For 34 years, Cathy Newell always ate whatever she could, and quickly. As a first- and second-grade teacher, her busy schedule gave her little choice.
When she retired last summer, she found it was difficult to slow down, and she began to worry more about the number she saw on the scale.
Newell, 58, had tried many weight loss options before — the Weight Watchers and Atkins diets included — with little success. And a sleep disorder she's had for three or four years complicated the problem.
Her age also added to her anxiety. One of her parents died from a heart attack at 60.
“Getting closer to that age was just an eye opener to me,” she said. “I saw diabetes headed my way.”
So she began exploring more aggressive weight-loss treatment options. On a trip to Charleston this past fall, she attended a seminar hosted by Dr. Kenneth Mitchell. That's where she first heard about vBloc.
Approved by the FDA two years ago, vBloc is a new weight-loss surgery option for obese patients that doesn't change their anatomy the same way gastric bypass surgery does.
The implanted device has some similarities to a pacemaker. A surgeon places thin leads on the trunk of the nerve that connects the esophagus and the stomach. Those leads are then connected to a rechargable neurotransmitter, which remains lodged under the patient’s skin in the belly and works by blocking some of the signals sent between the brain and the stomach. The effect makes patients feel less hunger.
By contrast, traditional weight loss surgeries typically reduce the size of the stomach, literally restricting the amount of food patients may eat.
The company that manufacturers vBloc advertises that patients can lose an average 28 percent of excess weight. By contrast, some patients who undergo gastric bypass surgery can lose up to 70 percent of their excess body weight, according to many studies.
Newell, who lives in Conway, is the first patient in South Carolina to try vBloc. She had the surgery at Bon Secours St. Francis Hospital in West Ashley about a month ago, and since then, she said she feels less hungry, eats more slowly and has noticed encouraging, slow progress toward her and her doctor’s weight loss goal.
"My weight's not falling off," Newell said. "But I'm losing it slowly now."
Since its approval two years ago, 80 commercial patients have undergone the surgery across the country, said Mike Bierk, a director with the St. Paul, Minnesota-based EnteroMedics, which developed vBloc.
For the moment, the device and surgery are not covered by most insurance plans. Mitchell said approval by insurance companies usually takes about three years from FDA approval. The out-of-pocket cost is about $18,500, most of which pays for the device itself.
Newell said the aftermath of the outpatient surgery was a little uncomfortable, but her recovery was quick. In the weeks since, she has felt a heartburn-like sensation when the device turns on for the day at 9 a.m. At her request, EnteroMedics put her in contact with another vBloc patient in Colorado. They now text weekly and compare notes.
Newell said the hospital and vBloc have supported her in the weeks since her surgery. But she still has to do her part and stick to a diet and exercise plan.
The team at the hospital helps with that, too. They track her progress and can change the treatment depending on how she feels. Already, Newell said the device has helped her cut about half the food she eats every day.
Mitchell, who was Newell's surgeon, said obesity is often misunderstood. Simply prescribing diet and exercise won't work for everyone, he said. Rather, it is a chronic disease that has to be managed over the course of a lifetime.
About 67 percent of adult South Carolinians are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"I tell my patients their fat is like their tumor," Mitchell said. "It's what we're trying to make smaller."
He said vBloc is appealing to some patients because it is reversible and less invasive than gastric bypass surgery. For his part, Mitchell is glad to offer a new option to obese patients, particularly those who have less weight to lose and who may not have considered weight-loss surgery otherwise.
"I think we need to treat obesity the way we treat any other illness," Mitchell said. "As it becomes more aggressive, treatment needs to change."