Niagara Gazette

July 23, 2012

GRACEFUL LOSSES: Falls pastor among those benefiting by weight loss surgery now available at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center

By Michele Deluca
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Pastor James Armpriester came to Niagara Falls about six years ago because he want to help restore a church. In the stresses and strains of that process, he grew himself as well. At one point the former athlete weighed nearly 400 pounds.

Armpriester, pastor of First Assembly at 9750 Niagara Falls Blvd., decided to undergo a surgical procedure in December that has helped him regain the reigns of his life and re-energized him as he leads his growing flock through the renovation and opening of a sattelite church in North Tonawanda.

The surgery, the least invasive of current weight loss surgeries, involved placing a gastric band around his stomach. The process took about an hour and the worst pains occurred for just a couple hours afterward as his body responded to the procedure.

The pastor, a big man by any standards at 6'4", has lost about 174 pounds. His goal is 215. The former high school basketball forward, who played with Olympian Steve Alford at his Indiana high school, came to Niagara Falls in 2006. He put his all into helping to heal a church that with a congregation with an average age of 67 that "just needed somebody to love them." But, as most everyone knows, change is difficult for many people, and leading any large group towards change can be stressful.  Armpreister ate to calm his stress.

After his younger brother and father underwent bi-pass sugery, the 49-year-old pastor went to see a local expert in bariatric surgery. His health care plan picked up most of the cost. He paid about $3,000 out of pocket.

His surgeon, Dr. Dang Tuan Pham, went beyond being a "fantastic surgeon," Armpriester said, adding Phan made him feel heard and seen. "He didn't have to look at his clip board to know my name."

The surgeon explained to the minister that the surgery is a tool that helps about 20 percent of the way and told him, "You have to do the rest."

And so, he has. Armpriester has changed his diet. He eats healthier, smaller amounts and is never hungry. With all the weight he's lost he can move about and exercise without being in pain from the movement.

That surgery, which has changed Armpriester's life, is now available at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center.

Pham, will joining the hospital's leading surgeon Dr. Bala Thatigotla, better known as Dr. Bala, in a joint practice to provide weight-loss services including bariatric surgery at the hospital’s downtown campus.  

The pair will be performing minimally invasive laparoscopic and robotic-assisted metabolic and weight loss surgery. They are the only two surgeons in the area who can perform the surgeries robotically, according to hospital spokesmen. Pham is also the first in Western New York to perform single-incision scarless bariatric surgery as well as robotic gastric bypass; and Thatigotla specialized in advanced laparoscopic surgery/bariatric and robotic surgery at the prestigious Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. before coming to Memorial.

Both doctors say the weight loss procedures are far more than just simple medicine. It's an act of service both men are committed to sharing with those whose lives may be transformed.

"I think that I'm in love with this surgery," said Pham, who has a practice in Cheektowaga. There are not too many surgeries out there that can claim they change a person's life completely."

"It's not just cosmetic surgery, its surgery to address serious medical problems," said Pham, noting the surgery improves diabetes, heart disease and metabolic issues.

"We're talking about being able to help people reduce their weight, improved their health and longevity and quality of life," he added. "The thing I really like is that patients come back and hug me."

Dr. Bala, the hospital's leading surgeon, is also happy to be part of the program, noting that after he saw how bariatric surgery transformed lives, creating everything from better health to better opportunities and better relationship, "everything changed for me. I'd never seen that kind of effect in any other surgery."

"Bariatrics becomes a passion," he said during a recent interview at the hospital.

The third monday of each month at the hospital, the pair of doctors holds a seminar for potential clients to help them understand the available surgical options. The doctors also explain the 12 to 24 month post-operative support to retain weight loss and manage medical issues, provide mental and emotional support, as well as exercise and nutrition support.

"We inform them of the committment they need to have and the rationale behind choosing each surgey," Thatigotla said.

Armpriester is also leading a support group for those considering the surgery and those who have had the surgery at First Assembly.

Those sessions, being held at the church at 9750 Niagara Falls Blvd., will begin the first Monday of every month, starting Aug. 6, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.