WASHINGTON – Some people don’t recognize Rep. Tom Reed anymore because suddenly, he’s three-quarters of the man he used to be.
Reed, R-Corning, carried 310 pounds on his 6-foot frame until late February, when he had stomach-shrinking gastric bypass surgery.
Since then, he’s lost 70 pounds – and gained a new appreciation for a healthier lifestyle that’s free of steaks and free of the late-night “snacks” that Reed used to turn into extra meals.
“I talked to my doctors, my family, and this was the right choice for me,” said Reed, 41. “One of the final conversations that showed we were on the right path was when the doctor said to me, ‘You have two paths. Either you’re going to go out at 61, or you’re going to go out at 81.’ ”
Gastric bypass surgery and related procedures are last-ditch efforts for morbidly obese people who’ve repeatedly tried and failed to lose weight.
Likely candidates are at least 100 pounds overweight, or otherwise have weight-related complications such as diabetes, high blood pressure or sleep apnea, said Dr. Joseph A. Caruana, medical director of Synergy Bariatrics and chief of bariatric surgery at Sisters of Charity Hospital in Buffalo.
Candidates for such procedures must undergo a complete psychological evaluation as well as a rigorous examination of their eating habits and weight fluctuations over the past five years.
While the complication rate from the procedures is very low, the procedure is invasive and life-changing. For that reason, “we make sure no one comes to this decision easily,” Caruana said.
Yet Reed, who went from being an all-American Division Three swimmer at Alfred University to, well, a pretty big guy with diabetes not long afterward, seems to have been a textbook candidate for the procedure.
To hear Reed tell it, in the mid-1990s he transitioned from the grueling workout schedule of a college athlete to that of a sedentary law student without curbing his aggressive eating habits. And so he started putting on the weight.
“It’s been a problem for a lot of years,” he said.
Over time, Reed said he became what’s called a “mindless eater.” He recounts standing at the refrigerator after dinner and grabbing something else, and coming home after a long day at 11 or 11:30 p.m. and eating the equivalent of an extra meal.
“Afterwards, it was, like, why did I do that?” asked Reed, who says his overeating may have been tied to his experience of being the 12th of 12 children who were always told to never, ever let any food go to waste.
For Reed, the resulting girth resulted in multiple indignities – and a big scare.
On a trip to Orlando, Fla., with his family, he found that he was too big to get on a roller coaster with his kids.
Later, back home in Corning, his daughter broke into tears after seeing a letter to the local newspaper that described her father as “the fat pig on the farm, eating at the trough.”
And of course, there was the challenge of trying to fit into an airplane seat.
Most critically of all, though, almost immediately after his election to Congress in November 2010, Reed suffered a pulmonary embolism – a life-threatening event that prompted Reed to try, as he had before, to lose weight.
“In the fall of 2012 I did drop some weight, and then it all came back on and then some, just like the average person who deals with this goes through,” Reed said. “And I finally just said you know what, I’ve got to make the leap.”
After discussions with his doctors, Reed decided on the most permanent and invasive solution to his weight problem: bariatric gastric bypass surgery, where the surgeon made his stomach smaller so it can only accommodate a small amount of food at a time.
“I relied heavily on my doctor, and he recommended that solution” based on Reed’s longtime struggle with his weight, the congressman said.
That procedure contrasts with the gastric band that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recently had installed, which can be adjusted or even removed to allow the patient to eat more again someday.
Gastric bypass surgery is much more effective, prompting weight loss that’s up to 30 percent greater than the gastric band, said Dr. Joseph D. Afram, clinical director of bariatric surgery at George Washington University Hospital, where Reed’s surgery was performed.
The two-hour operation took place Feb. 28 – the day the House voted on the Violence Against Women Act.
Reed’s office told reporters he missed that vote because of a “stomach issue,” which was technically accurate, if imprecise – a fact that’s prompted some blistering Facebook commentary in the Southern Tier’s 23rd District.
“If Tom deceived us about his reason for missing the VAWA vote, his credibility suffers on other matters,” one commenter said. “We deserve a representative who sticks to the truth.”
Still, Reed insisted that he had good reasons for keeping the surgery a secret until after it was completed.
First and foremost, he was worried that his children, who are 12 and 14, would be mocked in school and told: “Your daddy’s getting the fat man surgery.”
Beyond that, “it’s a serious surgery,” Reed said. “We were stressed out enough, without having to deal with the public spotlight.”
After the surgery, the stress quickly shifted from the psychological to the physical.
For about two weeks, the incision on his stomach made it difficult for Reed to walk and sleep.
But he persevered, adjusting all the while to a new eating regimen of several small meals a day, all of them heavy on lean proteins, fruits and vegetables.
Not long afterward, Reed’s Type 2 diabetes disappeared – as did pound after pound after pound.
Reed now weighs about 240, so he still has a long way to go to reach his doctor’s recommendation that he weigh 188, though that’s not necessarily Reed’s goal.
“My goal is to feel healthy,” Reed said. “This is about my wife and kids and enjoying life and being around for those 20-plus years they say I can now put on my life. It’s not a numerical goal; it’s what puts me in a healthier position to enjoy my family, to be here for my family.”
Reed said he’ll be there, too, to help others who face a life-threatening battle with their weight and may want to consider the surgery.
“It’s a tough battle,” he said. “There’s millions of Americans out there who’ve gone through it and I can empathize with them.”
Above all, Reed said, adjusting to gastric bypass surgery means a new way of living, and Afram agreed.
“People who do this have to change their lifestyle completely,” Afram said. “This will be the number one priority of their life.”
In addition to eating far smaller meals, Reed has to drink plenty of water now to avoid dehydration and take nutritional supplements to make sure he isn’t missing anything.
He suddenly finds himself repulsed by some of his longtime favorite foods, like popcorn, and said, “I don’t think I’ll ever eat another steak again.”
And he’s gone back to the swimming pool after all these years.
Reed admits it’s all very new to him, but one thing’s for sure: He doesn’t long for yesterday.
“My energy, and how I feel, is just so much better,” Reed said.