Less invasive procedure helping those battling obesity

Published: November 1, 2021 3:38 PM EDT
Updated: November 1, 2021 5:51 PM EDT

If you needed another reason to drop those excess pounds, new research finds obesity can make even mild COVID-19 cases worse. This is putting a renewed emphasis on weight loss and an unusual, but successful medical procedure.

Obesity is a huge problem in this country and a leading risk factor for almost every serious disease; from stroke, diabetes and heart disease, to cancer and COVID-19. Americans are getting bigger and sicker.

At one point during the pandemic, 78% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients were obese or overweight.

Doctors are going to great lengths to help people drop pounds, including a medical procedure that goes right to the gut.

“At my heaviest, I was 239,” said Frann Katz McCombs.

McCombs is half the woman she used to be. Now, almost a hundred pounds lighter, she’s hard-pressed to even find an old photo of herself. “I was the person in the back of everybody hiding what I looked like. So I really don’t have a lot of pictures back when I was very heavy.”

When she heard about the use of an internally-placed balloon to treat obesity, she saw her chance to make a big change.

“It was non-invasive. I didn’t want to go under the knife,” said McCombs.

Dr. Mazen Albeldawi, A gastroenterologist at NCH said, “the (bump) intragastric balloon really fills the gap between diet exercise and medications on one spectrum, and then invasive surgery on the opposite spectrum.”

Dr. Albeldawi is McCombs’ gastroenterologist. He endoscopically inserted a medical balloon into her stomach. A far less invasive surgery than gastric bypass, which involves removing part of the stomach and sometimes a portion of the bowel.

There’s no cutting or punctures with the balloon option.

The intragastric balloon is made from a silicon-based material and is filled with sterile saline.

“The entire procedure is performed through the mouth and takes approximately 20 to 30 minutes in duration. Now the balloon serves to take up space in the stomach and also decrease stomach emptying, which leads to liquids and solids exiting the stomach much slower, which causes you to feel fuller, eat less and ultimately lose weight,” said Albeldawi.

The balloon is inflated to about the size of a grapefruit. Once it’s in place, it stays there for 6 months. Long enough for a patient to lose weight and hopefully change their habits.

“Obesity has become a pandemic. We currently have one in three adults in the U.S. that are obese,” Albeldawi said. “It has multiple ramifications down the line. I mean, whether they’re chronic diseases, cancers, or putting you at increased risk for other potential complications, such as COVID. It’s a serious issue that we’re struggling with.”

Weight loss interventions are growing too as people digest the health impacts.

“We know that patients who have the intragastric balloon placed will lose three times more weight than with diet and exercise alone,” said Albeldawi.

Almost immediately, McCombs knew she made the right decision. “I feel so much healthier. I could do more things I could get out I could walk upstairs, I could enjoy myself much, much more.”