Health care system bears the weight of big issue

In 2013 at the age of 34, Damien Verner was told he had five years left to live.

Five years left to see his young daughter grow up.

Five years left to spend with his wife.

Five years left to lose weight, or lose his life.

It’s a moment he’ll always remember, but one which was all too overwhelming at the time. “I don’t remember driving home,” he says. “I know I had been crying, but the day was a blur.”

Verner had always been overweight, but it wasn’t until a car accident in 2007 that he became obese. Suffering from severe back injuries and unable to work, he gained 50kg. Depressed and in a tremendous amount of pain, he turned to food for solace. “Most of my coping was done by eating,” he says. “Pain is a strange thing. I became reclusive and food was honestly one of my best friends.”

At 190kg, Verner suffered from high cholesterol, diabetes type 2, high blood pressure and low testosterone. These symptoms are common for obese people and the costs associated are exorbitant for both the Australian health care system and sufferers.

A study conducted by Obesity Australia found that obesity costs the health care system $2 billion a year. Cardiovascular disease alone costs Australians $34.6 billion dollars a year, while type 2 diabetes costs $8.3 billion. Hospitals and the health care system now have to cater for heavier Australians and in Queensland alone, 65 per cent of people are overweight or obese.

A spokesperson for the Queensland Ambulance Service (QAS) says “paramedics are lifting and moving more overweight patients than ever before, which puts them at greater risk of suffering a strain injury. As such, a vehicle replacement and powered stretcher roll out worth $21 million is currently underway to help prevent muscle strain to paramedics from lifting and carrying heavy patients.”

That’s $21 million of the Queensland tax-payer’s money that wouldn’t be necessary if the focus by the government was more on prevention, according to Nutrition Australia’s nutrition program manager Aloysa Hourigan.

“Somebody else I know once said it’s a bit like putting the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff instead of actually stopping people getting to the edge of the cliff,” she says. “The federal government in particular has somewhat washed their hands of it [obesity] for many years. There’s not even a national nutritional policy. We did have a national nutritional policy but it hasn’t been re-visited since the 1980s.”

Hourigan says there’s also an underlying problem with the health system as well. Hospitals have received funding based on their activity and how many procedures they undertake. Now, she says there’s a shift towards funding for prevention so not as many knee replacement surgeries or gastric sleeves are needed, for example.

“I suppose there’s a disparate amount of money that goes into the big black hole of hospitals and things like bariatric surgery,” she says. “It’s expensive, it’s very invasive and certainly people get big improvements and it should only be for morbidly obese people. But try and prevent the problem in the first place.”

But exactly how we prevent a nation from eating themselves heavy is the billion-dollar question.

Hourigan believes no single party can be to blame, but that citizens, government and big companies should work together to tackle the bulging crisis. “For adults, it’s around 35 per cent of our energy intake that’s coming from what the Australian Dietary Guidelines refer to as ‘discretionary foods’ which are the things that are high in added sugars, fats and salts and low in nutrition,” Hourigan explains.

“So when we’ve got eating patterns like that, it’s about making the healthy choices easy choices. Things like removing confectionary from the checkout counters. We need the help of the retail sector to make it easier for people to make those better choices.”

Amanda Hale, a clinical nurse of 26 years, has watched obesity’s effect on the hospitals throughout her career. “It does put impacts on the health system, but if people perhaps went and lost weight they wouldn’t need that total knee replacement, or diabetes would be sometimes halved because of weight issues,” she says. “I think by losing weight you can actually take a lot of pressure off the health care systems in regards to that too. It all goes hand in hand.”

But Verner says losing weight when you’re that big is easier said than done. “Diabetes set in which causes a whole other set of problems, and once I was on insulin my weight increased again,” he says.

After trying multiple diets and unable to exercise from his back injury, Verner began his journey to sleeve gastrectomy. The procedure involves removing up to 80 per cent of a person’s stomach so that the hunger hormone is supressed and only so much food can be eaten. Unfortunately, Medicare only covers part of the operation, so Verner now unemployed and on Centrelink struggled to save the money needed. In June 2014 when he finally underwent the procedure, it proved to be life saving. He’s now nearly half the size he used to be.

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BEFORE AND AFTER: Damien Verner weighing 191kg (right) and now 100kg (left). Contributed.

“Since then I have come off all diabetes and blood pressure medication,” he says. “I was told that I would lose 30kg. I actually lost 90kg. This was with no exercise. Just the sleeve helped me make life style changes. The stomach produces the hunger hormone the sleeve actually takes away part of the stomach that produces that hormone. Also your tastes change. For me I could no longer drink full fat milk and chicken makes me vomit.”

But as Hourigan said, bariatric surgeries are invasive both physically and emotionally, and Verner experienced the challenges first hand. “The first 12 weeks were hell for me,” he says. “I was sick and I felt like I had lost my best friend. I used to eat my emotions. And suddenly my whole coping mechanism was gone. It was really hard.”

Still, he regrets nothing and strongly believes that while the surgery is invasive and a last resort the government should cover far more of the cost if it truly wants to reduce the size of at-risk citizens. “I do think it should be funded but I think there should be psychological assessments and councilors should be involved,” he says. “For a simple operation they could decrease the burden on the government, on the tax payer, and most importantly on the person and their family that are suffering. Unfortunately the government is only interested in short-term issues. They don’t want to do something that may give results in 10 years that the opposition will take the credit for.”

The debate on how to tackle rising numbers of obesity in Australia continues on. But for one man, being part of those rising numbers is no longer a constant worry. Now 37 and half the size he used to be, Damien Verner can do things he never could or would before.

He stands on a scale proud of what he’s achieved.

He goes clothes shopping without feeling upset.

And he sits on a swing next to his wife and daughter knowing that he’ll be there, by their sides, for many more years to come.

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