Two years ago Charlene Roche needed a walker to get around. At almost 300 pounds, she had problems with her knees and suffered from rheumatoid arthritis.

At 5 feet 2 inches tall, Roche was well into the morbidly obese category. A kindergarten teacher, she had trouble keeping up with her energetic students.

Everyday chores had become a problem. At the grocery store, she rode in a cart to shop.

She was well on her way to having diabetes and high-blood pressure. Although in her 40s, she felt like she was living in the body of a 70-year-old.

Convinced that her weight had become an obstacle, she decided to do something about it. In May 2017, she underwent bariatric surgery. Following a sleeve gastrectomy, in which her stomach was reduced through laparoscopic surgery, she lost about 150 pounds. 

“It’s like she lost an entire person,” noted Dr. Candice Jensen, who performed the surgery.

And now her life has now been transformed. She’s doing things she couldn’t do before.  

People who knew her no longer recognized her. When she returned to school after the summer break, she had lost 40 pounds. Some people were concerned, afraid she was sick.

Quit the opposite. The surgery reversed all her medical issues. She no longer needs painkillers to get through the day. She was used to being the “fat girl”; now she’s the “healthy girl who loves to go to the gym.”

But Roche will be the first to say that losing weight was not due to “magic.” It took hard work and commitment. She’s still working on it and she will always work on it.

Roche had her surgery at the Yuma Regional Medical Center. The hospital’s Bariatric Surgery Program is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. The first surgery was performed on June 9, 2009.

Jensen, who was recruited by YRMC for general surgery, built the program from scratch. But first she and the program staff had to get its own “house” in order. At that time, bariatric surgery still wasn’t covered by some insurance plans. Even the hospital’s own plan for its 2,000 employees didn’t cover it. Employees eventually got the benefits.

With “blood, sweat and tears,” in less than a year the program was up and running. And they came in under 50 percent under-budget by repurposing equipment and doing a lot of the work themselves, including spending many hours stuffing information folders for patients.

“I’m very proud of that,” Jensen said.

To keep the budget low, they also relied on “fabulous” hospital volunteers, she added.

The program sought — and received — the highest level of accreditation through the Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery Accreditation and Quality Improvement Program. They wanted a high-quality, safe program, said Rebecca Adame, clinical director.

“In the beginning, everything was a struggle,” Jensen said. “People didn’t like to talk about obesity,” although 60% of adults and 30% of children in the U.S. are obese.

They participated in many community events to spread awareness without body shaming. Now people want to talk about. As a matter of fact, Adame said that she can’t go to Walmart without being constantly stopped and asked about the bariatric program.

Adame is happy that people want to talk about it because obesity can cause all sorts of medical problems, including infertility. Obesity is recognized by the American Medical Association as a disease, and there should be no stigma for those seeking treatment.

“If you have cancer, you seek treatment. If you have diabetes, you  seek treatment,” Adame said.

Bariatric surgery “changes your life,” she added. No more spending hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, on medications such as insulin and fad diets.

As for Roche, she no longer has arthritis. She can now get down on the floor with her students. She can run around with them in the playground, go down the slide, and “do silly things.” She also volunteers at the Humane Society of Yuma Thrift Shop. 

And with her mom sick, she can be there for her. She cleans her house and takes her to appointments. When her dad fell, she was able to be there for him as well.

Roche goes on motorcycle rides with her husband, William Sallee. “She was beautiful before,” Sallee said, but now “she’s so much healthier and can do so much more … She’s a healthier, happier person.”

Jensen noted that in general patients become more active and their relationships improve because once food is removed from the equation, they have to connect. As a result, other family members usually lose weight too.

“It’s pretty rewarding to see patients be active,” Adame said.

“I feel great. I feel amazing.” Roche said. Her only regret? “I wish I had come earlier.”

However, after weight loss, everything changes for patients. Clothes are too huge, feet shrink, skin becomes saggy. That’s why Adame points out that “you’re not done after surgery.” For this reason, the program offers lifetime support.

Roche lost so much weight she needed surgery to remove the excess skin. The process takes from six months to a year. For Roche, it took her a year. 

Patients also get the help needed to keep up with the program. “This is a tool, it’s not a fix,” Roche said. “I like ice cream, I like chocolate,” she added, and if she doesn’t stick to it, she can go back to the way she was.

“Once a patient, always our patient. We really strive as an organization to provide the services every patient can have,” Adame said.

This includes an open door policy with staff members always available, free dietitian services and a support group to answer questions in both English and Spanish. A private Facebook patient group has more than 400 members who are glad to offer camaraderie.

“When they say they’re there, they’re there,” Roche said.

She offered one piece of advice to those thinking about the surgery: “Don’t be afraid.”

Surgery is available for people between 18 to 74. Teens can start the process at 17½ years old. 

Seminars are held twice a month in English and Spanish, which includes an overview of the program and surgeries available and the team is introduced.

For surgery, patients must first be sure they’re healthy enough for it. This includes having mammograms and colonoscopies beforehand. Counseling is also required to be sure the patient has the right mindset.

After surgery, a patient will stay in the hospital for a night or two, depending on the patient’s comfort level. Most are walking within four hours and go home after 24 hours. 

The program has evolved in the last 10 years and will continue to evolve. “We fought a lot of battles in the beginning, and now we can focus on the details, and you know, the details make a big difference.” Jensen said.

For more information, call 928-336-LITE (5483).

Recommended for you