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Teens turning to bariatric surgery for weight loss through new Akron Children's Hospital program

Riley Ickes
Posted at 3:18 PM, Jan 14, 2021

AKRON, Ohio — Riley Ickes was active as a young child, played soccer, and danced, but she also "felt the stares" because of her weight.

"Ever since I was little, I've struggled with my weight. I've always been bigger than anybody," she said.

Ickes, a junior at Akron's Ellet High School, said she tried several diets and joined a gym at the age of 12. Nothing worked. In fact, she continued to gain weight, hitting 324 pounds at the age of 16.

"I definitely struggled emotionally with anxiety," Ickes told News 5.

Doctors diagnosed her with polycystic ovary syndrome, a hormonal disorder that contributed to the weight gain.

The teen and her mother continued to look for weight loss options and learned about a new bariatric surgery program at Akron Children's Hospital, the first of its kind in Northeast Ohio.

Dr. Mark Wulkan, a surgeon who oversees the program, said the laparoscopic procedure has been done on three teens so far with others lined up. The doctor said he would not likely consider the surgery on a child under the age of 12.

"It's not a quick fix. It's not to make you pretty for the prom. It's really about changing your lifestyle so you can be healthy for the rest of your life," Wulkan said.

The operation typically removes 80 to 85% of the stomach and makes the patient feel less hungry.

Wulkan said hospitals in Columbus and Cincinnati started similar bariatric surgery programs for kids before Akron Children's Hospital began their program in 2020. He added that many Ohio insurance companies cover the procedure.

He said teens interested in bariatric surgery first have to try other weight loss methods and then must complete an involved program that lasts as least six months.

The child and their family meet with pediatricians, nutritionists, exercise experts, social workers, and psychologists.

Wulkan said the hospital is keenly aware of body image issues with children and he is often asked if this type of surgery should be done on kids.

He said the answer is yes, in some cases, but with strict criteria.

"The reason for that is the earlier you intervene, the better the chances you have of reversing or preventing the complications of being heavy," he said. "If you wait until somebody has high blood pressure, diabetes, liver disease, bad sleep apnea, it's harder to reverse it."

Ickes prepared for the surgery by going on a liquid diet, and in September, she was one of the first teens to undergo the procedure.

"After the surgery, I felt pretty good, relieved that I could start a new journey," she said.

So far, she has lost 94 pounds and now weighs 230 pounds.

"I need to lose 65 more pounds to get to my goal weight, which is 165," she said.

The teen called the procedure life-changing. She is now committed to eating healthier foods and exercising more.

"I'm already so happy with where I've gotten."

Ickes said the emotional benefits have also made a huge difference. She now has the confidence that she lacked when she was younger.

"It's so much better, just me getting healthier is a big part."