Katie is a creative 16-year-old who enjoys writing short stories and going to concerts. She's on the yearbook staff at school and spends most Friday nights under the lights capturing photos of her peers at football games and other school functions. As a single-leg amputee, she looks a bit different than her classmates, but if there's one thing that defines Katie, it's her independent spirit and refusal to let life's challenges keep her down.
Katie was born with spina bifida, a congenital birth defect in which the spinal column and spinal cord do not develop properly, presenting a number of potential neurological, urological and orthopedic challenges. In her first few years of life, she underwent a number of surgeries, each one aimed at improving her quality of life and empowering her to be as independent as possible as she got older.
"Katie had 50 surgeries by the time she turned 16," says Katie's mom, Jennifer. "Seven of those were on her spine, and one involved the amputation of her left leg below her knee."
Still, throughout everything, Katie never gave up, even when dealing with challenging recoveries and intense recurring back pain.
Spinal pain leads to physical and emotional challenges
When she was a sophomore, however, Katie's back pain became so severe that it began impacting her ability to go to school, move around and spend time with her friends.
"Katie was in so much pain all the time, it took all she could to get up out of bed to go to school and then come directly home and get back in bed," Jennifer says. "She didn't go out with her friends because she knew she would hurt or be slower than everyone else, and she didn't want them to have to wait on her."
Fearing her daughter's physical pain was affecting her emotional health, Jennifer sought help. An examination with Bradley Weprin, M.D., pediatric neurosurgeon at Children's Health℠ and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern, determined that Katie's spine was tethered again, and it appeared that she would require surgery to repair it.
Katie and her family spoke to Dr. Weprin, who has been Katie's neurosurgeon since she was 2 years old, about other ways to minimize her pain and potentially avoid another surgery. Katie and her family concluded that it would be beneficial for Katie to try to lose some excess weight that she had been carrying due to a decreased metabolism – a common occurrence in individuals with spina bifida.
"Individuals who have complex tethered spinal cords and spina bifida suffer from back pain and difficulty bending, often limiting physical activity and exercise," says Dr. Weprin. "This can exacerbate their weight gain and a cycle leading to obesity and life in a wheelchair as a result. However, Katie is different. She fights to stay active and eats healthy in spite of her physical limitations and still, she continued to gain weight. Her determination required us to think outside the box and beyond conventional diets and exercise programs that were simply not working."
Katie takes her first steps towards her health goals
Due to her mobility issues, Katie realized she would need support to help her reach her health goals. She and her family reached out to Faisal Qureshi, M.D., a board-certified pediatric surgeon at Children's Health and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern, who specializes in pediatric weight loss surgery. In March 2020, Katie began working with an entire team that included Dr. Qureshi and Grayce O'Neill, PA-C, Bariatric Surgery Physician Assistant and Bariatric Program Coordinator at Children's Health, as well as a dietitian, psychologist and a social worker, to prepare – physically, mentally and emotionally – for surgery.
"The team wanted Katie to lose between five and 10 pounds before surgery," says her mom, Jennifer. "But because of the intense pain she was in, it was hard for her to even get out of bed to do the cardiovascular activities they asked her to do, so she did it in bed instead."
By July 2020, Katie was ready for surgery though she admits the journey had already stirred up a mix of emotions.
"I was excited because I thought I'd be able to do a lot more after surgery, but I was also nervous," Katie says.
On the day of her surgery, Dr. Qureshi laparoscopically removed 70% of Katie's stomach and created a sleeve. This would limit the amount of food that Katie would be able to eat after surgery and reduce the hormone levels in her stomach that stimulate hunger.
"Katie was motivated from day one and has been an inspiration for our team. All our patients can learn from her progress," says Dr. Qureshi.
By the next morning, Katie was up and moving around, and by midday, she was headed home. Though surgery helped move the numbers on the scale in the right direction, Katie is the first to admit that it was just one of the first steps in her healthier lifestyle.
"I had to change everything as it relates to food," Katie says. "Right after surgery I had to drink a certain amount every 15 minutes or so and be sure to move around so I didn't get blood clots, and as time went on I was able to eat whatever I wanted as long as I made healthy choices."
A transformed Katie emerges
As Katie's physical appearance changed, Jennifer noticed a difference in her daughter's emotional and mental health, too. Instead of coming home immediately after school, Katie began staying later to talk with her friends, and she soon felt well enough to spend time with them on the weekends as well.
"Katie started to open herself up to others more and was in less pain physically after surgery that she really started to feel better about herself," Jennifer says. "She was able to get out and about more easily, and she began spending so much time with her friends at Six Flags that we had to break down and buy a season pass!"
Five months after surgery, Katie has lost 60 pounds and says she is feeling better and hopeful for the future. Her back pain has greatly improved, and she is more confident when she is with her peers. Though she may still require surgery in the future to address the issues with her spine, she is optimistic that her hard work will make the surgery and recovery process easier.
"I'm definitely happy with the decision to have surgery and I'm proud of myself for losing all that weight and sticking to the diet," Katie says. "I feel a big difference, and in the future, I hope it will help me better manage my spinal issues."
The Children's Health Bariatric Surgical Center works with adolescents and their families to address the problem of obesity. We provide the medical, surgical, nutritional, emotional and social support necessary for successful outcomes for adolescents who are candidates for weight loss surgery. Learn more about our program.
You are now subscribed to the Children's Health Family Newsletter.