New SA weight management program includes bariatric surgery option for teens with extreme BMIs

New national guidelines suggest surgeries alongside behavioral, mental health therapies for seriously obese children

SAN ANTONIO - – The rising rates of obese children in the U.S. are staggering, especially in San Antonio.

That’s why the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio is about to launch a new pediatric weight management program, which includes an option for surgery.

The program’s opening times out perfectly with brand new recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics about bariatric surgery for teens.

Decades of research have shown we need to be more proactive when it comes to childhood obesity.

It’s the reason bariatric surgeon Dr. Ann O’Connor was recruited from Chicago to create and direct the new Adolescent Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery Program at the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio.

“There’s no one else really doing this kind of in a comprehensive way in our part of the state,” Dr. O’Connor said.

Dr. O’Connor has pulled together a diverse team of nutritionists, physical therapists, psychologists and social workers.

“We plan to provide individual therapy and family support services. What family systems or family patterns have played into developing these habits? And how can we take positive and sustainable angles at tackling those?” said pediatric psychologist Dr. Kelly Franco, who is on the new team.

Dr. Franco will help mentally prepare families to make big lifestyle changes, in the face of a disease that is highly stigmatized.

“We’re battling immense shame,” she said.

O’Connor said more people need to understand obesity is a recognized disease that is sometimes genetic.

“There is biology that we can’t change. We can try to alter it, but then there’s a lot of other factors -- how a family eats. Do they eat together? Do they have cultural issues? Is everyone in the family obese already? Maybe they don’t even really realize that their child is sick because everyone around them looks just like them,” she explained.

That’s why they said comprehensive treatment needs to happen early before kids enter adulthood.

“With that comes other medical problems: diabetes, hypertension, sleep apnea, which is really a silent killer. We see kids with orthopedic problems and kidney problems, infertility later. We know risk of cancer are 10 times higher in patients who are obese independent of everything else,” O’Connor said.

She said there is no time to wait, which is why she agrees with new guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which some are calling aggressive.

The AAP just released the updated guidelines on the management of obesity in children, emphasizing early intervention, like:

  • behavior and lifestyle treatment for children ages 6 to 12
  • possible medications in addition to behavioral therapy for children over 12
  • possible bariatric surgery for children 13 and over with extreme BMIs

Dr. O’Connor knows there’s resistance to the idea of teens getting these surgeries, which is why she said education is key.

“Understanding that surgery is accepted and not experimental and not some crazy idea. Actually, there’s been lots of great data over many years. So it’s really an accepted treatment,” she said.

She wants the public to know surgery is always a last resort and only for the sickest children at the center.

The doctors will spend at least six months working with the patients on diet, exercise, family habits and mental health.

“Then we have access to all the subspecialists like endocrinologists and cardiologists and nephrologists and all the people that see the same collection of patients,” O’Connor said.

The teens who do qualify for the surgery will have a big support team.

“Coping with the stress management or dealing with big family challenges is not something those families are stranded and doing on their own,” Franco said.

The program will begin in the first couple weeks of February and there is already a long list of patients waiting to participate.

If you want your child to participate, call 210-704-0090 or visit the children’s hospital website.

About the Authors

Courtney Friedman anchors KSAT’s weekend evening shows and reports during the week. Her ongoing Loving in Fear series confronts Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She joined KSAT in 2014 and is proud to call the SA and South Texas community home. She came to San Antonio from KYTX CBS 19 in Tyler, where she also anchored & reported.

Sal Salazar is a photojournalist at KSAT 12. Before coming to KSAT in 1998, he worked at the Fox affiliate in San Antonio. Sal started off his career back in 1995 for the ABC Affiliate in Lubbock and has covered many high-profile news events since. In his free time, he enjoys spending time at home, gaming and loves traveling with his wife.

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