After working 12-hour nursing shifts, Robilynn Anders-Sterk used to get pins-and-needles pain in her legs.

It’s not surprising.

Over a 10-year span, the 5-foot-3 West Michigan woman gained 100 pounds. Along with the weight, she developed pre-diabetes, hypertension, gastric reflux and sleep apnea.

The first year after surgery is exhilarating for the patient. They have worked all their lives to lose weight, and now experiencing success and living with success every week … it’s almost a feeling of euphoria.

Jon Schram, MD
Division chief of bariatric surgery at Spectrum Health

“I was so busy going to nursing school and being a nurse, I forgot to take care of myself,” said Anders-Sterk, 49. She works with post-operative patients, including those recovering from bariatric surgery, at Spectrum Health Zeeland Community Hospital.

“I decided to take the bull by the horns, but I needed to do something more than diet and exercise,” she said. “I didn’t have the self-control for dieting. And with a (body mass index) of 41, I couldn’t just jump on the treadmill and start working out.”

Inspired by her patients and encouraged by two post-bariatric co-workers, Anders-Sterk had bariatric gastric sleeve surgery in June 2016.

Enjoying the benefits

Even on a cruise ship, Anders-Sterk lost weight when she and her family toured the Caribbean six weeks after surgery.

“I had so much energy, I was doing the stairs when everyone else was taking the elevator,” she said.

At meals, she took sample bites and then passed the extra food to family members.

Her blood pressure is now perfect and she no longer has sleep apnea. Overall, her health has greatly improved.

But it’s the little things that delight her most.

“I can tie my own shoes. I can paint my own toenails. I can go to a meeting and cross my legs,” she said. “I never thought it would happen. It’s so incredible.”

She has traded in her women’s size 3X clothing for misses’ size 10-12. She goes to the gym three times a week. She’s given up comfort shoes for trendy heels. She has energy for the treadmill after work. And she’s looking forward to playing on the floor with her first grandchild, due to arrive later this year.

“Robilynn has a smile, she’s bubbly, she’s excited,” said her surgeon, Jon Schram, MD, division chief of bariatric surgery at Spectrum Health.

“The first year after surgery is exhilarating for the patient. They have worked all their lives to lose weight, and now experiencing success and living with success every week … it’s almost a feeling of euphoria,” Dr. Schram said.

Framework for success

The surgery creates a framework so patients can diet more effectively, according to Dr. Schram. He has performed an average of 400 weight-loss surgeries annually for the past 15 years.

“It’s not the easy way out,” he said. “But our patients work hard and our team of dietitians and behavioral specialists work with them. It requires a plan and the dedication to work through the plan lifelong.”

It’s worth the effort.

Statistically, 70 to 80 percent of patients with diabetes can quit their medications within a year, while 50 percent will lower their cholesterol and 90 percent will keep off at least half their excess weight for the rest of their lives.

In a nutshell, they live longer, healthier lives.

Anders-Sterk believes she’s a better nurse since the operation. She’s also using her experience to teach bariatric pre-op classes to patients considering surgery.

“I have a better understanding,” she said. “I know what they’re feeling.”

During class she explains what to expect during surgery and beyond. A lot of her emphasis is on nutrition. Bariatric surgery shrinks the stomach to just a few ounces, so it takes small, frequent snacks combined with dietary supplements to stay healthy.

Surprisingly, the surgery also reduces the level of ghrelin, the hunger hormone. This makes it easier to resist temptation.

But there are also social and emotional challenges.

“You have lost your best friend: food,” Anders-Sterk said. “You go through an emotional roller coaster.”

There’s a tendency to fill the gap in other ways—she was tempted by online shopping—but the Spectrum Health bariatric support staff helps patients deal with these feelings, as well as their health.

Anders-Sterk said she’d never want to go back to how it had been before surgery.

Even her husband, a family physician, is considering the procedure for himself despite his initial reservations about her surgery decision.

“Welcome to the loser’s bench,” she said. “I changed my ways. I took charge of my life and I took charge of my future.”