Jill Dykhouse had been all too familiar with the ups and downs of weight loss.

Six years ago, keeping a careful eye on portion control and following a meal-delivery plan, she lost 130 pounds.

But in 2017, when she sustained injuries in a car accident, she became less active and her healthy eating plan fell by the wayside.

Then, last fall, while walking her two dogs—Max, a Chihuahua-pug mix, and Champ, a Boston terrier mix—she began to experience tremendous pain in her left foot.

A visit to a podiatrist revealed a number of small stress fractures.

Despite resting and giving her foot time to heal, the pain remained constant. That limited her activity, which in turn damaged her motivation to eat healthy.

It’s a cycle familiar to many who have struggled to maintain a healthy weight.

“I realized I wasn’t as happy with my life as I was before,” Dykhouse, 34, said. “One of my favorite things is taking my dogs for walks and I really couldn’t do that without pain. It was time to do something.”

A winning combo

Dykhouse soon connected with Joshua Smith, MD, bariatric surgeon at Corewell Health Bariatrics.

She approached the initial appointment with hesitancy, but Dr. Smith’s enthusiasm and positive attitude had her leaving his office with a full commitment to improve her health through bariatric surgery.

“I walked into the office thinking, ‘I don’t know if this is the road I want to take,'” Dykhouse said. “Talking to Dr. Smith made me feel really good about it and made me want to commit to it. The excitement I heard from him was just wonderful.”

The combination of bariatric surgery and lifestyle change can lead to significant improvements.

“That first meeting is the hardest one,” Dr. Smith said. “A lot of patients have been thinking about weight loss surgery for years and have just never had the courage to take the first step.

“For the vast majority of people with BMI over 40, diet and exercise alone are really proven not to work. It does sort of set you up for failure (if you try that alone).”

Impressed by the support system in place for pre-surgery preparation and post-surgical follow-up, Dykhouse felt it would contribute to her long-term success.

“Once you’re a patient there, you’re a patient for life,” Dykhouse said. “You can always schedule a meeting and talk to somebody. It makes me feel so good knowing I have their support.”

Dr. Smith said the bariatric surgery team helps make a difference for patients.

“We have a really good team of (physician assistants) who are proactive, and our nursing staff is excellent with responding to patient messages—typically the same day they make contact,” he said.

Having all services in the same building also helps set patients at ease, as it allows them to meet with dietitians, doctors and psychologists all in the same office.

“The more places a patient has to go creates more barriers to seeking help,” Dr. Smith said. “Our patients can come to one place to meet with everyone they need to see and are familiar with their surroundings. That creates a comfort factor.”

Dr. Smith helped determine which type of bariatric surgery would be best for Dykhouse—gastric bypass or gastric sleeve surgery.

“I try to make this a shared decision-making process,” Dr. Smith said. “For most patients, either surgery would work well, but we weigh out the factors particular to each patient.”

In respect to procedure and recovery, there’s little difference between the two surgeries. Both are performed in a minimally invasively procedure, with small incisions. And both typically involve a one-night stay in the hospital.

Both procedures limit the amount of food a patient can eat. Where gastric sleeve surgery makes patients less hungry, gastric bypass decreases the vitamins and minerals absorbed.

“I already had some vitamin deficiencies, so with gastric bypass I was worried that it would make it worse,” Dykhouse said. “(Gastric sleeve procedure) hopefully wouldn’t affect my vitamin absorption as much.”

Finding inspiration

With guidance from her care team, Dykhouse opted for gastric sleeve surgery.

She started prepping by building up her protein and water intake. She met with a dietitian and also underwent a behavioral evaluation to ensure she felt mentally prepared. She received medical clearance and the necessary labs to verify everything was good to go.

Dykhouse, a phlebotomist lab assistant at Corewell Health Zeeland Community Hospital, found encouragement everywhere she looked.

Inspiration from a fellow coworker who had recently undergone bariatric surgery. Reassurance from social media groups. Support from her close-knit, blended family.

“I was initially nervous about telling my family, because I wasn’t sure what kind of a reaction they would have,” she said. “But from the very beginning they were super supportive and on board. All of them were very excited for me and for this change.”

Dr. Smith’s enthusiasm also had a big impact, she said.

“I think it makes a big difference the sort of the attitude that your doctor has,” she said. “There’s a stigma (with bariatric surgery), and a different attitude would make you feel differently, less positively, about it. When I met him, he made me feel so good about exploring this option.”

She underwent surgery June 7, 2022.

After a one-night hospital stay, she returned home under her mother’s care and the watchful eyes of Max and Champ.

“The procedure and recovery were pretty much what I expected,” she said. “I got up right away and was constantly walking.”

Her first night home, she experienced a bit of pain in her shoulder.

“But once my mom helped me move to an upright position on the couch, I could get comfortable and felt a lot better,” she said.

She ended up taking four weeks off work, though she had to keep reminding herself to take it easy.

“I was pretty independent but very tired, as I was still working on trying to get my protein and water goals in,” she said.

Celebrating victories

About three weeks later, she experienced some abdominal discomfort, but a CT scan showed no cause for alarm. Reading about other people’s experiences online also helped set her mind at ease.

“It’s nice to feel like your experience aligns with someone else’s, to know it’s normal,” Dykhouse said.

Four months after surgery, she hit a milestone: She lost 25 percent of her original starting weight of 330 pounds.

And she isn’t stopping there, with plans to continue losing weight and setting smaller goals to stay inspired.

Dr. Smith couldn’t be more pleased with her results thus far.

“Some people feel like this is a shortcut, but Jill knows the truth,” he said. “It’s a big lifestyle change and commitment. An awesome decision people are making for their health.”

Dykhouse has found victory in the simple things—having the energy to play with her dogs more often, for instance—and in the significant things, like experiencing less pain in her feet and joints.

And those victories keep adding up, boosting her confidence.

“When I’m walking my dogs, I can see my shadow has changed,” she said.

When she recently bought a new pair of scrubs for work, she felt happily surprised to find herself fitting into an extra-large—many sizes down from her previous size.

She’s also enjoying cooking at home, something she didn’t really do in the past.

“A year from now I want to keep expanding my cooking skills and learning new things to keep on this healthy path,” she said.

Said Dr. Smith: “I predict she’s going to do very well. She’s motivated and very excited about what this means for her future.”

For those considering bariatric surgery, Dr. Smith recommends following Dykhouse’s example—talk to a primary care doctor and ask for a referral to Corewell Health Bariatrics.

“Just know you are not making an oath that you’re going to have surgery by going into that first appointment,” Dr. Smith said. “I think that’s what sometimes keeps people away for so long—the fear of the unknown.

“You don’t have to wait until you hit a rock bottom moment to start pursuing a healthy life.”

For her part, Dykhouse is grateful she made those first exploratory steps toward bariatric surgery.

“And Dr. Smith, he’s changed my life for the better,” she said.