Taking Heart In New Surgery

Lap Band For Wilson

Ann Wilson and her sister Nancy -- of the rock group Heart - have sold 30 million records over their career. These days, they're still rocking as hard as ever, in part because Ann's in her best shape in almost 20 years.

She has lost 60 pounds in the TEN months: "My knees no longer hurt. My low back no longer hurts. I can move around. I'm a physical singer. So it's starting to really make a difference."

Over the years, she had tried numerous diets, without success. Her solution was weight loss surgery. She chose not to have gastric bypass - the procedure made famous by singer Carnie Wilson and weatherman Al Roker - but a new, much less drastic procedure called lap band surgery. Troy Roberts reports.

Ann's struggle with her weight began as a child. She was 10 pounds at birth, and became an overweight teenager. She says she was lucky because she found music, which, she says, allowed her to escape the pain of being overweight.

But being an overweight rock star wasn't easy either. When Heart shot to stardom in the mid-1970s, Ann, who is now 52, struggled to fit into the role.

"All through the years, when people thought that I was not a thin, but a normal looking person, I was fasting," she says. "A lot - and getting a lot of positive reinforcement for it. How screwed up is that?"

Then she started eating more, and putting on weight. Ann's struggle with her weight came at a bad time. Appearance has always mattered in show business, but with the advent of MTV and music videos, the emphasis on a bands' look became just as important as the music itself. A heavy female rock star wasn't just bad for the bands' image, it was also bad for business.

She says she was under constant pressure to lose weight. Many people told her that her career depended on her losing weight.

To disguise her size, stylists dressed Ann in ways that hid her real weight. In some videos, only her face was seen, in tight close ups. Sometimes she was obscured in shadow, or hidden behind a barely clothed Nancy, who is now 48. In some videos, a compression process that stretches the picture made Ann appear slimmer.

As Heart was selling millions of records, Ann was battling severe stage fright and panic attacks caused by the focus on her weight.

After years of failed dieting the single mother of two decided to have surgery. Last January had the lap band procedure. The lap band, approved by the FDA last year, has already been performed on about 10,000 patients.

"It turns the stomach into an hourglass shape. So when you eat, the top part of the hourglass receives the food. And of course it's much smaller than before. So you receive the 'I'm full' signal way sooner," says Ann.

Unlike the gastric bypass, there's no cutting out part of the stomach or rerouting of the intestines. "For me, the gastric bypass is just a little bit too radical," says Ann. Statistics show that 1 out of 200 people die as a result of gastric bypass.

Lap band surgery takes place through five tiny incisions. A silicon band is wrapped around the stomach like a belt - restricting the amount of food the patient can eat. Doctors adjust the band through an access port underneath the skin.

"I've seen a lot of early success in my patients," says Dr. Brian Quebbeman, Ann's surgeon. Most doctors, like Quebbeman, say the minimally invasive lap band is the safest weight loss procedure available, and unlike the gastric bypass it's easily reversible.

Quebbeman thinks with the lap band Ann can lose up to 70 percent of her excess body weight. "Very few people will lose all their excess body weight. It's just not realistic. So 50, 60, 70 percent – that's – that's a reasonable goal," he says.

Ann is now a spokesperson for Spotlight Health, the marketing company hired to bring attention to the lap band. She knows that some will question how honest she can be about her experience. "They just have to look into my eyes and they have to see what I'm saying it true, that's all," she says.

Not everyone is so happy with the results. 37-year-old Faye King, an office administrator in Greenville, North Carolina, weighed 296 pounds before having lap band surgery in 1999. She says it was her last resort.

Faye was part of the clinical trials and initially she was a success story, losing almost 100 pounds But two years after the surgery, Faye began suffering from debilitating heartburn and digestive problems.

"I never even had reflux or heartburn until I had the surgery," she says. "Never even knew what it was." Now she is up several times a night getting ill.

Dr. Ken Macdonald, Faye's surgeon, and one of the first doctors to test the lap band, says that Faye was "as good a candidate as you can be for this procedure."

What went wrong? "I think it's just an intrinsic – problem with – with this particular operation," he says.

Macdonald thought the band had promise, but now he's concerned about potential complications LIKE infections and digestive problems.

Even lap band advocates acknowledge patients with the band lose SIGNIFICANTLY LESS weight as those who have the gastric bypass. Macdonald, for example, does not recommend the procedure for morbidly obese people, those who are more than 100 lbs. overweight.

Macdonald took the saline out of the band, in hopes that it will eliminate Faye's problem. If that doesn't work, Faye is considering the gastric bypass, even though it's a more invasive type of surgery.

"There are risks with any kind of surgery. When I went into this, they told me all the risks. My eyes were open. I just had to compare the risks of the lap band to the risks of prolonged overweight over a lifetime. That carries a lot of risk with it," says Ann.

For Ann and many other severely overweight people who wouldn't consider more radical surgery and have not had any complications the lap band has dramatically changed their lives.

Ann is confident she'll reach her goal of losing 100 pounds.

"I've reclaimed some physical freedom that I lost there for awhile," she says. "It's a wonderful feeling."
  • David Kohn

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