Celebrating 70 Years with Weight Loss Surgery | Ascension

Celebrating 70 Years with Weight Loss Surgery

When exercise wasn’t enough, this Chicagoan took control of his weight with help from the bariatric surgery team at Ascension Illinois.

Before: 390 lbs. | After: 275 lbs. | -115 lbs.↓

Weight loss results may vary depending on the individual. There is no guarantee of specific results.

Rich Piper is not the type who likes to sit still. An avid woodworker and bicyclist, the lifelong Chicagoan also enjoys golf and racquetball. Ironically, Rich’s active lifestyle made it easy to slip into some unhealthy habits. 

“I’ve had almost no stomachaches my entire life, so I could eat plates of food and not pay the price for that,” Rich says. “I’m always running around, so I was drinking, like, five 30-ounce cups of unsweetened ice tea throughout the day.”

As he got older, Rich stayed active, but his weight crept up. This began to impact his ability to move, which in turn limited his ability to do the things he liked. He tried dieting, with little success.

By October 2020, Rich’s weight had reached a peak of 390 pounds. During a checkup with his primary care doctor at Ascension Resurrection, Rich discovered that he had atrial fibrillation (AFib), a common and potentially dangerous form of irregular heartbeat.

Rich, 69, understood that his heart health and weight impacted each other, so he decided to take action. The diagnosis spurred him to consider bariatric surgery as “a 70th birthday present to myself.”

Is bariatric surgery right for your weight-loss goals? Learn more and schedule a consultation with a specialist in the Chicagoland area at ascension.org/ILweightloss

Making the right choice

A commercial real estate broker and investor, Rich’s instinct is to research intensively and keep asking questions until he feels comfortable making a decision. This approach led him to Dr. Richard Y. Zhu, bariatric surgeon and Medical Director at Ascension Illinois - Center for Bariatrics & Weight Loss Chicago. Dr. Zhu performs a range of bariatric surgeries, including sleeve gastrectomy, gastric bypass and duodenal switch procedures. The center also offers nonsurgical medical weight management.

Rich came away impressed. “Dr. Zhu is kind of a spark plug. I like him. He’s a real upbeat guy.” Together, they discussed Rich’s surgical options and concerns. 

“Every patient is different,” says Dr. Zhu. “Each has their own health conditions, personal circumstances, expectations and risk factors. No single procedure is right for everyone. So it’s important to take the time to get to know each person and help them decide.”

Rich chose gastric sleeve surgery. According to Dr. Zhu, “Gastric sleeve surgery is commonly chosen these days because it is a very straightforward procedure. Instead of having to reroute the intestine, as we do in gastric bypass, we are operating on a single organ: the stomach.”

To make sure Rich was ready for his surgery and the coming changes to his body and lifestyle, he received a full medical checkup, a psychological evaluation with a behavioral specialist, and a consultation with a dietitian.

Quick recovery, fast results

Rich’s weight loss began even before his surgery in late July 2021. To shrink his liver size and allow easier access to his stomach, Rich was put on a liquid diet during the two weeks leading up to surgery. During that time, he lost 16 pounds.

Dr. Zhu used a robotic-assisted surgical system to perform Rich’s sleeve gastrectomy. Equipped with interactive arms and high-definition 3-D vision, robotic-assisted systems allow surgeons to perform delicate operations through a few tiny incisions. This precision, dexterity and control helps enhance patient safety, comfort and recovery time. Ascension Illinois - Center for Bariatrics & Weight Loss Chicago uses robotic assistance in all its surgeries and Dr. Zhu has operated with the technology since 2009.

“It was very painless overall,” recalls Rich. Although there was some initial discomfort during the first couple days after his procedure, “it just got better and better and the weight peeled off extremely rapidly.”

Rich was encouraged to get up and walk around immediately after his procedure. Within seven days of his surgery, Rich was back to riding his bicycle and exercising on his home cardio equipment for 45-60 minutes. Within another 38 days, he was able to return to his weightlifting regimen at the gym.

The bulk of the weight came off within four months. “It was shocking to me how fast it came off,” says Rich.

Learning a new way to eat

For Rich, the most difficult part was not the surgery; it was changing eating habits that had become ingrained over a lifetime. This included revoking his membership in the “Clean Plate Club.”

“My mother drummed it into me that there were starving kids in the world and it was a lesson I took too well. In all of this, the hardest adjustment for me has been leaving food on my plate.”

According to Dr. Zhu, many of his bariatric patients, who are in their mid-forties on average, struggle with this. “Think about how hard it is to quit smoking or alcohol. Now imagine how hard it is to quit a habit as essential to your life as food.”

Thankfully, Rich had help from dietitians at Ascension Illinois. During a monthly virtual support group, Rich could consult with nutritionists and other patients pursuing their weight-loss goals with Ascension Illinois. Together, they shared advice and helped keep each other motivated. 

“We’ve found that patients who participate most actively in support groups and build that camaraderie are usually the ones who achieve the best results,” claims Dr. Zhu.

Over time, Rich learned to eat slower, take smaller bites and even found a clever way to still clean his plate: he bought smaller kids’ plates from his local dollar store. And when he and his wife eat out, they’ve gotten used to splitting entrees and bringing home leftovers.

Rich’s doctors had prepared him for the likelihood that his food tastes would change after surgery, but one change still caught him by surprise.

“I’ve never liked yogurt,” laughs Rich. “If you’d told me I’d be eating yogurt 3-4 times a week (in smoothies) and actually enjoying it…”

Yogurt has become a mainstay in his smoothies, along with fresh fruit, spinach, nuts and protein powder. He has cut back on his bread, meat and carb intake; mashed potatoes are now a treat rather than a staple. He has even phased out his caffeinated ice tea and drinks mostly water now.

Best of all, Rich hasn’t had to give up his favorite treats, such as apple pie and ice cream. He just enjoys them in smaller portions.

“I feel like I have my life back again.”

Rich Piper walking down stairs. Rich’s weight has stabilized at around 275-280 pounds. A large swelling (lymphedema) in Rich’s right leg, a chronic condition he has managed for most of his life, accounts for some of this total. Though he admits he’s still working at it, Rich is extremely happy with the results so far.

“For the first time in my life, I feel like I’m in control of my weight instead of vice versa.”

Dr. Zhu is proud of Rich because he understands what it took for him to get there.

“Unfortunately, many people who’d benefit from bariatric surgery dismiss it as ‘the easy way out’ versus losing weight on their own,” explains Dr. Zhu. “Coming back from surgery — any surgery — is not easy. It’s work. So I’m very, very proud of my patients for putting in the work to get the results.”

These days, Rich’s larger concern may be clothing. “I own six sport coats. Before the surgery, I couldn’t button any of them. Now they’re all too big, to the point that some can’t be taken in enough to fit.”

Rich averaged about 150 miles per week on his bike throughout the summer of 2022, with short 20-mile rides 2-3 times per week and a larger 34-mile loop from his home to Chicago Botanic Garden. His goal was to bike the North Shore Century, a 100-mile route that loops up Lake Michigan from Evanston to Pleasant Prairie, WI, and back again. In September, Rich achieved this goal with his oldest daughter, meeting some friends from his bicycling club who hadn’t seen him since he had lost the weight. 

“Mentally, it was great to be able to move again,” says Rich. “I feel like I have my life back again, being able to be as active as I want to be.”