Following bariatric surgery in September, 16-year-old Riley Ickes has lost 63 pounds, is on steady progress to reach her post-surgery weight goal, and is enjoying life in ways she has not in years.
“For one thing, I love shopping for clothes now,” Riley said. “But I am just going to the thrift store, because I am still losing weight and don’t want to spend too much on clothes that, hopefully, will no longer fit.”
Rising every day at 6 a.m. to go to the gym before she starts her online school day, Riley has never been more disciplined and committed to heath. After school, she works at Wal-Mart until 10:30 p.m. Throughout the day, she gives careful thought to her meals and snacks.
Riley is one of the first success stories from Akron Children’s new Bariatric Surgery program, an addition to the hospital’s Healthy Active Living Program.
A junior at Ellet High School, Riley joined the Healthy Active Living Program when she was in 8th grade after developing polycystic ovary syndrome, which can be associated with obesity. She also had high cholesterol and was on the cusp of meeting the clinical definition for diabetes.
She bonded with Dr. Marnie Walston, the pediatrician who oversees the program, and greatly appreciated the help of others on the team, including a pediatric psychologist, an exercise physiologist, and a dietitian.
“Riley got especially close with dietitian Katie Dougherty,” said Riley’s mom, Renee. “Katie went above and beyond, giving Riley her cell phone number. Riley would text Katie while in a grocery store to ask, ‘What do you think of this?’ ‘Should I buy this? They are all so good to Riley, so encouraging. She needed that support; we all did.”
According to Renee, Riley was always an active child but she and her husband, Ron, began to get concerned with Riley’s weight gain in early middle school.
Riley would try various diets with no long-term success. At one point, she lost 20 pounds, but slowly it came back. One summer, she went to the gym nearly every day but was ultimately crushed to see no weight loss – in fact, there was weight gain.
Over time, her weight began to affect her self-esteem. Riley would worry about being called on in class, not wanting extra attention on herself. She had always loved to go to Cedar Point with her uncle Rodney, but, eventually, worried so much about meeting the weight requirements for rides that it was no longer fun to go.
Earlier this year, Dr. Walston approached Riley and her parents to tell them about Akron Children’s new bariatric surgery and that the team thought Riley would be a good candidate for surgery. She met the requirements such as being in the Healthy Active Living Program for at least 6 months and having good family support.
Dr. Mark Wulkan, chair of the Department of Surgery, explained to Riley and her parents what to expect from the procedure – a gastric sleeve operation.
Riley would need to consume only liquids for the two weeks leading up to surgery, and, after surgery, it would take weeks to ease back into a normal diet – beginning with water, then moving onto other liquids, then pureed foods until finally introducing regular solid foods.
But such a sacrifice should pay off long term. Dr. Wulkan cites outcome data that shows that pediatric bariatric surgery patients get the same weight loss benefits as adults. In fact, adolescents do better at preventing and reversing diabetes, high cholesterol and other diseases related to obesity.
Post surgery, Riley said she feels fuller after eating, can’t eat as much at meals and, in general, is not as hungry as she used to be.
And she has picked up lots of nutritional knowledge from the Healthy Active Living Program.
“I used to skip breakfast a lot,” she said. “Now, I have something pre-made in the fridge.”
This may include protein shakes or pre-cooked mini quiches or frittatas that can be popped in the microwave.
Riley has also come to love cauliflower rice as a lower-calorie substitute for regular rice. She might pair it with grilled chicken and vegetables.
“I can also use it to create a homemade Chipotle burrito bowl,” she said.
She has learned to think outside the box when it comes to sandwiches. A go-to brown bag lunch idea is to use two pieces of green pepper in place of bread slices, then fill them with a piece of turkey breast and some cream cheese, sprinkled with everything bagel seasoning.
Ultimately, Riley’s goal is to lose 150 pounds. She knows it won’t happen overnight but already feels like the surgery, combined with her new commitment to exercise and healthy eating, has made her a success.
She has a circle of cheerleaders – her parents, older brothers Chaz and Owen, and grandma (Nana) Bonnie – as well as an online support group through the Health Active Living Program.
In addition to her new knowledge of nutrition, the experts at Akron Children’s have also introduced her to helpful smartphone apps that help her count calories and learn new exercises.
“I am so excited for her,” said Renee. “These past years have been difficult. Now, if we go shopping for clothes, there won’t be tears on the way home. And we shouldn’t have to worry as much about diabetes, cholesterol or the polycystic ovary syndrome, which can affect fertility down the road. We are hoping to see improvements in her upcoming lab work.”
Riley, who was in the Ellet Marching Band and played tennis, is looking forward to not having to think about her weight as she moves through life. She has been enjoying kayaking with her uncle on the Portage Lakes through the summer and fall, and is looking forward to summer when she can use her season pass at Cedar Point.
And she is already thinking about the future when her school resumes in-person learning. She hasn’t seen most of her classmates in person since last March.
“I wonder if I will be recognized?” she said, “or maybe some will assume I am a new girl at school.”