Niagara Gazette

September 19, 2013

Year-old bariatric surgery program at Falls medical center is changing lives

By Michele DeLuca
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Lisa Mueller wishes she would have had the weight-loss surgery years ago. 

Nine months after his surgery, Bill Burkett of North Tonawanda says “I feel like a million dollars.”

And Jessica Campbell-Lewis, an nurse supervisor at Summit Family Health in Niagara Falls, is planning to have the surgery as soon as possible. She’s living on milkshakes due to a hiatal hernia which causes severe acid reflux and is looking forward to being able to eat regular food, when her hernia is fixed during her gastric sleeve surgery.

She’s also looking forward to a more normal life. 

“I’m hoping to be able to start to enjoy my children a little bit more, and being able to ride a roller coaster again. I don’t fit in the seats.”

The three are clients in a new year-old program at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center and all report the weight-loss procedures have put them on a life-changing path to a healthier, more satisfying life.

The program has helped more than 40 patients, who received one of three laser surgeries available, including gastric bypass, gastric bands and gastric sleeves. 

Dr. Bala Thatigotla, known as “Dr. Bala” who runs the program with Dr. Dang Tuan Pham, said the life-changing nature of the surgery — which typically also reduces symptoms of diabetes, high blood pressure and sleep apnea — is why its his favorite medical procedure.

“I do a wide range of surgeries,” said Thatigotla, who is among the first in the region to perform such complex surgeries by laser with the hospital’s new robotic surgery system, called the most comprehensive of its type in Western New York. He said the gastric weight-loss surgery “touches his heart,” because it changes lives so dramatically. 

“No other surgery can bring this kind of drastic change in personality and quality of life. They have been struggling for 15-20 years and all of a sudden they have a new lease on life,” Thatigotla said of his patients.

The new surgical laser systems aids the process because it cuts hospital stays in half, to about 1 1/2 days, and speeds recovery time, he said.  

The program, which holds monthly informational sessions for potential patients, along with support for those who have had the surgery, sends patients back out into the community

Campbell-Lewis, a 35 year old mother of two, is not morbidly obese like many of the patients in the program. But, at 266 pounds, her weight has caused a hiatal hernia which is making her life unbearable. She will have a gastric sleeve surgery, where her stomach is trimmed to a shape similar to a banana, a little less severe a procede than a gastric bypass, which converts the stomach into a small pouch that holds about an ounce of food. 

As a nurse, employed at a health center operated by the hospital, she’s very comfortable with the safety of the procedure. Her initial apprehension was that “I feel like I’m taking the easy way out,” but she’s on five pills a day for the reflux cause by the hernia, and anxious to feel well again. She’s had the pre-tests, including psychiatric consults, nutrition and physical therapy consults, and she is simply waiting to be put on the surgical schedule. “I can’t wait,” she said.

Lisa Mueller, 51, of the Town of Niagara, who had the surgery in October when she was 400 pounds, also had a hernia repaired during her weight-loss surgery. Because the surgery also impacts messages sent to the brain, she not only eats far less, but she doesn’t crave the breads and sweets as she used to. 

“It’s helped me out a lot. I honestly think I probably would have eaten myself to death,” she said. “All I did was eat.” 

Now, with far more energy, she works out a few days a week at the gym and walks a lot more. She went from a size 32 to a size 12 jeans, “and I haven’t worn jeans in 25 years.”

Like any medical procedure there are risks and some pain. Both Mueller and Bill Burkett said they woke up after the surgery wondering what they had gotten themselves into.

“It was hell for a few days,” said Burkett, who prior to his January procedure had topped out at about 408 pounds. He has since lost about 128 and has none of the knee problems that plagued him from playing athletics in his younger years. 

All three patients interviewed said they aren’t having many problems with a greatly reduced intake of food. Burkett has two gelatins and two yogurts when he’s at work as a truck driver. At dinner, he eats a small portion of protein, such as chicken.

While Mueller confesses that her greatest worry is that the weight will come back, Burkett feels certain he has his diet and his life under control. “The way I feel there’s no going back,” he said. “I’m very happy with the way I am now.”

BARIATRIC SURGERY AT NFMMC • For more information on weight loss surgery visit the Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center website at • One of many informational seminars is being held 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Monday at the hospital at 621 10th St. • Sign up online or call 278-4400 for more information.