Stanford surgeon helps California teen shed more than 150 pounds

A doctor at Stanford Hospital successfully conducted weight loss surgery on a teenage boy from Southern California, a procedure that likely saved his life and definitely has changed it. 

John Simon, who weighed over 430 pounds at the young age of 15, has struggled with obesity throughout his life, and this surgery has brought about a remarkable transformation.

According to John's mother, he was a "chunky" baby from the beginning, and his weight continued to climb as he grew older. 

"My passion with food was exhausting," John said. "You know, I loved food at that time, you know? That's the only thing that was kind of a comfort zone for me."

John is among a small but growing group of young teens using drastic treatments – body-altering surgery, new drugs that rewire metabolism to lose large amounts of weight. The kids and their parents say the aggressive measures are a necessary option after years of failed diets and exercise programs.

The aggressive interventions are backed by experts who treat obesity in children, who say that safe and effective tools are crucial when 80% of adolescents with excess weight carry it into adulthood with dire consequences for their health and longevity.

Dr. Janey Pratt, a surgeon from Stanford University, said that diet and exercise, often prove ineffective in treating severe obesity in both children and adults. 

John had tried lots of treatments, including medication and lifestyle changes. 

Starting in grade school, as his weight increased, John struggled with joint pain, shortness of breath and sleep apnea so severe that, at age 12, he needed coffee in the mornings to stay awake. He developed anxiety triggered by daily bullying from kids at school. When he was in sixth grade, he was hospitalized for two months with post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the nearly constant abuse.

John tried diets and exercise, sometimes losing as much as 40 pounds. But he endured intense food cravings that meant the weight always came back plus more.

He was referred to Stanford Medicine Children’s Health weight-loss program and his mother, Karen Tillman, was willing to drive him 350 miles from Van Nuys to Palo Alto for the treatments. 

Surgery became the best option for him, he and his mom decided. 

"You know, we've shown again and again that in kids with severe obesity and in adults with severe obesity, lifestyle change is not a good treatment," Pratt said. "It does not work. Diet and exercise is ineffective at treating obesity. Surgery is effective, and it has long term results."

She added: "The magical thing about surgery is that it takes that hunger away. And the children change. They become new people."

Pratt performed gastric sleeve surgery on John in September 2022.

There has been plenty of social media criticism to this type of approach. 

"How about this? Less junk food, less XBox and more outside time," a typical Twitter comment said. "This is child abuse," read another.

But medical experts who treat kids with severe obesity disagree. 

More than 240 diseases are associated with excess weight and signs of metabolic disease including liver problems, diabetes, inflammation and they show up early, Pratt said. 

Still, surgery isn't a silver bullet. 

Not everyone who inquires enrolls in the program, and not everyone who signs up loses expected amounts of weight or keeps it off. 

About 1 in 4 kids who undergo weight-loss surgery regain the pounds and need further treatment, including additional surgery, Pratt said. Those who take obesity drugs regain weight once they stop, research shows. Others see side effects that can be serious, including gallstones and inflammation of the pancreas.

At the same time, neither surgery nor drugs will necessarily help kids get down to what’s commonly called a "healthy" weight, a BMI of 25 or lower. A key goal of the push to treat kids sooner is to have a better chance of helping them lose enough weight to reduce or halt obesity-related diseases.

Just nine months after undergoing the stomach reduction operation, John has already shed more than 150 pounds. 

After the surgery, John said he doesn't eat like he used to anymore. And he's at the gym twice a week. 

"I see my weight constantly going down because I don't want to look back and go back and just deal with that pain," he said. "After the surgery, I feel like I had a new life. I forgot about the past. I forgot about what I had to deal with to get here."

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. 

AP VIDEO BY Eugene Garcia and Terry Chea