BY: KIM HASTY
For Rachael Santillan, the epiphany that would lead to her nearly 100-pound weight loss came on a mountaintop in Ghana.
“Everybody was passing me on the way up,” she said. “Older people, younger people, they were all passing me. When I got to the top, I said, this is going to change.”
After years of trying a variety of diets, exercise and even medication, Santillan found her solution in Cape Fear Valley Health’s bariatric surgery program. In the summer of 2017, she had a procedure known as sleeve gastrectomy, in which the stomach is reduced to about 15 percent of its normal size.
“It really has changed my life,” she said. “It was amazing.” Santillan, 43, is a professional photographer whose specialty is capturing sweet poses of newborns, children and families. For nearly a decade, she has also sought opportunities to travel with nonprofit organizations to take photographs all over the world.
The memorable work has allowed her to document heart-wrenching situations. “I was invited into the home of a woman in the slums of India, and she fed me,” Santillan said. “And she has nothing. I have had so many experiences that could not be replicated.
I’ve been into some of the deepest, darkest places. It’s sad, some of the places I’ve been, but I love meeting these people because they’re genuine people.”
But her weight was hampering her ability to travel comfortably. She already was familiar with bariatric possibilities and had no qualms about making the decision to undergo surgery.
“I was excited,” she said. Dr. James Classen, M.D., is a general surgeon who specializes in bariatric surgery. At Cape Fear Valley General Surgery Village Surgical, he performs bariatric surgeries on a weekly basis. Since 2002, Classen and his colleagues have built a strong program and performed nearly 3,000 bariatric surgeries. Dr. Classen, Ijeoma Ejeh, M.D., and Ovie Appresai, M.D., in conjunction with Cape Fear Valley Medical Center, have been named an American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery Center of Excellence.
Dr. James Classen, MD, is a general surgeon who specializes in bariatric surgery at Village Surgical Associates.
“We’re going to make you lose weight,” Classen said. “But you still have to make good food choices and get on a good
Dr. Classen said both the Rouxen- Y Gastric Bypass Surgery and sleeve gastrectomy are effective in helping patients lose weight and lead healthier lifestyles.
“I can do surgery and put your diabetes in remission,” he said. “A lot of people who’ve had diabetes leave the hospital off their diabetes medicine.”
Eligible patients are those with a body mass index, or BMI, of between 35-40. Healthy BMIs fall between 19-25. Patients will undergo screenings for underlying health issues and must make lifestyle changes following surgery.
“We’re going to make you lose weight,” Dr. Classen said. “But it is still up to you to make good food choices and get on an exercise program that works.”
A native of Buffalo, New York, Santillan had battled weight issues much of her life. Her father had been a stickler for making sure his large family avoided junk foods and sugar. When she left home for the Columbus College of Art & Design in Ohio, she was excited to enjoy all the forbidden sweets she wanted.
“When I went to college, I went crazy,” she said. “It was like, Lucky Charms for breakfast. Instead of the freshman 15, I gained the freshman 30.” Santillan lost almost 100 pounds following a procedure known as sleeve gastrectomy, in which the stomach is reduced to about 15 percent of its normal size.
After years of trying a variety of diets, exercise and even medication, Santillan found her solution in Cape Fear Valley Health’s bariatric surgery program.
She and her husband of 21 years, Mariano, were married after graduation in 2000. Five months later, they were expectant parents. Having two babies two years apart caused more weight gain, but whether she was gaining or losing, she was beautiful. Especially in her husband’s eyes.
“Oh my gosh, he’s amazing. He loves me both ways,” she said. “He was happy that I was going to get healthy, but he loves me either way.”
Like all bariatric surgery patients, adopting new eating habits was challenging to Santillan.
Cape Fear Valley Health offers a support group for bariatric surgery patients, as well as a Facebook group.
“I was not hungry, and that part was really nice,” she said. “But it was difficult afterward in that even your taste buds change. You’re trying to figure out what works for you and making sure you get enough protein in.
“I’ve mentored a couple of people going through this process,” she said. “I always tell them, you don’t have to be perfect in terms of your diet. You can mess up, and you just have to get back on the horse and keep going. It’s going to be ok.”
The hip and knee pain she had before her surgery has disappeared, enabling her to get down to the level of the subjects she adores.
She also was able to take a three-week trip three months after her surgery with a nonprofit organization to Eastern Europe, including to Romania and the Czech Republic.
“That is one of the main reasons I had the surgery,” she said. “I was having such a hard time going to these places. I couldn’t sit in an airplane for 15 hours, and I couldn’t hike to these remote areas where I needed to go. I just knew that I had to make a change.”
For nearly a decade, Rachael Santillan has sought opportunities to travel with nonprofit organizations to take photographs all over the world. Above, she is pictured with children in Ghana.
Santillan is pictured in India with a group of children from The D.F. Blind School, Kolkata. Most of the children are completely blind and have been abandoned by their families. “But somehow they see life in a way that is completely joyful,” she said.