Rewarding work

Weight-loss surgery changes lives for the better, doctor says

To contact North Valley Surgical Associates, call 891-1651.

Drs. Deron Ludwig and Erik Simchuk make up the surgery team at North Valley Surgical Associates, which operates Enloe Medical Center’s weight-loss program. On a recent rainy morning, Ludwig took time out of his busy schedule to discuss his practice and how he got into weight-loss surgery.

Ludwig and Simchuk did their residency together in Seattle, where they learned a lot about bariatric surgery, in particular laparascopic procedures, which are minimally invasive. When Ludwig moved to Chico in 2005, he immediately started working in that field. Simchuk followed him two years later.

“There’s no other surgery or procedure that changes people’s lives as dramatically as weight-loss surgery,” Ludwig said from his office on the third floor of the Enloe Cancer Center. “We see an improvement not only physically, but also mentally, and with self-esteem.”

Currently the doctors perform about 160 procedures annually, with about one-third being Lap-Band and two-thirds being gastric-bypass surgeries. The age range of patients is 18 to 70, with the majority falling between 45 and 50. Ludwig said they’re seeing more and more people interested in vertical sleeve gastrectomy, which is like the Lap-Band, but without the device and need for adjustments.

“We’re expecting broad acceptance for this procedure by health-insurance companies this year,” he said.

North Valley Surgical Associates has become a highly respected program in the few short years Ludwig has been surgical director. Three years ago, the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery recognized it as a Bariatric Surgery Center of Excellence, a prestigious award. And last year it was named as a Center of Distinction by Blue Cross.

For Ludwig and Simchuk, though, it’s all about seeing positive change in patients’ lives.

“People finally feel like their hunger is controllable,” Ludwig said. “Their whole life is no longer about ‘When is my next meal?’”

There are a number of misconceptions about weight-loss surgery, Ludwig noted. First, many people think that once you have the surgery you will no longer be able to eat.

“That’s not true,” he said. “Hopefully afterward you will avoid foods with refined sugar, junk foods … with the Band it takes will power, and with the bypass those foods will actually make you sick.”

Second, some say it’s too risky.

“If done at a Center of Excellence, it’s not much riskier than a gall-bladder removal,” Ludwig explained. “It’s much less risky than letting obesity run its course.”

The third most common misconception, he added, was that most people who undergo bariatric surgery have to have plastic surgery afterward.

“About 10 percent have plastic surgery,” he said. The rest are happy with their results without needing additional surgeries.

“It’s about survival, length of life,” Ludwig said. “People who are morbidly obese have a shorter life span. With surgery, they live an average of seven to nine extra years.”

While Ludwig and Simchuk also perform a variety of other surgical procedures, Ludwig sees the pair moving toward focusing exclusively on weight-loss surgeries.

“It’s the most rewarding thing that we do.”