Woman sheds weight, disease

By Billy Watkings/The Clarion-Ledger

JACKSON — Gwen Jacobs Colella weighed 271 pounds and had been diagnosed with gestational diabetes while pregnant with her second child, 6-year-old Joey.

“I was eating the wrong foods, wasn’t exercising and had already lost family members who didn’t take care of themselves,” says Colella, 34, manager of Greenbrook Flowers, which opened in Jackson in 1917.

Soon after Joey was born, Colella underwent Roux-en-Y gastric bypass surgery. Most of her stomach was stapled shut.

“It’s a surgery that used to be used for ulcers,” says Dr. David S. Miller, who performed the procedure. “It helps people lose weight because they simply can’t eat as much food as they once did.”

But it did much more than help Colella shrink to her present weight of 129: It also sent her diabetes into remission, which often happens following this particular surgery.

“We aren’t sure how or why it works,” says Miller, a general and bariatric surgeon for Surgical Specialists of Jackson and Transformations at River Oaks Hospital in Flowood. “But researchers are feverishly studying it.”

And with good reason. Studies predict that 50 percent of Americans will have diabetes by 2020 with a treatment cost of $3.35 trillion.

About 3 percent of expectant mothers are diagnosed with gestational diabetes. Those individuals are 20 to 50 percent more likely to develop type 2 diabetes within five to 10 years.

“They can help their chances of not getting it by maintaining a reasonable body weight and exercise,” says Mary Fortune, executive vice president of the Diabetes Foundation of Mississippi.

But Colella was looking for more than a quick fix.

“If you don’t do what you’re supposed to, which is eat the right things and exercise, there is still a good chance you’re going to gain some of the weight back even after the surgery,” she says. “So when people ask me how I lost all that weight, I tell them, ‘I changed my lifestyle.’ And that’s the only way to make it work.”

Colella, who is divorced, and her two boys used to eat a lot of fast food and fatty foods. She hardly ever exercised.

“Now I jog up to three miles three or four times a week, and the boys ride their scooters and go with me. So they’re getting exercise now.

“I used to drink Mountain Dews by the gross. Now, I drink water and Crystal Lite. And our refrigerator is stocked with fruits and vegetables. Instead of regular hamburgers, I fix turkey burgers, and the boys can’t even tell the difference. I’m eating things I never dreamed I would, such as baked or grilled fish.”

Colella emphasizes it wasn’t just about losing weight.

“I wanted to give myself every opportunity possible to be here and watch my kids grow up.”

Miller refers to Colella as his “A-plus” student. “She has done everything we asked her to do following the surgery. She was into the program 100 percent.

“I saw her at one of the (Diabetes Foundation) events and almost didn’t recognize her.”

Neither did Fortune, who has known Colella since she was a toddler. Fortune and Colella’s deceased grandmother were close friends.

Mississippi ranks near the top in diabetic patients nationally at 11.7 percent.

Fortune is in her 29th year at the Diabetes Foundation, which was recently awarded a four-star rating (the highest given) by Charity Navigator, the nation’s leading charity evaluator. The foundation works to assist patients, screen individuals, educate schools about how to care for students with diabetes, and holds seminars for physicians, dietitians and pharmacists on the latest diabetic treatments.

“Gwen’s case warms my heart,” Fortune says. “It’s great to see someone take control of their life and destiny. And it will change the lives of her children as well. What Gwen has done is overwhelming and something people can really learn a lesson from.”

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The Mayo Clinic advises these possible post-operative complications of bariatric surgery:

— Pneumonia caused by excess weight placing stress on the chest.

— Blood clots in the legs. This risk can best be reduced by exercising the leg muscles to promote blood flow.

— Incision infections.

— Leak at one of the staple lines in the stomach.

— Inability to absorb certain vitamins and minerals.