No Quick Fixes
by Robyn McGee
At sunrise on April 16, 2001, a few days after Easter, I received a phone call that changed my life. I learned that my beloved older sister Carolyn “Cathy” Brakefield was dead. Less than a week before, Cathy had gone to the hospital to fulfill her lifelong dream of losing weight. But something went terribly wrong. She died from complications related to gastric bypass surgery.
Just forty-nine-years-old, Cathy left a husband and four children, shocked and devastated parents, a large extended family and lifelong friends. Cathy’s efforts to stabilize her marriage and lose weight had become a nightmare, replaced by a million “whys.” Less than a month after she received insurance approval to have the operation, she went under the knife. Why did everything have to happen so fast? Didn’t the doctors know Cathy’s heart condition made her a poor candidate for this kind of surgery? What kind of counseling did Cathy receive? Why didn’t her husband talk her out of having the operation? Why was Cathy so willing to gamble with her life to lose weight?
“Either I will die on the operating table or die from being fat,” Cathy said before her operation, referring to the high blood pressure and heart disease she was managing with medication. Her words chilled me. In Cathy’s mind those were her only two choices.
In 2001, gastric bypass, also known as bariatric (which means weight), surgery wasn’t nearly as popular as it is today. At the time of Cathy’s death, a few high-profile celebrities, like singer Carnie Wilson, were lauding the surgery. But little was written or reported about the downside of the operation--its high mortality rate, the incidence of additional surgeries needed to trim excess fat, the likelihood of regaining the lost weight over time. In 2004, nearly 150,000 people had gastric bypass operations, a much higher number than the year before. As new, less invasive surgical techniques are developed, weight loss operations are increasingly in vogue. Among the hundreds of thousands of people undergoing the procedures each year are a growing number of black women and even children (as young as eleven years old).
In the years following Cathy’s death, I cringed every time I saw Carnie Wilson. I railed against what I termed simply “that surgery,” particularly when speaking to the young women of color I meet in my position as the Director of the Women’s Center at California State University Dominguez Hills. Many of these young people constantly worry about their weight. I tell them how Cathy suffered and died and why her death could have been avoided. I advise them to work on improving their self-esteem and furthering their education. From there, better physical and emotional health is sure to follow. I tell them if something looks too good to be true, it probably is.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in 1999–2000, an estimated 30 percent of U.S. adults aged twenty years and older--nearly 59 million people--were obese, defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more. The studies also reported an estimated 64 percent of U.S. adults aged twenty years and older were overweight, defined as having a BMI of 25 or more.
The problem of obesity stretches across age, racial, ethnic, geographic, and economic boundaries. Many people are becoming concerned about the incidence of obesity among our children. According to the 1999–2000 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 10 percent of two- to five-year-olds and 15 percent of children and adolescents six to nineteen years old in the United States are overweight.
If I had a wand I could wave to ding politicians and their corporate allies to magically force them to help Americans maintain wellness, I would demand the following:
a) Offer affordable health insurance to all Americans. African Americans are the largest group of the medically uninsured in this country. Without preventative health care, obesity and weight-related diseases like diabetes and hypertension could be diagnosed and treated before they become full blown.
b) Provide access to quality health care facilities. This could mean that instead of hoisting up another Wienerschnitzel or Church’s Fried Chicken, which will net multibillion-dollar corporations millions more, these companies would use some of their resources to build wellness clinics and community recreation centers for adults and children, and provide ongoing health information to families. And while they are at it, why not design a few neighborhood centers for group, family and individual psychological counseling. Being good corporate citizens is really easy.
c) Restore the physical education programs in elementary, middle, and high schools. The so-called video game generation is as sedentary, which is contributing to so many fat kids. According to a Detroit Daily News October 2003 article entitled, “More U.S. Schools Cut Gym,” four in ten high school students took daily physical education classes fourteen years ago. Today barely a third of students take phys Ed. In 1980, just 5 percent of school-age children were severely overweight; twenty years later, the number had jumped to 15 percent.  The correlation between lack of daily physical activity and the rate of obesity among our kids seems obvious. Many physical education classes have been cut to give students more time to study for the Bush administration’s education initiatives. Without daily physical education “no child left behind” has become “lots of children with plenty of behind.”