Like so many people Ronald Friend has battled weight issues for much of his life. He’d lost weight before but always gained it back.
Friend also watched his parents deal with type 2 diabetes, only to eventually succumb to congestive heart failure. By age 59, Friend decided he had to do something. Last August, he hit his heaviest: 365 pounds. Friend also hit the internet, researching weight loss options. Surgical procedures like gastric bypass, stomach stapling and lap bands did not appeal to him. But a non-invasive, temporary option called “intragastric balloon” did.
Friend reached out to the Cleveland Clinic, which performs the technique. “What we’re treating is not how people look, it’s the effect that obesity has on patients,” said Dr. John Rodriguez, a surgeon with the Clinic who performs intragastric balloon procedure, but is not Ronald Friend’s physician.
Using mild sedation, a small deflated balloon is run down a patient’s throat. Once in the stomach, it is filled with six ounces of saline. The balloon gives patients a feeling of fullness.
“You can eat a lot less and be full. You don’t have to eat a whole plate of food,” Friend said.
The out-patient procedure is relatively quick. But patients must commit to the long haul and work with a nutritionist.
“Just putting the balloon in and not education patients about the way they should be eating or increasing their activity level does not work very well either,” Dr. Rodriguez cautioned.
Friend adjusted to small meals, about 4 ounces in total, 6 times a day. Overeat and the balloon lets you know. Friend described a soreness he would feel in his abdomen any time he consumed too much food. And the feeling would last about a day.
Exercise has become a part of his life. He started on a recumbent bike and is up to about 16 miles a day.
Six months after his procedure, Friend had lost 65 pounds. And by February he was ready to lose the balloon too. It’s not permanent and only meant to be in the stomach for about 6 months.
The procedure isn’t for everyone. It’s ideal for patients with a BMI of 30 to 40. People who have undergone weight loss surgery previously are not candidates for this procedure. Neither are people with liver disease or those who must take blood thinners.
Once the balloon comes out, the work continues for patients. Friend is working to lose more weight. He’s gained about 10 pounds, but he is still fighting and is hooked on the feeling he gets from living healthier these days.
“You increase your energy you feel better you feel more like doing things like exercising it just gives you a lot better outlook on life,” Friend said.
Intragastric balloon is for adults only, here in the United States. However, a hospital in Abu Dhabi is the first to now offer it for children.
As with any procedure, there can be complications. The saline in the balloon contains a blue dye. If that saline leaks out, it turns a patient’s urine a greenish color to signal that there is a problem with the balloon. In those instances, a leaking balloon is removed so that it doesn’t pass through and block the intestines.
While the implant is in place, patients must agree not to eat any pasta, as it could stick to the balloon. Alcohol is also prohibited.
It runs about $7,000 and is paid in full up front. The cost covers the initial doctor’s visit, facility fee, a sedative for the procedure, two nutritionist visits, placement of the balloon and its removal, as well as follow up phone calls to check in. The cost is not covered by insurance.
WATCH | See Monica Robins' full interview with Ronald Friend below