In 2004, Kristen Wilkey was diagnosed with a medical condition that caused her to gain about 100 pounds in a year. To lose weight, she tried dieting, fasting, clean eating, the keto diet, and working out five to six days a week. Nothing worked.
After 10 years working at Cape Fear Valley Health, most recently as the program administrator for the General Surgery Residency, she knew where to turn for help.
But she was hesitant to consider weight loss surgery.
“Before my weight struggles, I thought gastric surgery was the ‘easy’ way out and also had the misconception that it was for people who were too lazy to lose weight,’’ Wilkey says. “After 15 years of fighting, I saw how wrong I was.’’
Originally from Columbia, South Carolina, Wilkey has lived in Fayetteville since 2008, when the Army brought her family here so she could be closer to her parents.
She has three children. Her oldest daughter is 24 and an orthodontic assistant in Myrtle Beach. Her son is 22 and will graduate from the military’s Advanced Individual Training in January after which he will be stationed at Fort Meade, Maryland. Her younger daughter just turned 12.
Six years ago, Wilkey was at the end of her rope and decided to look into gastric surgery. She knew she had to do something for herself and for her family.
“I was petrified about having surgery, but the more I read and researched, the more convinced I was that the procedure was safe and maybe my only hope,” Wilkey says.
She consulted Ijeoma Acholonu Ejeh, a general surgeon with Cape Fear Valley General Surgery and a fellowship-trained bariatric surgeon.. They determined the gastric sleeve was the best option for her since she did not have an excessive amount of weight to lose.
“For my personal circumstances, the sleeve was the better route,’’ Wilkey says. “I take a daily thyroid medication, and the incidence of malabsorption is much less with the sleeve.’’
“Dr. Ejeh made sure I understood all of the pros and cons to having the gastric sleeve and allowed me to actively participate in the decision-making.”
According to Dr. Ejeh, bariatric surgery offers the longest sustained weight loss when other methods have failed. The sleeve can be a good option for those who fit the criteria.
“Choosing the sleeve is first patient preference followed by proper evaluation of their medical conditions and determining if the sleeve is the best option to lose their excess weight and resolve their associated medical conditions,” says Ejeh, who has performed bariatric surgery for the past 20 years along with minimally invasive general and advanced surgery.
Ejeh says there are several things to be considered when trying to determine which option is best for a patient. Criteria are set by the national bariatric society, and insurance companies determine whether a sleeve or full bypass surgery is covered.
“There are several ‘hoops’ the surgeons and the patients must jump through before approval for surgery,’’ Ejeh says. “This is inevitable because this is not emergency surgery; it is elective surgery.”
Wilkey said Ejeh was amazing to work with. She also credited Dr. Kelly Van Fossen, another general surgeon, who helped with her surgery.
“My entire experience at Cape Fear Valley was exceptional, from pre-op testing to discharge,’’ Wilkey says. “The nurses, CNAs, EVS and transporters were incredibly professional, and my care was top-notch. I also never felt rushed during appointments and cannot say enough about the staff.”
Ejeh says patients should expect follow-up appointments and assistance when it comes to the surgeons and their staff. She says patients are fully evaluated, including consulting with a psychologist before surgery.
“More importantly, we work to evaluate that there are no latent conditions that could be exacerbated after surgery and the challenging diet and exercise regimen,” Ejeh says.
In Wilkey’s case, she had done everything she could to lose weight before undergoing gastric sleeve surgery.
A little over a year after her surgery, Wilkey says she has lost 80 pounds.
“I am able to walk without feeling like I have to stop or getting winded,’’ she says. “I am able to enjoy activities with my daughter again and just enjoy living life. Now, I’m usually the one wearing everyone else out.”
Ejeh says that is what she hopes for every patient.
“I like to think that bariatric surgery is a proven weight-loss option with a lasting positive effect,’’ Ejeh says. “Several patients may view it as a ‘last resort’ after all other methods have failed.”
Wilkey says her confidence is slowly returning.
“I feel like people see me for me instead of my size,” she says. “I’m not as self-conscious putting on a bathing suit or even regular clothes. I’m no longer afraid to look in the mirror because of what I see. Having the sleeve has been a great experience, and I only wish I had done it earlier.”
She has even discussed future surgery with Fayetteville plastic surgeon Dr. Leif Nordberg.
“Dr. Nordberg does excellent work, and I’ve discussed the possibility of having plastic surgery but want to lose as much as I can before I do that,” Wilkey says.
Her advice to anyone considering gastric surgery is to just do it.
“Take back your health and your life,’’ Wilkey says. “It is one of the best decisions I ever made.”