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On December 29, 2004, Robert Dunkerley went to the Veterans Affairs hospital in Butler, because he couldn’t breathe. The next thing he knew, it was February 6, 2005.
“I was in a coma for 40 days,” he says. “I woke up at UPMC Presbyterian in intensive care.” At 360 pounds, Robert’s weight was affecting his health.
He suffered from shortness of breath and sleep apnea. While he was in the hospital, he had a heart attack, which caused him to go into kidney failure. His right lung filled with fluid.
Robert spent most of 2005 in the hospital, leaving briefly to close the mortgage company he owned in Greenville. When he returned to the hospital in Butler for rehabilitation, the nurses told him they didn’t think he would live for another month.
“My case was as hopeless as you could have it,” he says. “When you’re heavy like that, at some point you feel like it’s hopeless. Then you have to make a decision.”
In 2009, the Greenville-area native made a choice that would change his life: he went to see James J. Kolenich, MD, bariatric surgeon with the UPMC Horizon Minimally Invasive Bariatric and General Surgery Center.
In June, he underwent Roux-en-Y gastric bypass surgery, which has helped him shed more than 120 pounds. Just six months later — on New Year’s Eve — Robert completed a 5K race.
“It took me one hour, two minutes, and 27 seconds, but I did it,” he says. “That, compared to not being able to walk 200 feet five years and two days earlier, is a real blessing.”
Robert says he’s known Dr. Kolenich since 1976, and has a lot of respect for him and UPMC Horizon’s bariatric surgery program.
“The hospital would not have the reputation it has if not for him,” he says. “The surgeons who have joined the program and learned from him have the opportunity to learn from a talented, excellent physician.”
Many patients do not realize their weight may contribute to other health problems, Dr. Kolenich says.
Sleep apnea, hypertension, and metabolic syndrome — risk factors that increase the chance of developing heart disease or diabetes — are all related to excess weight and can be improved, if not eliminated, by losing weight through bariatric procedures such as gastric bypass surgery.
According to Dr. Kolenich, patients need to ask themselves:
"If you are, weight loss can help fix all of those problems,” Dr. Kolenich says.
Robert can personally testify to the benefits of gastric bypass surgery.
Currently weighing 237 pounds, his health problems have almost disappeared. Although he still wears a sleep apnea mask at night — which, he says, he won’t need soon — his kidneys, heart, and lungs have all recovered.
He spends two hours each morning exercising with a fitness coach at the UPMC Horizon Wellness Center, plans to play golf with his grandson, and is gearing up for another 5K race.
His ultimate goal is to weigh less than 180 pounds. Once he gets to that weight, he says, he will have surgery to remove excess skin, which can total up to 15 pounds on its own.
Every month, Robert attends weight loss surgery support group meetings where he shares his story with others who are contemplating bariatric surgery. He says his only regret is that he didn’t have gastric bypass surgery five years earlier.
“I’m on a big high every day,” he says. “On a scale of one to 10, I’m a 15. I’m ready to burst.”
Note: This patient's treatment and results may not be representative of all similar cases.