More blacks going for gastric surgery, experts say BY REBECCA SCHILLING, Medill News Service Each year Americans grow heavier, food portions get larger and the fast food craze escalates. The trends contribute to black women having the highest obesity rate in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In response, blacks — men and women both — are turning to gastric bypass surgeries at increasing rates, the American Society for Bariatric Surgery reports. Blacks, representing about 13 percent of the U.S. population, now make up a total of nine percent of gastric bypass patients, International Bariatric Registry statistics show. While doctors agree that this surgery can ensure dramatic weight loss, some doctors and health advocates say patients need to be more aware of the risks. Robyn McGee, author of "Hungry for More: A Keeping it Real Guide for Black Women on Weight and Body Image," knows the dangers firsthand. McGee’s sister Cathy had gastric bypass surgery in 2001 and died four days later of cardiac arrest. McGee responded to the tragedy by writing the book. McGee, a journalist and women’s studies advisor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, said in an interview that her sister had a weak heart and doctors failed to give her adequate after-surgery care. "The level of care is different. After-surgery care (for blacks) is not the same as other [races] get." McGee said. In addition, she noted that: "doctors have less training [on] the African American community." The dangers of gastric bypass surgery is gaining national attention - so much so that McGee will be raising awareness on the subject as a speaker at the Congressional Black Caucus Health Empowerment Submit in California on Saturday. "Gastric bypass surgery is seen as a quick fix," she said. "They think they can eat all they want to [after surgery]. Unless they fully change their whole lifestyle, it doesn’t work that way." McGee said the reason gastric bypass surgeries are increasing among blacks is due to poor diet and the lack of exercise. She said meals commonly eaten in black communities are high in fat and calories and include junk and fast foods. Nearly 51 percent of black women were obese as of 2000, compared to obesity levels that averaged about 39 percent between 1988 and 1994, according to a CDC survey. About 40 percent of Mexican women and 31 percent of white women were obese in 2000, survey results indicate. Chicago area doctors said the number of gastric bypass surgeries is on the rise among all races. Dr. Vivek Prachand, who has performed these surgeries for five years at the University of Chicago Hospitals, said the increase is due to several factors, for one, the rise in the number of people who meet eligibility criteria. For people to be eligible for gastric bypass surgery, they must have a body mass index of at least 40, or a BMI of at least 35 with other health conditions such as diabetes, high cholesterol or sleep apnea. BMI is a measure of body fat based on a person’s height and weight. Prachand said overall BMI in the population increased dramatically between 1986 and 2000. Severe obesity, reflected by a BMI of at least 40, has increased almost as much. But Dr. James Madura, a surgeon at Rush University Medical Center, said the number of gastric bypass surgeries was on the rise for years but is no longer increasing. "It was a trend that ended in the fall of 2004," he said, largely because insurance companies added restrictions and limited access to care. Madura said insurance companies put potential surgery patients on a six- to 12-month medically supervised weight loss program prior to approving surgery. Doctors estimate the average cost of gastric bypass surgery at between $25,000 and $50,000, covered by insurance if the surgery is approved. Because of location of the hospital, "African Americans have always been a substantial proportion of our patients," Prachand said, adding that he had not seen an increase in blacks having gastric bypass surgery. McGee said, however, that thousands of black women are having cosmetic surgeries of all kinds, "It used to be in the African American community [that] we didn’t want to even go see the doctor."