George Sparrow Jr., struggled to catch his breath after a short walk to his car, up a flight of stairs, or chasing his young son in the yard. He was plagued by congestive heart failure, obesity, diabetes and hypertension, and doctors offered a grim future.
The solution was deep within his failing heart – unending love for his two children – and the 422-pound father vowed to get healthy.
“I have to be here to raise my children. I have to do whatever it takes to be here for them,” said Sparrow, 42. It took a regimen of daily exercise, nutritional counseling and gastric bypass surgery for the Lyons man to lose more than 225 pounds. The diabetes and hypertension faded, and his heart function has normalized.
He’s a new man. Or half the man he was in 2006 when he came to the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Program in Heart Failure and Transplantation. He needed the specialized care because his heart function had been steadily decreasing.
“It’s remarkable to see his health improve. He was in poor shape when he came to us and by using a variety of methods, he’s been able to avoid serious heart surgery and succeed in regaining his life. He is really an inspiration,” said transplant cardiologist Leway Chen, M.D., M.P.H., director of the heart transplant program.
Sparrow was 38 and tipped the scales at more than 300 pounds, when he was placed on disability and stopped working because of his failing heart. He could no longer keep up with the rigorous work.
“I went into a bad depression because I was someone who was always working and busy,” he said. He gained another 70 pounds and continued to suffer.
When Jason Garringer, M.D., of Finger Lakes Cardiology Associates, recommended he seek a new heart or a heart pump (ventricular assist device) at the University of Rochester Medical Center, the only transplant center in upstate New York, Sparrow was unsure of where the process would lead.
At first, he was frustrated. His weight was the barrier for getting a new heart, if one were to become available, or an artificial pump. Chen recommended he embark on a weight-loss program and consult with Highland Hospital’s Bariatric Surgery Center.
“I was very cautious because I didn’t know anything about it, but the more I learned the better I felt about doing it,” said Sparrow, who watches “The Biggest Loser” religiously.
Highland’s William E. O'Malley, M.D., F.A.C.S., performed the gastric bypass surgery and calls the results a success. “The weight loss and the improvements that he has seen with his blood sugar, blood pressure and heart function are exactly what this surgery is designed to do,” said O’Malley, director of the Bariatric Surgery Center and an international expert in laparoscopic techniques in bariatric surgery. “His story can serve as an inspiration for others.”
Since then, Sparrow exercises two hours a day – an hour on the treadmill or stationary bicycle followed by an hour of weightlifting. He’s adopted a healthy diet of fruits and vegetables and uses his success as an example for his children.
“It wasn’t easy to get through it. But I went back to the discipline I learned growing up in a military family,” Sparrow said.
Typically, the more than 220,000 people who undergo gastric bypass each year lose about 60 percent of their extra weight. Sparrow is nearing the 95 percent mark, surpassing his personal goal of getting down to 230 pounds.
Now he weighs 195 pounds and has more energy than he can ever remember. He needs it, as the father of a 14-year-old daughter and energetic 8-year-old son.
“We’re doing more together than we ever did before and it’s great,” he said. “I had to do whatever I could to get better and live, for my children. So I changed my life.”