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More than a number

Obesity is the second-leading preventable death in the country after smoking. Find out what it's like to be a student with the disease on a campus brimming with skinny hotties.

 by Kristi Eaton  published on Thursday, February 17, 2005

<em>ON THE COVER</em>/issues/arts/692040
State Press Magazine
ON THE COVER
 
<em>Danielle Peterson / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE</em><br>Freshman Julie Wagoner says she has tried countless methods to lose weight, but none has worked. Still, Wagoner has decided not to have gastric bypass surgery./issues/arts/692040
Danielle Peterson
Danielle Peterson / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
Freshman Julie Wagoner says she has tried countless methods to lose weight, but none has worked. Still, Wagoner has decided not to have gastric bypass surgery.
 
<em>Donated Photo</em><br>Courtney Gagle, a 19-year-old student at Mesa Community College, pictured with a friend and the character Goofy at Disneyland in California. Gagle says her trip there was a turning point for her because her size stopped her from walking around the park and fitting into rides./issues/arts/692040
Donated Photo
Donated Photo
Courtney Gagle, a 19-year-old student at Mesa Community College, pictured with a friend and the character Goofy at Disneyland in California. Gagle says her trip there was a turning point for her because her size stopped her from walking around the park and fitting into rides.
 
<em>Donated Photo</em><br>Before Gagle got gastric bypass surgery, she weighed more than 260 pounds./issues/arts/692040
Donated Photo
Donated Photo
Before Gagle got gastric bypass surgery, she weighed more than 260 pounds.
 
<em>Danielle Peterson / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE</em><br>Just seven weeks after having gastric bypass surgery, Gagle has lost more than 50 pounds./issues/arts/692040
Danielle Peterson
Danielle Peterson / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
Just seven weeks after having gastric bypass surgery, Gagle has lost more than 50 pounds.
 

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The sweat slowly trickles from 19-year-old Courtney Gagle's forehead. Her heart is racing and her breathing is strained. She thinks about stopping, but she knows she shouldn't.

"How often do I get the chance to go to the happiest place on earth?" Gagle thinks to herself as she walks through Disneyland in California.

She trudges on for a few more feet until she realizes that no amount of excitement is enough to make her get to the next ride. She spots a bench, walks over and collapses as if she just ran a marathon at a record-breaking pace.

To passersby, it looks as if she's in the midst of drying off from a light swim.

Gagle, like 44 million Americans and 56 percent of Arizonans, is obese.

And in Arizona -- where sunshine more than 320 days a year calls for shorts and tank tops and summer heat has caused dehydration and death -- being obese is a particular challenge.

Breaking Point

Gagle says she realized she was different from other girls when she was in sixth grade and moved to Hawaii to be near her father.

"It has just went on from there," says Gagle, a Mesa Community College undeclared sophomore.

"I tried diets," she says. "But I was never able to go for longer than a month on them."

Gagle says the day she spent at Disneyland last summer was a turning point for her, and she decided she could no longer go on living her life the same way.

She opted for gastric bypass surgery, a procedure in which the stomach is reduced to the size of a golf ball, only allowing a person to eat about two ounces of food at a time.

The procedure has been made famous by its success with celebrities including singer Carnie Wilson of Wilson Phillips and Al Roker, an anchor and weatherman for NBC's "Today" show.

When Gagle was investigating the surgery, she made sure she understood what she was getting herself into.

"I did countless hours of research," she says.

Then, Gagle made the decision to get the surgery, which has a success rate of 75 percent, according to Dr. Christopher Salvino. Salvino is the primary surgeon at the Tempe Weight Intervention and Surgical Healthcare Center.

He performs hundreds of gastric bypass surgeries each year.

He says to even be considered for gastric bypass, a patient must be 45 to 60 pounds overweight with a body mass index of 30-35. A BMI is a measure of body fat based on height and weight that applies to both men and women.

Morbidly obese patients are 100 pounds or more overweight with a body mass index greater than 35.

Gagle fit that criteria.

But because she had barely passed the minimum age of 18, a mark most surgeons use as a guideline for determining whether to operate, she found herself under tough scrutiny before she was allowed to get the surgery.

Teenagers face more extensive psychological evaluations compared to adults to make sure they are prepared for the life-changing demands of the surgery, Salvino says.

Once Gagle was approved for surgery, she had to pay for it. The price tag: $25,000.

This was more than Gagle had originally planned on spending.

"I didn't think it would be that much at all," she says. "I had in my mind that it would be about $5,000."

Most insurance companies are willing to pay for gastric bypass because obesity is considered a disease and is the second-leading preventable killer of Americans after cigarette smoking.

But because Gagle did not want to go through her insurance, she looked for other ways to finance the surgery.

She realized taking out loans was the only way she would be able to afford it. Already working a part-time job, she knows paying off the loans will take her years.

"I just hope two years down the line when I'm still paying off the loans that I'll be happy with my decision." she says.

A quest to lose

Journalism freshman Julie Wagoner knows what it's like to deal with obesity.

She does it on a daily basis at ASU, a campus brimming with thin, scantily clad coeds.

Wagoner, dressed in gray pants and a blue sweatshirt with "West Virginia" written across the chest, says she has been trying to slim down for years.

"I've done hundreds of things to try to lose weight," she says, talking with her hands.

The one activity that sticks out in her mind was when she took a class at Gold's Gym. It consisted of 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise, such as running on the treadmill or riding a stationary bike, and exercises on mats.

But Wagoner says the class was not what she the thought it would be, particularly in regard to the instructors.

"It was very weird," she says. "The kids were all really skinny, so they had no idea what the rest of us were going through."

Wagoner, who is from a small town in West Virgina, says as a child she enjoyed playing soccer and dancing.

Unfortunately, the other girls who participated in those activities weren't the most understanding when it came to Wagoner's extra weight. Rather than face being teased or chastised for her weight, Wagoner ended up quitting those activities to pursue other interests.

That's when the pounds started creeping up.

Now, Wagoner works out at the Student Recreation Complex to lose weight.

"I workout once or twice a week ... just to try to stay healthy," she says.

Wagoner says gastric bypass surgery isn't in the cards for her right now but that she will continue to workout and try to eat healthier.

"I wouldn't do it (surgery) now," she says. "But I guess if for some reason I was to get bigger, I would take it into consideration."

Tough decision

Gagle, the MCC student who opted for gastric bypass, has already lost more than 50 pounds only seven weeks after her surgery.

She weighs 221 pounds and is still dropping.

Unlike some overweight women, Gagle dresses for her size.

The self-assured blond, who is wearing Capri pants, a red top, flip-flops and hoop earrings, says she knows what she can wear and what she can't.

"People don't want to see me fall out of my clothes, and I understand that," she says stoically.

Gagle smiles to herself as she talks about going shopping for new clothes.

"I can't wait until I lose another 70 pounds," she says. "Then I'm going to go on a shopping spree."

Although looking better was part of her reasoning behind the surgery, Gagle knows if she had continued on the path she had been living, her future would have been in jeopardy.

She had already experienced most of the symptoms that come with being overweight.

Salvino, the doctor who performs gastric bypass surgery, says back pain, sore knees and hips, osteoarthritis, diabetes and shortness of breath are just a few of the symptoms of obesity.

It has been almost two months for Gagle since she had her surgery, and already she feels the health benefits.

"I have a lot more energy now. I can walk around a lot," she says.

But nutritionist Nadine Campbell says everyone should think twice before getting gastric bypass surgery.

"Gastric bypass is giving [the patient] a tool without telling them how to use it," she says.

According to Campbell, gastric bypass without education is like gluing a cocaine addict's nose shut. Some people who get the surgery go through food withdrawals. For years, they were able to eat as much as they wanted, but after the surgery they no longer have that option.

Fashion merchandising sophomore Catrina Rodriquez's story is similar to Gagle's in many aspects. The only major difference is after researching gastric bypass surgery, Rodriquez chose not to get the procedure.

Rodriquez began considering gastric bypass as an option her junior year of high school after deciding against plastic surgery and body sculpting.

For Rodriquez, the prospect of gastric bypass was a decision made out of concern for her health rather than looking good.

"I've never really had a self-esteem problem," she says. "I just felt very unhealthy, and I wanted to change that."

But the mental aspect that goes with being overweight has taken its toll, she says. "There were some points when all I wanted was to just be skinny," she says. "(But) the possibility of death is just too much to deal with."

Salvino says one in 1,650 patients die during gastric bypass surgery.

Working for it

Campbell, the nutritionist, says losing weight is a process and needs to be approached one step at a time.

She says it is not always best for the extremely obese to exercise because it can damage their heart and lungs, as well as their back.

In addition, the body composition of someone who is obese can affect their exercise potential.

"When people have big bellies, their center of gravity is off," Campbell says.

She recommends patients who suffer from obesity begin an exercise routine by walking 20 minutes a day at an easy pace.

Campbell says proper nutrition is the best way to truly lose weight. But following fad diets that restrict certain food groups such as low-carb diets including Atkins or South Beach, is only asking for failure.

"What people don't realize is that each person has their own set of hereditary traits," Campbell says. "A diet needs to be tailor-made for each individual."

Campbell blames part of the obesity epidemic on the food pyramid. The diagram that is taught in elementary school has been around for decades. But that doesn't mean it is correct, she says.

"I wholeheartedly believe that the food pyramid is at the top of the public health disaster that we are now facing," she says.

She says the food pyramid was developed strictly for economic purposes.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that each person eat six to 11 servings of carbohydrates every day. Most carbohydrates are cheaper than dairy, meats and produce, which are the foods near the top of the pyramid.

The fact that the carbohydrates are at the bottom of the pyramid is what's most incorrect, Campbell says.

"The food pyramid is not based on any scientific data," she says.

Campbell recommends a diet of at least 100 ounces of water a day, plenty of protein and fewer carbohydrates. The carbs people should eat, she says, should come from leafy, green vegetables and fruits. Nuts and oil also are components of a well-balanced diet.

Stigmas

"People treat bigger people different. I was tired of being different," Gagle says in reference to one of the reasons she opted for gastric bypass.

Gagle says there are stigmas about overweight people.

Stigmas include thinking an overweight person is lazy and that obesity is not a disease.

Wagoner says those stigmas are definitely present at ASU, as image-conscious a university as any other.

"The guys definitely treat the girls who are heavier differently," she says. "I find that most of them seem to be after the ideal image of a stick-thin blonde."

Business freshman Bobby Iovtchev explains how he views obese people.

"When you see someone obese, you tend to think they lack self-control," he says. "That is a turn-off apart from the physical aspect."

Wagoner says she has not dated anybody since arriving on campus in the fall, but that has been single by her own accord.

"I haven't really found anybody that I would want to date yet," she says.

Undeclared freshman Maura McGarry believes the way others perceive obese people is not right and could have something to do with the way they are treated.

"People tend to think that obese people are from the lower class and not as well off as thinner people," she says. "But I know that that is usually not the case."

Whether obesity is a disease is a tough question for most people to answer. Many are torn between sympathy and pity.

"I would like to think it is a disease," says McGarry. "But sometimes I think obesity is caused more by a lack of willpower than anything else."

Iovtchev adds, "Obesity is not a disease in the common sense of the word, rather it is psychologically addictive and self-perpetuating."

Iovtchev says laziness does have a part in causing obesity, but overcoming it is not as simple as it would be for someone who is simply overweight. Although he doesn't think it is necessarily the individual's fault, looks do still matter to him.

"I'm not going to lie," he says. "I don't give an obese girl a second look usually, so I probably wouldn't date someone obese ... but love is blind, so you never know."

Reach the reporter at kristi.eaton@asu.edu



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