Saturday, August 9, 2008

Weight reduction surgery weighs on bank account

NANAIMO -- Shari Lychak has about 40 pounds of excess skin hanging from her body, which when she lies down feels like a pile of blankets underneath her body.

She lost 300 pounds in less than three years after undergoing bariatric bypass surgery in 2006, transforming her stomach into a small pouch the size of a golf ball. The surgery, combined with a rigid exercise routine, saved her life, but Lychak -- and many others like her -- are left with a hefty bill because the reconstructive surgery is meagrely covered by the province's medical service plan.

Lineups for the weight-loss surgery extend to 900 people and it can take as long as four years before a patient goes under the knife. That means a large number of British Columbians suffer the unhealthy side-effects of losing so much weight, according to a group lobbying the B.C. Ministry of Health to share the cost. MSP currently does not cover the cost of the "cosmetic" surgery, but people like Lychak say the health implications from having so much skin reaches far beyond cosmetics.

The ministry recognizes the "need for plastic surgery following significant weight loss" and has "asked for a review of the criteria for coverage of this type of surgery," according to a statement, but the changes, if any, can't come fast enough for those in line for bariatric surgery.

"Even if the ministry changes the coverage, it will take too long to impact me," Lychak said. "We want this for every other person that goes through this."

The excess skin causes a range of health issues. Without supportive undergarments, the skin hangs to just above Lychak's knees and cuts off the circulation to her legs. When she wears the support, she loses circulation to her legs when she sits down. To avoid rashes or skin ulcers, she coats the flaps with underarm deodorant.

"It's a health issue. There are a range of hygiene problems that come with this," she said. "It's not like I'm looking to wear a bikini."

When she sits on the toilet, she has to pull from behind to tighten the skin just to use the muscles in her butt, "an everyday task that most people don't think about," she explained.

Lychak is a healthy 190 pounds, but unfortunately her skin has lost its elasticity after shedding so much fat. She is left with the reminder of her old self and risks further health problems if she can't afford the $20,000 for the surgery. MSP covers $295 of a panniculectomy, a procedure that removes the excess fat and skin from the abdomen, but does not pay for a full abdominoplasty, or tummy tuck.

"I don't understand why this is considered a cosmetic procedure," said Lychak. "I'm happy I had the [bariatric] surgery because I would probably be dead, but this is a difficult way to live."

She has always been a large woman; it runs in the family. Her mother was obese and so was her father. Lychak could eat healthy, eat less and exercise regularly, but she could never lose more than 100 pounds. And when she did, she eventually gained it back.

At nearly 500 pounds, she managed to continue her job at Central Drugs on Bowen Road, but staff had to get her a chair to sit in so she could do her work. Just before her surgery, she required rides to and from work because her size prevented her from walking the three blocks to her house.


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