Bobbie Jo Sparks started to struggle with her weight after giving birth to the first of her two daughters. While she raised her kids, she also cared for her mother, who was in poor health. Sparks didn’t have the time or energy to focus much on her own wellness, and she frequently reached for her biggest vice — sodas — to keep her going.
As her weight reached as high as 460 pounds, she lost the ability to drive, walk and bathe herself. Her youngest daughter, Carol Sparks-McCord, had to care for her while raising her own three boys. Then Carol started putting on weight, reaching 350 pounds.
The family was stuck in a vicious cycle.
“I took care of my mom and took care of my kids, and outside of that, I had no life. I don’t want that for her,” Bobbie Jo said of her daughter. “I want her to experience life to the fullest. I don’t want it to be: ‘What did you do with your life, Miss Sparks?’ ‘Oh, I took care of my mom.’ ”
To break the cycle, mother and daughter needed to get their weight under control. The Dixon, Missouri, residents had both tried a variety of diets without any sustained success. Then they decided to explore the option of weight-loss surgery at MU Health Care.
“Obesity is a very difficult disease and very complex,” said Andrew Wheeler, MD, MU Health Care’s chief of bariatric surgery. “We know there are a lot of reasons people struggle with obesity, including genetic, environmental, social, psychological and of course dietary. A lot of those things were at play with Carol and Bobbie Jo. If the people around you also struggle with their weight, then it’s seen more as normal. So families often struggle together.”
Carol, who is now 31, began the process of preparing for surgery in October 2017. She participated in nutritional classes with registered dietitians and a psychological evaluation that all bariatric surgery candidates go through to ensure they are ready to get the best results from surgery.
In July 2018, Wheeler performed a gastric bypass on Carol. In this procedure, a small pouch is created from the stomach and reconnected to a lower part of the small intestine. The smaller stomach means patients feel full after eating less, and the body absorbs fewer calories because food travels through less of the intestines.
Qualifying for surgery was a longer road for Bobbie Jo, 51, who was high risk for surgery because of several underlying conditions, including congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Wheeler jokingly recalled that Bobbie Jo was “extraordinarily persistent” in her desire to have surgery and even worked on Wheeler’s office assistants to convince them to put in a good word.
Bobbie Jo worked hard with MU Health Care’s dietitians to lose enough weight to ensure her body could safely handle surgery, and Wheeler performed a gastric sleeve procedure on her in April 2019. In this procedure, part of the stomach is removed, reducing it to about 20% of its original size, but digested food passes through the full length of the intestines. The surgery takes less than an hour and can be a good option for patients who might not tolerate longer procedures.
After surgery, mother and daughter began their recovery with a liquid diet before moving on to soft foods and then a normal diet — albeit with smaller portions than before. Bobbie Jo has reduced her weight to 280. She hopes to lose 20 more pounds so she can qualify for knee replacement surgeries, but she is now able to walk short distances, shower and take care of herself.
“For Bobbie Jo, she’s alive, and now she has a chance to live a lot longer. And she was moving toward a much shorter life due to her medical conditions, including heart and lung disease,” Wheeler said.
Carol, who has dropped her weight to 210 pounds, is enjoying being a more active mom. She was always very involved in her boys’ lives, volunteering as a room parent at their elementary school and keeping them busy with games and outdoor activities. It bothered her, though, that because of her weight, she felt more like an observer than a participant. When they went to the park, she was the mom waiting at the bottom of the slide.
Last summer, she joined her boys at the top of the slide.
“My oldest said, ‘Mom, we should have done this years ago,’ ” Carol said. “How do you tell your son, ‘Mommy couldn’t do that because she was too big’? Hearing him say that made me realize how much I had missed out on.”
She is making up for lost time. Feeling more confident and independent, and without the worries of being a full-time caretaker for her mom, Carol now plans to begin nursing school in August.
“Between the weight and the responsibilities, I would always second-guess myself that I couldn’t do this or that,” she said. “Now, I’m ready to do something for myself and say, ‘I achieved this.’ ”