The Incredible Shrinking Man: Surgery means weight-loss success for Jeff Berger
WORTHINGTON -- It's a new and improved Jeff Berger.
He's happier. He's healthier. He has more energy. He has more stamina. He just feels better about himself.
He's also thinner. Considerably thinner.
Since undergoing gastric bypass surgery in December 2004, Jeff has dropped more than 160 pounds.
"It's life-changing, no doubt about it," Jeff said. "I have no regrets whatsoever."
Jeff wasn't always overweight, although he comes from a family that he calls "fairly good-sized people." But over time, he gradually packed on the pounds, until it reached a point where the weight became a concern for Jeff and the people who cared about him.
A lifelong Worthington resident, Jeff graduated in 1982 from Worthington High School. He married another local, and he and wife Janice have four children: Jeremy, a sophomore in college, Erica, a senior at WHS, Brittany, a ninth-grader, and Brandon, a seventh-grader.
Throughout their married life, Jeff worked as a baker for Gordy's Inc., going to work in the wee hours of the morning, and he also drove school bus. But his chief occupation changed abruptly when Gordy's closed the local County Market store and drastically downsized its bakery workforce.
Jeff found a new career with Newport Labs in Worthington, but in the meantime, he decided it was time to confront his weight issues.
"I'd tried dieting, exercising, done all these different things, and I would lose some weight, then bingo, I'd put it right back on," he explained. "When it started becoming sort of a health issue, I decided it's time to do something. When the store closed, making all these life changes, I decided now's the time to make the big life change."
Jeff had researched the gastric bypass procedure on the Internet. He attended a seminar in Sioux Falls, S.D., where all the pros and cons of the surgical approach were discussed. By the time the presentation was over, Jeff had decided it was the route he needed to take. So, before he began his new job at Newport, he went under the knife of Dr. Fred Harris, a specialist who had done more than 800 such procedures and came highly recommended. The procedure was done between Christmas and New Year's Eve 2004 at Avera McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls, and Jeff came home in time to ring in the New Year.
"They don't remove your stomach," explained Jeff about the surgery. "An average person's stomach is about the size of their fist. Larger people, like me, their stomachs are actually between a quart and half-gallon size. The stomach just expands. So they bypass it, cut it off at the top and run a section around it. My new stomach now is about the size of my thumb. That gains flexibility up to a certain point, but I will get sick if I overeat too much. You can only eat a couple cups of stuff at a time. There's a learning process that goes along with that. Now, I just don't ever feel hungry."
For the first six weeks, Jeff ate very little, mostly protein that had to be finely processed for his system to digest more easily.
"You have to force yourself to eat anything," he said. "You don't feel like eating anything. A couple tablespoons is about all you can take. To think that you have to force yourself to eat is hard to imagine, but until the stomach is healed, that's what it's like."
More than a year later, Jeff can eat just about anything he wants, with a few exceptions, only it takes much less food to fill him up. Previously, Jeff drank a lot of soft drinks, but now his system can't tolerate the carbonation. Bread -- once a staple of his diet, considering his former job as a baker -- is difficult to digest, and he doesn't eat as many eggs, either. He takes vitamin supplements to ensure that his body gets the nutrients it needs.
"It's affected our whole family," he said. "All our eating habits have changed. I went into it knowing that it was going to be a big change, but if I'm going to do it, let's do it right."
Berger credits his wife and kids for their support throughout this major change in lifestyle. It was gratifying when Jeff's appearance began to change quite drastically.
"The pounds really melted off in a hurry," he said. "I had a two-week checkup, then at a month, three months, six months, 12 months. It was probably just a couple pounds at first, but in the first two weeks, I lost 37 pounds, and at the three-month checkup, I'd lost almost 80 pounds."
Although it's not a requirement of the gastric bypass procedure, Jeff has tried to incorporate more exercise into his routine through bicycling and walking. An avid golfer, the weight loss hasn't necessarily improved his score, but it has affected his game in other ways.
"I feel so much better when I play," he said. "Before, I just didn't feel like doing anything. You feel like you're too tired to go out. Now I have lots of energy. You just feel like doing so much more and enjoy it more."
Before the surgery, Jeff was taking medication to control high blood pressure. After the gastric bypass, his doctor cut back his medication, and within 10 days he was taken off it completely. Jeff had expected that the surgery would have such benefits, but not that the changes would be that drastic or so soon.
"I'd had knee surgeries in the past for different reasons, but now my knee just feels 10 times better," he added. "I used to get bronchitis in the spring and fall, guaranteed. I just got a cold for the first time in January, otherwise I haven't been sick. But I also lost my insulation. I used to be hot all the time, even in the middle of winter, and now I'm cold."
Fashion has never mattered much to Jeff, but now he is able to buy pants off the rack for the first time in many years. The weight loss has resulted in a whole new wardrobe, although he's tried not to buy too many new things as his size continues to gradually diminish.
In a little more than a year, Jeff has gone from weighing more than 400 pounds to just about 250 pounds. In a few months, he and his doctor will contemplate reconstructive surgery to remove excess skin.
Jeff knows that gastric bypass surgery isn't the answer for every overweight person, but it's made a huge difference in his own life.
"I would highly recommend it to anyone," he said, "but you need to make sure you research it and know what you're getting into. Find a doctor that you feel comfortable with and look at their track record. Every situation is different, so you need to do what's best in that situation."
Now, Jeff is enjoying his change in career as well as the change in lifestyle and appearance. He works four 10-hour days each week at Newport Labs, beginning his shift early in the morning, continues to drive school bus, and also drives on weekends for the Reading Bus Lines. He'll resume umpire duties again come spring.
Mostly, he's enjoying life, feeling good physically and contemplating the future.
"I just wanted to live long enough to see my kids graduate and, hopefully, my grandkids someday," he said. "I'm a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. This brought a lot of things together that sometimes you question or are not sure about, but there is definitely a reason for things. ... Sometimes change is just what a person needs."