Patient Stories

Dena Alsawah

Losing 5 or 10 lbs. is difficult. Imagine trying to lose 120 lbs. on your own.

Dena Alsawah was ready for a change. At 35 years old, the parking facility supervisor had been affected by obesity most of her life.

“I was always a fairly big child. When I was younger, I thought I could lose the weight on my own,” Dena says. Over the years, she tried many diet plans and had lost a lot of weight on her own — up to 100 lbs. at one point. But she struggled to keep the weight off. “It’s like an elevator — constantly going up and down. At my heaviest, I was 343 lbs. and then I lost weight and stabilized at about 290 lbs. I could never go lower than that.”

Concerned about her ability to be active in her children’s lives, in 2017, the mother of two from Flushing decided it was time to do something about her weight. She spoke with her primary care doctor (PCP), who recommended she meet with Dr. Stephen Merola, a bariatric surgeon at NewYork-Presbyterian Queens. The bariatric surgery program at NewYork-Presbyterian Queens is accredited as a Comprehensive Center by the American College of Surgeons, which is awarded to facilities that offer high-quality care.

“I didn’t want my kids to be taking care of me because I’m bedridden from a stroke or heart attack. So I went to my PCP. She had a few of her patients have the gastric sleeve procedure at NewYork-Presbyterian Queens, so she recommended I go there,” she says.

Over the next six months, Dena underwent pre-surgery preparation — a program designed to help weight loss surgery candidates get ready for the life-altering procedure. During that time, she underwent a battery of tests to determine her physical fitness, as well as counseling to make sure she was psychologically prepared for a dramatic lifestyle change. She also received nutrition counseling to help with making better food choices before and after the operation.

“They offer you a wide range of tools that are beneficial to anybody willing to make a change for their health,” Dena says.

On Nov. 27, she arrived at NewYork-Presbyterian Queens for a sleeve gastrectomy. During the procedure, Dr. Merola would remove three-quarters of her stomach and create a sleeve-like pouch to restrict her food intake.

“It’s like being a newborn all over again. Your new stomach has to align with your new brain to make the right decisions,” she says. Dena began rapidly losing weight. In addition to a new way of eating, she began exercising — walking to and from work (about a mile and a half each way), sometimes wearing ankle weights for an added challenge.

Dena says having the surgery has drastically changed her outlook on life. “My old life was restricting. Dr. Merola and the staff at NewYork-Presbyterian Queens offered me the clarity to be able to say, ‘I’m going to be a healthier me.’ They gave me an opportunity to have a better quality of life. I’m grateful for that.”

Since the surgery, Dena has lost about 120 lbs. and is maintaining her weight during each checkup with her PCP and Dr. Merola. She says she doesn’t focus on the scale anymore, instead paying attention to how her clothes fit. She says, getting the surgery was one of the best decisions she’s made and encourages others with obesity to consider weight loss surgery.

“When you tell people I did the gastric sleeve, they say, ‘oh, you could have done that on your own.’ Losing 5 or 10 lbs. is difficult. Imagine trying to lose 120 lbs. on your own,” she says. “It’s not easy. It is work. You aren’t just losing weight; you’re changing your mentality, which is very hard work.”

She adds: “I tell everybody, you don’t have anything to lose, but you have everything to gain.”