The first patient to undergo elective bariatric weight-loss surgery at The Queen’s Medical Center-West O‘ahu faced additional concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic this month but had faith in her surgeon, who previously performed the same operation on her daughter and husband at Queen’s main Punchbowl campus.
“I feel terrific,” Carol Ohelo, 56, said after a follow-up exam Thursday at the Punchbowl hospital. “I feel so energetic.”
Dr. Cedric Lorenzo — the boyish-looking chief of Queen’s bariatric surgical program — has operated on pairs of family members and even three brothers, but never on a husband, wife and daughter.
“There is always pressure to ensure that everything goes well with any procedure and operation,” Lorenzo said in response to written questions from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “More so when you’re dealing with family members who oftentimes select me to be their surgeon based on their family member’s recommendation. It is an honor to be entrusted with a family’s care, but it comes with a great deal of responsibility.”
Lorenzo first performed bariatric surgery on Ohelo’s then-18-year-old, 398-pound daughter, Shelby, in 2017. Shelby had a thyroid condition that caused her to be obese her entire life, which led to chronic bullying and even thoughts of killing herself, according to her mother.
“I thought she was going to commit suicide,” she said, weeping at the memory.
Even though Shelby exercised and tried to eat properly, “she always gained weight,” her mother said.
Shelby is now down to 180 pounds and healthy, and living a new life in New Zealand with a boyfriend who knew her and supported her even before the procedure.
“She totally has confidence now,” Carol Ohelo said.
Shelby’s father, Darryl Ohelo, 57, followed with his own bariatric procedure in September. He weighed 319 pounds at the time and required insulin for his Type 2 diabetes.
Now Ohelo weighs 189 pounds and no longer requires insulin, he said.
He’s since returned to his job driving TheBus and to his responsibilities as a business agent for the Hawaii Teamsters Union.
Ohelo still has to watch his intake of fluids and food, and said he’s eating “healthier, but less” — with zero alcohol.
“My drinking is over,” he said. “It’s good.”
Then it was Carol Ohelo’s turn.
Lorenzo used laparoscopic techniques — or small incisions and a camera — for her procedure to reduce her stomach down to the size of a small egg, limiting the amount of food she can consume.
Along with weight loss, bariatric surgery can have positive effects on life-threatening illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension and sleep apnea, and other medical issues such as joint and back pain, infertility and high cholesterol, Lorenzo said, along with potentially reducing the risks of some cancers.
There are potential dangers such as blood clots, leaks where the bowels have been cut and joined, severe nausea and vomiting, dehydration and malnutrition, but the risks are low, according to Lorenzo.
And in the era of the novel coronavirus, there is the possibility that carbon dioxide gas used for laparoscopic surgery “theoretically can transmit virus particles,” Lorenzo said.
On the other hand, obese individuals who contract COVID-19 face the possibility of higher death rates, he said.
Kaiser Permanente and Hawaii Pacific Health also perform bariatric surgeries in Hawaii.
After Queen’s resumed elective surgeries in June, the Punchbowl hospital was overbooked with requests for bariatric procedures. So Carol Ohelo opted to become the first of three bariatric surgical patients at Queen’s-West in Ewa Beach, which is five minutes from her home in Kapolei.
It’s also close to patients with obesity rates “that are highest on the Leeward Coast,” Lorenzo said.
Carol Ohelo has had multiple operations and now needs a mastectomy as a result of breast cancer. So losing weight will give her oncologist additional skin to use for skin grafts.
Just like her daughter and husband, Ohelo had to attend six months of nutrition classes before her surgery.
For the first two days after the procedure, she was limited to tiny sips of liquid. Last week she was able to consume 1-ounce portions of pureed chicken, broth, yogurt, cottage cheese or other soft foods.
“You have little real estate inside that stomach,” Lorenzo said, as Carol recited her temporary, dietary restrictions.
“I’m still not feeling full,” Carol said. “But I’m not hungry.”
Before her surgery, Carol weighed 242 pounds. She is now down to 232 less than two weeks later and likely to hit her pre-mastectomy weight goal of 150 pounds.
After her Thursday check-up, the Ohelos thanked Dr. Lorenzo, who grew up in Waipahu, volunteered at Queen’s-West’s predecessor, St. Francis West, and completed his general surgery residency at the University of Hawaii’s Surgical Residency Program.
Just before beginning Ohelo’s bariatric surgery, Lorenzo thought she was already under the effects of anesthesia as he held her hand. So he was startled when she told the Star-Advertiser, “I felt him hold my hand when I was asleep. I knew that I was in such good hands.”