Sudbury's hospital completes first successful bariatric surgery in the region

It's being hailed as a game-changer for northern Ontarians who are living with obesity and in need of an intervention.

A team of surgeons at Health Sciences North recently completed the region's first successful bariatric surgery, eliminating the need to travel to Toronto.

It was led by one of two bariatric surgeons inside the hospital, Dr. Noémie-Rose Harvey, a specialist in the field.

"I think it's great that we can offer bariatric surgery here now because as you already may know, we already had the regional treatment and assessment centre, which is basically the bariatric clinic here in Sudbury," said Harvey.

"They did all the multi-disciplinary assessment and care but when people were ready to have surgery or at least have their consultation, they had to go to Toronto."

According to figures provided by HSN, more than 5,000 patients from northeastern Ontario were referred for assessment from 2011-2019, and more than 1,900 were sent to southern Ontario.

"It makes it a lot easier on people and it also makes a difference on also how willing are people to see care afterwards, too," Harvey said.

"Sometimes people have questions that can be managed over the phone … but a lot of times seeing them quickly helps and makes a difference in terms of how quickly they get better."

Bariatric surgery is typically used as an alternative measure for those who haven't been able to lose weight through either diet or exercise.

Obesity can lead to other conditions and diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, arthritis, cancer and depression.

Harvey calls it a significant clinical achievement for both the hospital and for patients in the region.

In 2014, Public Health Ontario reported 31 per cent of people in northeastern Ontario were living with obesity, compared to 20 per cent nationally.

"Some people who might have been interested in bariatric surgery are now considering it because it doesn't mean the same travelling and isolation around the time of surgery," Harvey added.

"I think it's awesome that we have a surgeon right here in Sudbury saving people a lot of time and money, just coming right here and also bringing these medical professionals to the North," said Hanneli Maki.

Maki, who has lost more than 100 pounds since her bariatric surgery, formed a support group on Facebook called Sudbury Bariatric Assessment Support Group. It now has more than 1,100 followers.

"Up until now, it's been nine years for me, my quality of life has improved tenfold," she said. "I no longer have the mobility and pain issues, I have a lot more energy … When I was 30, I felt 50 and now that I'm 50, I feel 30, so I've gained 20 years of life."

Mark Hartman, HSN's senior vice-president of patient experience, said bringing bariatric surgery to Sudbury was a natural next step that relied mainly on recruiting doctors.

He said patients had been coming from as far away as Hearst, Timmins and Sault Ste. Marie, so this will save patients several hours and hundreds of kilometres.

"We expect this year we'll do about 75 surgeries up until the end of March and then we'll evaluate where things are at," Hartman said.

"I think there are a lot of things we can do these days with virtual care, but it doesn't replace the face-to-face visits and contact with certain providers and in certain situations," Hartman added.

"So I think that's where care close to home is important and we know with bariatric surgery, there's a lot of interactions that occur in advance of the surgery to prepare people."

Hartman said HSN is working to build surgical capacity in hopes of increasing the number of bariatric surgeries performed each year going forward.