Disappearing Waistline: Billy Nungesser's journey to weight loss

Port Sulphur, La. - Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser isn't one to back down. As people watched his passionate pleas following man made and natural disasters over the years, many feared for his life. The combination of stress and obesity was taking a toll.

Today, Nungesser is dropping the weight and the risk.

In September  2012, Nungesser was reaching his heaviest weight, 320 pounds. He was a prime candidate for a heart attack.

"I heard it a lot," said Nungesser. "I had people send letters from all over the world, you know, your passion has come out, please calm down."

Those letters started coming in after Nungesser's national television appearances in the wake of the 2010 oil spill.

"After the BP spill, I put on an extra 20 or 30 pounds through that late night eating and not exercising," he said.

That weight was on top of the pounds he started putting on in 2007 when he took office as parish president.

"I was on a sleep apnea machine, high blood pressure medicine, cholesterol medicine and I had never had a health problem in my life.  And I realized I was putting the hurricanes, the oil spill ahead of my own health," he said. "So many strangers pulled me aside and said, 'Man, you need to lose weight. You're going to kill yourself.'"

Today he is finally losing the weight. He is off the medication and the sleep apnea is gone. "You know, 60 pounds in 4 months, another 50 to go and I feel great!"

Last October, tired of losing the war with his weight, he turned to surgery. "Now looking back, that was my toughest decision, not to have surgery, not to go through it but the admission that you needed help to lose weight," he said.

That admission led to a weight loss procedure called a sleeve gastrectomy. Dr. Thomas Lavin performed his surgery.

"We take a stomach that's the size of a football and shrink it to approximately the size of a banana," explained Dr. Lavin. "We do it using a six-row stapler, where we make this long stomach tube and then I oversew on top of the staples to give it a double layer of protection, and then pull the old stomach remnant out through the belly button."

In the end, the patient cannot eat as much and there's also a significant reduction in the protein-based hormones responsible for sending hunger and cravings signals to the brain. "Just by removing the bulk of the stomach, the stomach has a lot of cells in it that produce these hormones. Well, they're gone," said Dr. Lavin.

The gastric sleeve is performed laparoscopically through small incisions in the abdomen. Those incisions accommodate a video camera and several thin instruments.

Many patients go home the day of the surgery and, according to Dr. Lavin, the average recovery time is three to seven days. He says there's no special diet or medicine. He recommends a daily vitamin, exercise and a healthy diet.

"It's a simple process," Nungesser said with a smile. "You're up within an hour, back at work within a couple days and you don't have that hunger anymore," he said. "It's something I don't have to worry about ever again. And for people that struggle with weight, it's a great thing to be able to put that behind you and enjoy life."

As with any surgical procedure, Dr. Lavin says there are risks involved, including the risk of bleeding, infection and allergic reaction.  Since it is a new procedure, no longer term studies are in yet, but Dr. Lavin says he's seeing a high rate of success in his patients.

For more information on the gastric sleeve, go to www.whyweight.com/gastric-sleeve/