Bringing Long-term Post-ops back to Surgical Support Group
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Disclaimer: This blog post does not reflect the views of the OAC, the National Board of Directors or staff. Information contained in this blog post is not based on scientific research and has not been validated.
So now that we’ve talked about the dynamics of support group from a longer-term post-op perspective and why longer-term post-ops say they don’t attend support group, let’s talk reconciliation.
Because it’s my firm belief, that surgical support group has the potential to be a powerful tool for all post-ops.
In talking with longer-term post-ops, with some bariatric professionals and in examining my own experiences, I think the key to bringing folks back to support group has a lot to do with what we communicate about the post-op experience and how.
To that effect, I have some recommendations for both bariatric professionals and bariatric patients. And, as promised, I have the stories of some support groups that have great attendance across surgery ages.
For Bariatric Professionals
If your group is not well attended by longer-term post-ops (and you’d like it to be), here are several things you can do to try and make that happen:
- Go where the people are.
Ninety percent of the people who responded to my poll (non-scientific) reported they are part of an online bariatric support group of some sort. If your practice doesn’t already have a presence on Facebook, consider getting one along with a Twitter handle. My recommendation is to start a Facebook group as opposed to a Page and make it closed or secret (not every post-op is open about their surgery). Then begin to invite people via your existing support group. Facebook is a powerful connector, so you’ll be surprised how fast people learn of your group and want to join.
- Long-term life after bariatric surgery. Talk about it early and often!
And do so in a way that leaves the door open to conversation. This may mean you have to stop yourself from giving lectures (which will ultimately drive longer-term post-ops afraid of judgment away). This accomplishes three things. Firstly, for the longer-term post-ops that do attend your group, such topics will be relevant to them and they will feel more included in the conversation. Secondly, this sets up newer post-ops with realistic expectations of long-term challenges and allows them a venue to talk about the changes they experience as they advance in surgery age. Lastly, it gets longer-term post-ops talking to one another, which is a powerful motivator for attendance.
- Be flexible with the format of your group.
Some groups have breakout sessions that split people up by surgery-age or small groups that are led by longer-term post-ops, who then come back together for a general discussion. Some groups employ longer-term post-ops as panelists for discussions about life after bariatric surgery. And some groups have both general support groups and groups catered especially toward longer-term post-ops. All these options are good but come with a caution: longer-term post-ops generally don’t mind being utilized to help newer folks, but we want to receive as much support as we get!
- Solicit anonymous feedback.
This one I think is important. Below, you’ll see I advise longer-term post-ops to share when support group is consistently not working for them. But I think we have to keep in mind that many people are simply too shy to do so. For them, medical staff represent an authority they don’t want to challenge. But soliciting anonymous feedback is easy. It can be as simple as having a form that doesn’t require a name, asking group participants to rate the group and turn in their answers. Or you could have a suggestion box where people can simply write thoughts on a blank piece of paper. Without fear of identification, you’d be surprised how forthcoming people will be!
For Longer-term Post-ops
Especially for those who have been struggling with temptation, overeating, regain or any of the million life issues that can challenge your weight-loss and/or long-term maintenance plans, your surgical support group is a place to talk it out with people who understand. It’s also a great way to get an audience with a bariatric professional if you have a hard time scheduling an appointment.
Here are a few things you can do to “be the change you want to see” in support group:
- Share your experiences from your perspective.
As I said earlier, I don’t think the topics of support group are totally irrelevant to longer-term post-ops, but that we approach those topics differently than we did when we first had surgery. When in support group, offer up your perspective on things. You might be surprised at the result. I once offered up the fact that I struggle with night snacking and found out many newer post-ops experienced the same thing!
- Communicate with your bariatric staff.
Most practices like to see patients at least once a year on an on-going basis. Next time you go in, share your impressions of support group with your surgeon or whoever coordinates the group. Be respectful but honest. Sometimes your bariatric staff simply doesn’t know that group isn’t working for you. And the only way to let them know is to tell them!
- Support doesn’t just happen once a month.
Or once a week…or however frequently your group meets. Many post-ops who took my survey report they’ve made friendships in support group that they maintain outside the group. Personally, I can say one of my dearest friends in the world, I met at support group when we were both new and our friendship has endured. In respect to this topic, forming relationships at your support group can make your experiences there richer because you begin to feel like you are not just among other post-ops, but among friends. So introduce yourself to somebody and get to know them!
- Remember that giving support is a form of getting support.
While I think it’s important for longer-term post-ops to be able to discuss issues relating to their particular stage in the process, I also whole-heartedly believe that giving support to newer post-ops helps to “keep your head in the game.” In that respect, even attending a group that is predominantly newer post-ops can have some value.
Support Groups that Work
And finally, as promised here are profiles of two surgical-based support forums that seem to be working well engaging post-ops of all surgery ages!
Hurley Medical Center Support Group – Flint, MI
This support group meets once monthly and has about 30-50 attendees, per longtime group member Pamela Tremble, who is five years post-op gastric bypass. Many longer-term post-ops attend this group, she says, to “pay it forward to the newbies.”
The group is run in accordance with ASMBS Center of Excellence guidelines and each month a speaker comes to talk about a range of topics from health to mental health to nutrition, exercise and plastic surgery.
Pam says the most valuable part of group, to her, is the informal chat time afterward, when she’s able to speak with other longer-term post-ops but also converse in groups of patients of all surgery ages. Pam also attends other, informal groups, some of which have more longer-term post-ops. She says the mix of groups helps her get more out of her surgical support group because her overall need for support is met.
St. Agnes Hospital Bariatrics– Baltimore, MD
St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore has two monthly, in-person support group meetings that attract a mixture of surgery ages although, as with most groups, the majority of people are younger in surgery age. This is the support group I attend (when I’m not in grad school classes!) and there are a few other longer-term post-ops who frequently attend. The group is often led by the hospital’s bariatric nurse coordinator, Cathy Carr-Dadin, who is herself a longer-term post-op.
I highlight this group because I think it’s done a good job being flexible and responding to the emerging needs of patients. When I had surgery in 2008, there were two groups: one for bypass and one for gastric band patients. The practice has since formed a semi-monthly group for all surgery types (which now also includes gastric sleeve patients).
The hospital also runs a closed Facebook group for patients who wish to give and receive support via social media. Since the group is closed, patients have to be added, but this protects their privacy. It also gives a forum for longer-term post-ops to talk to one another and to newer post-ops.
These are just two examples of great support groups working to meet the needs of all its patients. In the process of writing this blog series, I’ve heard from a lot of you, who also have great support groups.
I invite you to share in the comments! Do you attend a group with great longer-term post-op participation? If you are a longer-term patient yourself, what’s great about your group? And if you run a group that has great participation across surgery ages, what advice would you give to practices wishing to do so?
Let’s not let the conversation end here!
About the Author
Nikki Massie is a professional writer based in Baltimore, Md. She underwent Roux-en-Y gastric bypass surgery in 2008. She also lives in Baltimore with her two daughters, dog and cat. To learn more about Nikki, please visit her blog www.bariatricfoodie.com.