Increase in controversial weight-loss surgery for teens

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ATLANTA —

At 13 years old, Kimbrley Omgoma has spent years trying to lose weight.

"I've tried everything from exercising to changing how I eat," she said.

Kimbrley is taking a step that was once controversial, but now is more accepted.  She's having bariatric surgery to shrink her stomach.

"I don't want to be the big girl in the family," Kimbrley said.  "I want to be like the rest of them and do a whole bunch of sports and things."

Her family is supporting her.

"She the most nice, gentle person you could ever meet," said Yolanda Hawkins, Kimbrley’s mother.  "And no one could see that because they saw her size first.  And not only kids, adults can be cruel too."

Studies show that more than 60 percent of obese children admit to being bullied. The majority of the bullying comes from classmates, but also teachers and other adults, too.  

Statistics on depression are shocking.

"Obese kids are just as unhappy as kids on chemotherapy," said Dr. Mark Wulkon of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. 

Channel 2 Action News first talked to Wulkan in 2010.  Then, he had only done about 40 bariatric surgeries on teenagers. Now, he's doing a lot more. 

"I think the number of surgeries going up is a sign that more people are recognizing that they have a problem," Wulkan said. "Our kids, when they come to us, it's just not to get surgery. It's not a quick fix to get skinny for the prom. It's all about changing your lifestyle."

Bariatric surgery on teenagers has become less controversial nationwide since doctors began doing it laparoscopically, which is less invasive.

Wulkan also said it's important to help these children before they develop Type II diabetes or hypertension, because those conditions can be hard to reverse.  He also said it's very important for these children to get the surgery at a pediatric center.

The national standard for bariatric surgery is someone with a body mass index of around 40.  That's about 100 pounds overweight. 

Wulkan said the average BMI of the children getting surgery at Children's has been around 52.  

Wulkan said the surgery is only a tool for those children who have tried to lose weight on their own, but can't.

Savannah Denton, 17, had bariatric surgery in March. She, like all the bariatric patients at Children's, had to go through a long screening process. It included meeting with pediatricians, dietitians, exercise physiologists and a psychologist.

"I went for seven months before approval for surgery because it's a team effort," Denton said.  "You have to get approved by everyone. If there's one no, then it's no surgery."

The team effort also applies to home. Children's won't do surgery unless the teen's entire family commits to a healthier lifestyle.

Denton said her family embraced it.

"It's not like you can do it by yourself," she said.  "It's impossible to do it by yourself."

Kimbrley’s family knows that too, and has changed its habits. Her mother admitted she is getting criticism for letting her daughter have surgery, but said she has done her research.

"This is going to be a tool helping her to get to that next level that she wants to get to, and I think it's great," Hawkins said.  "It's her time."

Kimbrley is hopeful for what's next.

"I don't know what's coming in the future, but I hope it's something good that will fill me with joy and confidence," Kimbrley said.