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Congressman talks about weight struggle

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- CNN anchor Bill Hemmer talked with Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, about a problem that has little to do with politics, but is more personal in nature -- his lifelong struggle with his weight and recent surgery to help him.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York

HEMMER: Struggling with a weight problem, never easy. Imagine now dealing with such a personal issue while you are still in the public eye. That is the problem Jerry Nadler faced for years. He's a congressman from the state of New York. He's 5'4" and at one point weighed well over 320 pounds. He decided to do something drastic to lose that weight. Nadler underwent stomach reduction surgery last August, had about half, or two-thirds of his stomach moved. That was about three months ago. In three months time, he's lost 61 pounds, and he's here to talk about the challenge he has taken on ... Is it hard still keeping on track?

NADLER: Well, the point of the surgery is that it makes it much easier. The point of the surgery is that because your stomach is so much smaller, you feel full much more quickly. You don't eat nearly as much, and if you do really overeat, you feel very uncomfortable for a while, and that's a good negative feedback.

HEMMER: When you are a compulsive eater, obsessive eater, how would you describe yourself before?

NADLER: I don't know. Certainly I ate from tension. I ate to keep busy.

HEMMER: Is it in the mind?

NADLER: Partly that. But no, it's more than the mind. All the modern research is showing obesity is mostly a physical problem, it's genetic, it's hormonal, it's linked to other problems, and we're beginning to understand the biochem industry of it and the genetics of it. So it's for certainly people with the wrong genes, it's just very, very difficult, even impossible.

HEMMER: Take me over the past 20 years of your own personal life. What did you do? What did you try?

NADLER: I tried a lot of different thing. I tried the liquid diets. I feed Fen-Phen, the drugs. I tried Weight Watchers. I went to Duke University -- its weight-reduction program, stayed there for months -- just about five years ago. And I would always lose some weight, sometimes as much as 30 or 40 pounds, and put it back on. And that is the history for people who are grossly overweight. They behave like yo-yos. It's very difficult for grossly overweight people to take off the weight and keep it off.

HEMMER: What was your incentive to finally make the decision and commit to it?

NADLER: Well, you know, it's very a serious decision, it's a risky decision. There is a certain mortality rate. One out of 200 people die from the surgery, or from any serious surgery. So I'm well aware of that, and I understand statistics. I was thinking, I'm getting older. I'm 55 years old. I have a 17-year-old son who is applying to college. I want to see my grandchildren. I want to see them grow up. I have a lot more to do in my public life, and you start worrying about the statistics catching up with you, in terms of life expectancy, in terms of other diseases that result from obesity, much greater propensity for heart attack, for stroke, for diabetes, for God knows, you name it.

HEMMER: It's tied to just about everything, is it?

NADLER: It's tied to a lot. It's considered today the biggest public health problem in the United States, and eventually, I've decided in terms of what I still wanted to do for a long time, and I want to be here for a long time, it made sense, and the risk of the surgery was less than the risk of doing nothing.

HEMMER: You've had half your stomach removed, is that right?

NADLER: Greater than that.

HEMMER: Do you think you could have beaten this without this operation?

NADLER: No, no way. I had tried everything else that I could of. It didn't work. As I said, it would lose weight, and then gradually gain it back, and every time I did, I would end up heavier than before I tried whatever remedy it was, and I'd almost resign myself to it.

HEMMER: Do you think obesity in America has been given the attention it should get, relative to, like, a drug addict or an alcoholic?

NADLER: No, I think it's just beginning to get the proper attention. It is a far more damaging, frankly, to people's health problem than drug addiction, in terms of the number of people kills, in terms of the numbers of people it cripples, and we're just beginning to give it the proper attention. As of a few years ago, for instance, I thought that as a member of Congress, I gave thought to introducing legislation to mandate that health insurance should cover weight-reduction treatment. I didn't do it because I thought it would look self-serving.

HEMMER: Really? No kidding?

NADLER: Now that problem is largely solved. Most, not all, but most health insurance does cover obesity reduction today, because of the increasing recognition of this centrality to preventing heart attack, preventing strokes, preventing diabetes or treating diabetes and everything else, and it's cheaper to treat the obesity than to treat these other conditions that result.

HEMMER: So true. I agree with that. Listen, I want you to hang on just a second here, because you talked about stomach-reduction surgery. There may be people in our audience who want to know more about it. I know you are not a doctor; you're a politician, so we're going to turn to our doctor right now, and Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who knows all too well about this topic.

Your thoughts, not on Congressman Nadler's case, but on people across the country who may apply to a similar disease?

GUPTA: Well, Bill, it's becoming an increasingly popular operation, no question about it. Over the last seven years, in fact, the numbers have tripled. About 60,000 people a year get some version of the operation the congressman is describing there.

Let's look at some of these sort requirements patients have before they actually go to getting an operation like this. You can see the list there, very obese, body mass index, Bill, that number 40. The normal number is about 20 to 25; 35 body mass index if you have other weight-related diseases.

As the congressman accurately pointed out, obesity is related to just about every disease you can think. Obese for at least five years, must not abuse alcohol as part of the requirements as well, and also, they want to make sure they do a psychological evaluation to see if this is someone that can tolerate this operation both physically and emotionally.

Let's take a quick look at a picture, Bill, of what the operation actually looks like. You can see the congressman described it pretty well. But basically, they are stapling the stomach, to some extent, and actually making that to about a three to four ounce, and that very small portion of stomach then, sometimes runs straight to the small intestines, or in some cases the small intestine is also bypassed to add even further weight reduction.

There are risks, Bill, to these operations, there is no question about it. The congressman already mentioned one in 200 chance of actually dying during the operation. That's because of the antiseptic consideration. There's also risks after the operation, something called dumping syndrome. That's when literally you take whatever small amount of food now in your stomach, and put it straight through to your small intestines. You can have some of the vitamin and mineral deficiencies, because of lack of absorption, and over one-third of patients actually acquire gallstones after that.

Having said all of that, Bill, for someone who meets the requirements and avoids those complications, it can be a very successful operation. I've certainly seen some of those good results in previous people as well.

HEMMER: Well done. Thank you, Sanjay. Dr. Sanjay Gupta in Atlanta. Quickly, how do you feel? Do you feel confident?

NADLER: I feel wonderful. For the first time in many, many years, I feel confident in my ability to do what I have to do for my own health and longevity. And, I mean, I am very ambitious to do things for the city, for the state politically and so forth, but to do something for my own health seemed much more difficult, and now I think I can.

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