Surgery Center of Excellence award, and has the top rating among weight loss surgery centers in the Bay Area. Six local doctors perform the surgeries for the program.
As part of the process, Thomas arranges for patients to have pre-surgical visits with a psychologist and nutritionist, and she helps them choose the appropriate surgeon. She also directs the support group for patients both before and after surgery.
Doctors said many of the patients come to them feeling helpless, but that the surgery gives them their confidence back, and helps them realize that their weight gain was a function of biology, not weakness.
"They blame themselves like they have done this," Dr. Foster said. "But they haven't."
Patients' diets are limited after the operations, because they are unable to digest many foods, including sugar. White, who had a gastric bypass, said that after nearly two years, she can now eat some fruits.
Fish is one of her primary staples, and she has to cut her food into very small bites so it won't get stuck in her stomach. She also walks a great deal, and swims daily when the weather permits.
"I thought I would go into the hospital and they would make me skinny," White said. "I had no idea what was involved."
Stomach pain, nausea and intense sweating are among the things involved, along with the regimented diet and exercise, which force drastic changes in lifestyle.
"Once they fix your gut, they haven't fixed your brain," White said.
Since it's often hard to adapt to life after surgery, Thomas runs monthly support groups, and White holds two of her own. Since the patients are suddenly forced to change so many lifelong habits, they need this accountability and support from people with similar experiences, White said.
Despite all the effort, White said, "The surgery is the best thing I have ever done."