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Format: 04/16/2014
Format: 04/16/2014


Pittsburgh Business Times: Don Merz on a healthier path after bariatric surgery

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

By  Kris B. Mamula

 Donald Merz can’t remember not being big.

 His parents were heavy, and Merz began life as an overweight baby, boosting his odds to 80 percent that he would grow up fat, according to the American Society for Metabolic & Bariatric Surgery.

 By the time he graduated from high school, Merz was pushing about 185 pounds, which ballooned to 210 pounds, then to 225 pounds when he was married at age 22. By then, he was 6 feet tall. His ideal weight was about 180, but eating was his thing.

 “I was completely all about the food,” said Merz, 57. “I’d spent my entire life being food obsessed.”

 Merz is no freak. He could be your neighbor down the block, the guy at the office, pecking away at the keyboard in the next cubicle.

Merz worked in information technology at large corporations for many years before starting a wedding photography business, Ovation Images, about seven years ago. He has been married 35 years. He drives a Ford.

 His wife, Mary Ann, teaches at a community college.

 They live in a sturdy brick house in Mount Lebanon. He and his wife have eight children — the youngest is 18 — and Merz never thought much about his weight, even as it continued to climb.

 “Psychologically speaking, my weight never bothered me,” he said. “I was completely used to it.”

 Don Merz didn’t stand out in the crowd because there were so many other people like him out there, rolling their eyes impatiently in the supermarket checkout lines, cheering on children at soccer matches, dashing off to the bank before it closed.

 The fact that Merz was obese only meant that he fit in with more than 72 million other people in America who are the same way, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

 How the story goes

 As common as overweight people are in America, each has an individual story about how things got out of control. Being fat may be a stigma they share, but there’s no common thread in how they became so big — no sirens, no thunderbolts when they got on the scale, according to Dr. Daniel Gagne, director of bariatric surgery at West Penn Hospital, who has performed some 1,560 stomach bypass operations, including one last year on Merz.

 “They’re not out eating pizza for breakfast,” Gagne said. “Most of these patients are trying.

 “The average American is overweight, and one out of every 15 or 17 people qualify for bariatric surgery, which is pretty scary.”

 Little in Merz’s diet seemed out of the ordinary, save the amounts he consumed. Breakfast was the usual fare, cereal, toast, occasionally bagels — always larded up with the good stuff — and he regularly ate lunch at the company cafeteria, where portions were more like dinner-size, he said.

 “Portions are large and we are all about large portions,” he said.

 If mornings were fairly ordinary, afternoons were when Merz’s diet went off the rails. He would down two liters of Pepsi, sometimes more, every day, with vending machine snacks. If supper were going to be delayed, he’d stop by a fast-food joint on the way home for his favorite: a double burger, fries and soft drink, then sit down to a meal with his family later. Evenings, he spent snacking on chips, cookies, brownies.


 Merz said his weight wasn’t much of an issue until about 10 years ago when he tipped the scale at 300 pounds.

 By that time, his sleep was consistently restless, he was taking medication for high blood pressure and his knees and ankles were killing him. He was popping pain pills “at an alarming rate,” he said.

 “When you’re fat, it’s a downward spiral,” he said. “You don’t move as much, you don’t do as much,” making weight loss nearly impossible.

 Merz’s epiphany came in August 2008. He was photographing a wedding. The father and daughter prepared for the big day by taking dance lessons. Watching them, he said he was struck by the fear he would not share the same joy with his own daughter.

 “During that wedding, it hit me,” he said. “Based on my physical condition, I might not be able to dance with my daughter at her wedding.

 “To see the joy on their faces — when you’re kind of hit in the face with that every Saturday — it had an impact.”

 The last resort

 His family doctor said he’d never known anyone Merz’s age who was able to lose as much weight as he needed to get to normal, so Merz said he spent the next year struggling with the decision of whether to get stomach reduction surgery. It was the last resort.

 “I thought, I’m not getting any younger here. I don’t know how many years I have left, but I want to do everything I can to make them good years,” he said.

 By the time he met with Gagne at West Penn Hospital, Merz had reached 330 pounds, frighteningly close to double his normal weight of around 180 pounds. His health insurer required a yearlong, doctor-supervised diet before they would pay for the surgery, which delayed the operation longer than he hoped.

 The turnaround

 In the end, things worked out. The operation lasted less than an hour and involved five small incisions. He was home in two-and-a-half days and has already lost 71.5 pounds on the way down to a goal of 218 pounds. Food cravings have abated.

 “I feel 100 percent better, and maybe more than 100 percent,” Merz said. “I have more energy than ever.”

 More energy is only the start for most patients. The benefits of surgery for obesity can include an end to adult-onset diabetes, Gagne said. Between 80 percent and 85 percent of diabetics are essentially cured within days of the procedure for reasons that aren’t completely clear.

 Merz was able to throw away his blood pressure medicine. His knees and ankles are feeling better, and he’s not taking nearly as much medicine for pain.

 And the procedure is safe. Ten years ago, one patient out of 100 would experience a complication; those odds have improved to one out of 1,000 today, which is lower-risk than getting knee replacement surgery, Gagne said.

 Merz ticks off the ways his life has improved since the operation.

 “I can get around a lot better. I don’t have leg pain, and I feel like I’m getting so much better value out of my sleep,” he said. “I reclaimed a lot of my life with this surgery.”



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