Neil went from college athlete to living with obesity, but it didn’t happen overnight.
“It was a slow creep over many years,” he said. “I got married after college and was still at a good weight, then there was a gradual build over 20 years.”
His habits stayed the same, but his body changed.
“I ate like I used to eat when I ran, played sports, and exercised, but my metabolism slowed down,” said Neil, who played rugby at the University of Pittsburgh. “It wasn’t like I suddenly gained 15 pounds. It was like 3 pounds one year, 4 pounds the next. I ended up gaining 70 pounds in the 20 years since I got married.”
Motivated to make a change
Neil often found himself on the road, entertaining clients and going out for a lot of lunches for his job in pharmaceutical and medical sales. As the number crept up on the scale — eventually hitting 315 pounds — Neil knew something had to change. Over the past four or five years, he began mulling weight loss surgery.
He said he’d go for a physical and the doctor would tell him his “numbers” looked good, but “you’ve dodged a bullet so far.” Neil developed sleep apnea, and found himself struggling to keep up with his kids and their travel sports schedules. He also felt as if he wasn’t the same person his wife had married.
In April 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic caused Neil to be laid off from his job with a start-up. He decided “to make the best of a bad situation” and began researching bariatric surgery options, including by talking to others in the healthcare industry.
And, they all said the same thing, “go to Penn,” he said.
Neil continued his research and had clear criteria — cost mattered because he was paying out of pocket, he had to be comfortable with the doctor, and the facility had to be MBSAQIP accredited.
“It really came down to surgeons and outcomes and everything pointed to Penn,” he said.
Starting the bariatric surgery journey during COVID-19
Like all people who chose bariatric surgery at Penn Medicine, Neil participated in a free information session to learn more about the program. Instead of traditional, in-person meetings, information sessions are now available virtually. Neil also spent a lot of time on the phone with program coordinator Linda Gallagher, MA, RD, LDN. She and the rest of the bariatric team helped him feel confident in his decision even though everything was virtual right up to the moment he arrived for surgery.
“They had everything in place — even during a troubling time — and walked me through every step,” he said. “I talked to everyone through [video chats] and they were all great. They returned phone calls after the work day and always responded to my emails.”
Neil had spoken with bariatric surgeon Alan Schuricht, MD, FACS, several times as he prepared for a vertical sleeve gastrectomy and had his visits via telemedicine. A friend knew and recommended Dr. Schuricht, but Neil didn’t meet the surgeon in person until 45 minutes before the procedure.
Recovery, weight loss and a healthier life
After receiving a vertical sleeve gastrectomy on July 29, 2020, Neil’s follow-up appointments took place virtually, as well, to limit the amount of times Neil needed to travel to the hospital during the pandemic. But, he noted, that made it even easier.
“This is major surgery and you need behavioral changes afterward to really make it work. That’s why I’ve been successful,” he said, noting that he’s lost more than 80 pounds so far. “They set up everything, I mean everything, on the myPennMedicine app.
“They took a crayon and drew a picture of what I had to do: Upper endoscopy, cardiologist, reminder emails, everything was in the calendar on the app. The coordinator gave me a checklist for everything I needed.”
This included calls every time there was a transition in his diet, like moving from pureed foods to soft foods, and regular calls with his dietitian.
Just a few months after his procedure, Neil already was 50 pounds lighter — and that led to a lot of positive changes.
“My sleep apnea is practically gone and since my wife used to buy clothes that were too small for me, it’s like I have a new wardrobe,” he said. “My lawn is immaculate because I’m doing a lot of landscaping. I’m also taking walks and hikes. And, I never had a picture on my LinkedIn profile — now I have one.”
A lifelong commitment to better health
Neil knows his journey is not yet over and he’s looking forward to nutritionist-led support groups.
“This is a lifestyle change and my relationship with food has changed,” he said. “My only regret is I wish I had done this years ago. I’m really seeing the benefits. I keep saying ‘weight loss’ but my wife keeps saying, ‘you’re healthier.’”