Program Note: Don't miss Randi Kaye's full report on one teenager's struggle with obesity tonight on AC360° at 10 p.m. ET. Maria's story is the first in a three-part series taking a look at childhood obesity, airing this week on AC360°
Randi Kaye | BIO
One third of America’s youth is now overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
In Norwood, Massachusetts, teenager Maria Caprigno no longer wants to be one of those statistics.
Maria has been overweight since she was about three years old. Her mother, Terrie Caprigno, says pediatricians told her Maria was “off the charts.” But as the years passed, Maria just kept getting heavier. Why? She told CNN, “I think it’s my eating habits first of all. I’m a junk food person and because I’m a couch potato I don’t like to get off the couch … it’s also kind of just like my genes … both my parents are heavy and that’s just the environment I was raised in.”
The CDC says obesity rates for Maria’s age group, those twelve to nineteen years old, have tripled since 1980.
Maria, trying to reverse the trend and slim down, began researching weight loss surgery when she was just eleven. She was already pushing 400 pounds. Maria told CNN people have stared at her all her life because of her weight.
“The first thing that goes through their mind is, why is she so fat? And oh my god she’s so fat. Why doesn’t she just hop on a treadmill? And I think people don’t really understand that it’s not just exercising,.. it’s extremely hard. I get self conscious. I don’t like to go to crowded places like if a malls crowded, I’ll sit in the car.”
So Maria pleaded with her mother to find a doctor who would perform weight loss surgery on teenagers. Between 2000 and 2003, some of the latest data on record, about 800 teenagers went under the knife to lose weight.
By age 12, Maria found Dr. Evan Nadler, who had started a program for adolescent surgery at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Nadler says he felt “compelled” to help Maria but wanted her to wait until she turned 14 for surgery, the national standard.
“Her BMI which is a measurement we use to determine how obese someone is, put her in the highest risk category. Not just morbidly obese but two categories higher than that. So I felt that withholding a known therapy that works based on her age alone was really almost unethical,” Dr. Nadler said.
Before she was approved for surgery, Maria had to meet with a nutritionist, pediatric cardiologist, and a psychologist. In the end, Maria was approved for an experimental procedure known as a “gastrectomy” during which about 80% of the stomach is removed, including the part of the stomach which controls appetite.
Dr. Nadler, says, “it basically restricts the amount of food that can come into the stomach at any one time and it really makes the patient have a sense of fullness or a lack of hunger.”
In the two years Maria waited for surgery, she gained another 50 pounds!
Finally last month, Maria had the “gastrectomy” and has already lost about 45 pounds. Today Maria weighs 400 pounds and is down to a size 32. Maria would like one day to be a size 12, but says she isn’t trying to reach a specific weight. “It’s not about the numbers. I want to be at a healthy size. I want to be able to go into a normal store and buy something and be able to wear it. I want to be able to run. I haven’t been able to run since I was 5 years old. I want to be able wear a bathing suit without feeling embarrassed. I just want to be normal.”
But Dr. Edward Livingston, a Texas surgeon who has also helped adolescents lose weight, says surgery for teenagers can be risky business. He has turned away most teens sent to him for evaluation, he says, and has only operated on those more than 500 pounds with serious health risks such as blood clots and congestive heart failure. Livingston says, “adults are a different matter because they are more emotionally mature.. they know what risks they want to take and they can buy into the procedure. Kids don’t really know what they’re getting into so I think you have to be really careful with children before doing these operations on them.”
Livingston is also quick to point out the limited number of studies done on the effects on teenagers later in life from weight loss surgery. “We don’t really know the full spectrum of positive or negative outcomes for the procedures,” he said.
Dr. Nadler, who operated on Maria, says, “I fully agree that we need to study this more. But I don’t think it’s fair to the Marias of the world to keep them from having this procedure based on their age alone.” He added, “the data suggests it’s safer to do weight loss surgery in a teenager than it is to do it in an adult. And equally effective in the two groups.”
In his own study, Dr. Nadler followed 41 teenagers for two years after weight loss surgery. He says they lost half their excess body weight and their health had improved.
Maria says she was well aware of the risks of surgery, but after trying about a dozen different diets to lose weight she says surgery was her only option. Today, she is well on her way to becoming a healthy teenager, and a healthy adult. She works out playing the Wii video game and walks every day with her brother after school. She’s also eating a high protein diet. Maria says, “This surgery is a tool in your tool box to becoming healthy. It is not the quick fix. You need a lot more. You need to exercise you need to make the right food choices.”
In a letter to the insurance company seeking coverage for this procedure, Maria wrote she needed this surgery to make it to her fifteenth birthday. She said, “Doctors have told me for years that if I keep gaining weight I’m not going to see 18 and that has terrified me. I want to live. I want to do so many things.”