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Karen Secord underwent a gastric bypass in an effort to help her lose weight and decrease her chances of an obesity-related illness. ((CBC))

Karen Secord knew bariatric surgeries such as gastric bypass surgery have the potential for complications and the risk of death. But she also felt that, at age 51, she had run out of options for reducing weight through her own efforts.

"If I could have done it, it would be done," said Secord. "So there is a time you throw up the white flag and say I need to look at something else.

P.O.V.:

Weight-loss surgery: Is it worth the risk?

Secord said her father is dying from Type 2 diabetes, and it's a fate she wants to avoid. "I don't want to die like my dad from those complications."

Secord, who had her procedure last week at the Ottawa Hospital, is among a growing number of Ontarians who have taken advantage of the province's decision a year ago to expand access to procedures such as gastric bypass surgery.

The province announced in 2009 it would spend $75 million over three years to increase the number of bariatric surgeries from 244 in 2008 to 1,470 a year by 2011-12.

It's a major expansion for the weight-loss procedure, but waiting lists remain long. A 2005 report from Ontario's Medical Advisory Secretariat estimated that the province would need to do 3,500 obesity-related surgeries a year to keep up with demand.

In the most common form of the surgery, gastric bypass surgery, a surgeon reduces the capacity of the stomach to hold food, greatly reducing a person's appetite and in turn leading to quick weight loss within the first year, as much as 70 per cent of excess weight.

Surgery comes with risks

As with any major surgery, there is an estimated risk of death of one in every 200 to 300 surgeries.

There is also the potential for complications, said Dr. Robert Dent, who heads the weight management program at the Ottawa Hospital, one of five facilities in the province capable of performing the procedures.

At least one person has died soon after the surgery at Ottawa Hospital, which has been performing about four bypasses each week since October.

"Nine out of 10 people breeze through the operation, but one of 10 don't," said Dent.

"There are complications and a mortality rate. So we really do have to make sure that the risk of a person's weight is high enough to justify the risky treatment."

'It's exhilarating and scary'

Secord, who weighed 260 pounds before the surgery, was worried before the operation about the risks. But having made repeated attempts at diets and exercise, she said the surgery was her best hope to stave off the health risks of obesity, including diabetes, and to gain back some of her self-esteem.

"The person I look at every day in the mirror is going to change and I'm not going to recognize myself, she said before the surgery. "It feels exhilarating and scary."

After completing the surgery last Wednesday, she is recovering in bed and relieved it is over.

Ottawa Hospital is hoping to double the number of procedures by 2012. But the waiting list at the hospital is already at 100 people.

The other facilities in the province capable of offering the surgeries are all in central Ontario: St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton, Hamilton Health Sciences, Humber River Regional Hospital and Guelph General Hospital.

With files from Steve Fischer, Laurie Fagan