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HCA Midwest Health

Chris and Helen Phelps

The Phelps family of Topeka is living proof that bariatric surgery can change lives.

June 19, 2024
Chris Phelps with stack of cases of bottled water

Weight loss surgery is not a shortcut to a healthier life

The Phelps family of Topeka is living proof that bariatric surgery can change lives. However, spouses Helen and Christopher will be the first to tell you the journey isn’t always easy, and the notion that weight loss surgery is somehow a shortcut or cheating your way to a healthier life is complete nonsense.

Like many who elect to undergo bariatric surgery, Chris had to hit rock bottom before reaching out for professional help. And once Helen saw his success, she was quick to sign on for the same gastric sleeve surgery her husband had. Together, they have lost more than an impressive 350 pounds since undergoing weight loss surgery. In the Phelps’ cases, help came courtesy of Dr. Roger de la Torre and Dr. J. Stephen Scott, both of whom practice surgery at Bariatric and Metabolic Specialists – a part of HCA Midwest Health - in Overland Park, Kansas.

“Actually, we see spouses having the same surgery quite often,” Dr. Scott says. “We’ve even had couples have the same surgery on the same day. Generally, there’s something that happens – like a diagnosis or they can’t do something because of their weight – that triggers them to make a change. Plus, there’s probably no better motivation than the testimonial of a spouse who has had success.”

“My most embarrassing day ever was going to Worlds of Fun and getting on a roller coaster just to find out the seatbelt didn’t fit,” says Chris. “I was asked to get off of the ride. I just decided at that time (his late 20’s) that amusement parks weren’t for me anymore.”

Embarrassing, yes, but hardly the last of the difficulties he would encounter because of his obesity. In time, he accumulated an exhaustive playlist of activities that he could no longer participate in or had to have special accommodations to complete. This included using a seatbelt extender on airplane flights and the socially awkward routine of needing to be seated at a table and not in a booth while dining at restaurants. Chris’s pivotal moment came on a trip to the Bahamas.

“I earned a trip to the Bahamas, and while I was there, two significant things happened,” Chris says. “First, when I went scuba diving the equipment didn’t fit because of my size, making it unsafe. I had a panic attack while attempting to dive.

“Then, at the end of the trip, I had an extreme medical issue. When I flew back to Kansas City I went straight to the hospital and spent seven days there. That was the start of my decision to do something.”

Determined to make a major change but uncertain what course of action to take, Chris spent the next six months trying to figure things out. That’s when fate stepped in. During a job change, he noticed that his new employer offered medical insurance that included weight loss surgery. That’s when he contacted Dr. De La Torre, a board-certified bariatric surgeon, who performed gastric sleeve surgery in May 2018.

“I have spent my life being uncomfortable everywhere,” Chris says. “Chairs are not designed for big people. But the chairs at Dr. de la Torre’s office are wide, so they fit someone like me. That set the tone.”

Dr. de la Torre and his team spent time explaining all the surgery and recovery options in great detail, which made it much easier for Chris to decide. Since his surgery, he has lost a total of 241 pounds, but, more importantly, he’s gotten his life back.

“In gastric sleeve surgery, we remove part of the stomach and leave a tubular shaped portion. What is left has the appearance of a shirtsleeve with a French cuff – hence the name,” says Dr. de la Torre. “Having less stomach means that it will take a smaller volume of food to feel full. In addition, the part of the stomach that is removed is where a hormone that boosts appetite is produced. You should expect to lose 60 to 65% of excess body weight, and this occurs usually within the first year postoperatively.”

“Dr. de la Torre took me from hiding in the back and feeling like a nobody to uncovering who and what I really am,” Chris says. “I have reclaimed my life. I’m able to be the husband and father that God intended me to be. “In addition to his gastric sleeve surgery, Chris also underwent a panniculectomy in 2020 where Dr. Scott, a board-certified bariatric surgeon, removed excess skin that had developed because of the stretching required to accommodate all his weight.

“Dr. Scott made the process go very smoothly,” he says. “The surgery wasn’t really on my radar, but he showed me how we could get it done.”

It was during one of Chris’s follow-up visits with Dr. Scott that Helen became curious about weight loss surgery for herself. At one point, her weight maxed out at 311 pounds on a 4-foot-11-inch body. She had lost some weight but needed something to help her lose the final 50 pounds.

“My husband had surgery with Dr. Scott, and he was doing phenomenal,” she says. “The support he received after his surgery was beyond what I had expected, so it was obvious that if I was going to have something done, this was who was doing it.”

“She was a good candidate because her BMI was relatively high, but she had no other significant medical problems,” Dr. Scott says. “She wasn’t diabetic. She didn’t have acid reflux.”

To prepare for weight loss surgery, Dr. Scott has patients complete a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary program where they go over everything from the various types of surgeries; what to expect before and after surgery; and other changes to their lives. They see other specialists including a psychologist and a dietitian. And the patients receive a booklet filled with reference information they can refer to along their weight loss journey.

Since they had each undergone gastric sleeve surgery, they knew the ins and outs of recovery, plus the dedication needed for success. However, unlike most weight loss surgery patients, the Phelps had each other to provide a kind of insightful support that no one else could. Communication without judgment has been key. They talk about the issues they encounter and try not to criticize or play food cop for their spouse. Most important, they celebrate each other’s successes on and off the scale.

“Emotionally, it has been very, very hard for me at times,” Helen says. “There have been times when I wished I hadn’t done it. Most of my frustration has come when the weight hasn’t come of as quickly as I think it should have for the amount I’ve been working. That is where the support of my husband and my office have really kept me going.”

Both Helen and Chris are proud of the progress they’ve made on their weight loss journeys and subsequently the things they’ve been able to accomplished now that they are healthier. Some of the results have even shocked both of them.

“I’m surprised that I am a very tiny person,” Helen says. “I didn’t know how little I was because I always had so much weight on my body. Eating less has given me more time and money to do other things I enjoy. I can walk, and I even did my first 5K.”

“My life has changed in so many ways,” says Chris. “I won a swimming competition. I ride my bike and go up and down stairs without pain. I’ve even fulfilled a childhood dream of going skydiving, which I couldn’t do before because I had too much weight. I wanted to get that one off my bucket list, and now I’ve done 140 jumps!”

The journey to controlling your weight and well-being can be daunting, but at HCA Midwest Health, you don’t have to face this challenge alone. Our network of compassionate bariatric surgeons are here to guide you step-by-step on your journey toward reclaiming your health. Find a physician or take a weight loss quiz at the HCA Midwest weightloss website.

Helen Phelps standing beside stacks of copy paper
June 19, 2024