Fat Teens Opting For Surgery

Jennifer Ortiz had stomach reduction surgery

These days Jennifer Ortiz can finally enjoy a trip to the hair salon with her sisters.

But for most of her life it was a traumatic experience. All those mirrors reflected back the face of childhood obesity, of days spent locked in a cycle of over-eating and loneliness.

"I used to sit there and watch TV, and eat, and eat, and eat and eat cause I used to be so upset," says Ortiz. "I had no one to play with."

To make matters worse, her two sisters were always thin, and the family business was a grocery store. As the years went by, food was both her escape and her prison.

"In the course of about 2 1/2 years, I went from weighing 170 to 260," says Ortiz.

Every diet she tried failed, so finally, desperate at age 18, Ortiz opted for bariatric surgery: a procedure to reduce the size of the stomach so it can only hold about 2 ounces of food.

As the country's war on obesity rages on, bariatric surgery, once a drastic and rare operation, is now increasingly common.

In 1992, 16,000 procedures were done. Ten years later, it was 63,000 and that number is expected to jump 30 percent in 2003.

On the growing list of candidates, an alarming number of young people in their teens.

"I've done a handful of 16- and 17-year-olds in the last couple of years," says Dr. Louis Flancbaum, Ortiz's surgeon. "I've seen children as young as 14 or 15 for evaluation."

In fact, many experts admit the risks of a lifetime of obesity - the diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease - far outweigh the risks of the surgery for the young, who are generally better able to withstand the procedure.

That doesn't mean there aren't concerns. Doctors warn this surgery should never be performed on anyone under 13, and they have to be certain teen-agers are not caving in to parental pressure.

"This is not something a teen-ager should undergo because their parents think it's a good idea," says Flancbaum.

The surgery is not a magic bullet, and requires a lifetime of changed eating habits: smaller portions, no junk.

Ortiz finds her motivation in the results. Now many pounds lighter, she wishes she had considered surgery years earlier

"I love it, I don't regret it," she says. "I'm so happy.

"I'm a totally different person."

Critics warn the popularity of bariatric surgery for the young is a sure sign the nation is losing the war against obesity.

"We're going to be doing more of this, not less of it," says Flancbaum.

Part 1: When Calories Are On The Curriculum

Part 2: Better Nutrition, Better Behaved Kids