Doreen Villa believes sleeve gastrectomy saved her life.
"I've been morbidly obese my entire life," Villa said. "I was 99 pounds when I went to kindergarten."
Just 5 feet tall, Villa weighed 379 pounds. But it wasn't until her cardiologist recommended bariatric surgery that she realized how serious her problem was.
"Well I'll think about that after Christmas and he said, 'Quite frankly, I'm not sure you'll be here for Christmas,'" she said. "I thought he was really mean, and actually he handed me a lifeline."
Villa opted for a procedure that was quite new at the time. Unlike the Lap Band that cinches off part of the stomach and can be reversed, Villa chose sleeve gastrectomy, where the majority of the stomach is removed through the belly button, leaving just a small pouch behind, about the size of a small banana.
"It was pretty safe when we first started doing it, but it's probably over a five year period safer than Lap Band at this time," Dr. Gregg Jossart, from the California Pacific Medical Center, said. "The real reason people choose this operation is they realize they don't have to have an intestinal bypass to get roughly 100 pounds of weight off and improve or cure their diabetes."
And so far, the long term results are promising.
"The five year weight loss results are somewhere at 60-80 percent, which means if you had 100 pounds to lose, at five years you'd still have 60-80 pounds off," Jossart said.
For Villa, the results were even more remarkable. After one year, she'd lost 239 pounds, three times more than what the doctor had predicted she'd be able to lose. Her diabetes also disappeared.
"Pretty soon no one was more surprised than me that I could walk for an hour and want to keep going," Villa said.
Villa is quick to point out the surgery is not a magic bullet, but a tool. Six years later, she's mindful of everything she eats and still keeps a daily diary. Small, high protein meals are key and so is daily exercise.
"That the patient that follows the rules that we give them will probably get all their weight off and end up at a great goal weight and stay there indefinitely," Jossart said.
For Villa, less is more.
"Life is very good, very full, very busy ,very active all the time," she said.
Jossart said Villa is truly an all star. Weight loss with sleeve gastrectomy typically tops out at 150 pounds. As far as long term results, there is not data past about 10 years. It's covered by insurance, but Medicare is expected to make a decision this summer.
Written and produced by Tim Didion