Above: Susan and Greg with Dr. Z., as they fondly refer to her. Dr. Alexandra Zubowicz is the medical director of the Bariatric Surgery program at Novant Health UVA Haymarket Medical Center.
Greg and Susan Gray, patients of Dr. Z, are happier and healthier after weight loss surgery at Novant Health UVA Haymarket Medical Center.
Story and Photos by Christine Craddock
For years, Greg and Susan Gray struggled with health issues related to their weight.
After hormonal therapies for endometriosis caused Susan to gain weight in her 20s, she tried unsuccessfully to lose her pregnancy weight through dieting. She would lose a few pounds, gain them back, and lose them again. Nothing worked to keep it off. She was eventually diagnosed with diabetes, which made weight loss even more difficult no matter what she ate or how much she exercised. Medications for diabetes, blood pressure, and cholesterol were necessary to treat her health issues.
Greg’s weight was a rollercoaster for the last decade, with him reaching his heaviest at 315 pounds. Then a type 2 diabetes diagnosis in 2002 required medications that ultimately stopped controlling his blood sugars and required insulin treatment. For the next eight years, he and his endocrinologists tried over a half dozen insulins and other medications with small successes and high prices.
“Bariatric surgery basically jumpstarts the weight loss process and helps tools like diet and exercise be more effective. Many people don’t know how safe it is, that it’s an option, and that it’s available right here in the area.” –Dr. Alexandra Zubowicz
Susan was the first to consider weight loss surgery at the suggestion of her primary care doctor and a consultation with Dr. Alexandra Zubowicz, medical director of the Bariatric Surgery program at Novant Health UVA Haymarket Medical Center. “Dr. Zubowicz is an experienced surgeon and valued partner,”said Nicholas Dugan, MD, bariatric surgeon at Novant Health UVA Health System Prince William Surgical Associates. “Working in tandem with Dr. Zubowicz and all of our experienced team ensures our bariatrics patients have a fully supported weight-loss journey.”
Throughout her childhood, Dr. Zubowicz’s parents encouraged healthy eating and a physically active lifestyle and these important life lessons have carried into her adulthood. “It’s critical to adopt healthy practices at a young age,” she says. But of course there are many people who haven’t been afforded the opportunity to begin life this way. This can lead to a downward spiral into medical complications related to obesity. “Genetic changes in childhood set the stage for what a person’s weight will be like for the rest of their lives,” explains Zubowicz.
Coming from a long line of doctors, Zubowicz always had a medical career in mind, at first considering psychiatry. However, during medical school, she came to the realization that surgery would be her niche. “I loved that you could fix a problem and help people lead better lives.”
Trauma surgery was the path she thought she’d pursue. But with trauma surgery, there are frequent middle-of-the-night calls that need immediate attention; Zubowicz wasn’t convinced that was for her. And although she knew for certain she wanted to be a surgeon; she began to realize one aspect of it that wasn’t quite what she expected. When someone comes for surgery, often there is a pre-op visit, the procedure, the post-op visit, and that’s it. Afterwards, patients move on with their lives. Zubowicz wanted a deeper and more fulfilling relationship with her patients, something she could achieve by pursuing bariatric surgery.
In bariatric surgery, part of the process is a long preoperative phase and afterwards the surgeon and the patient are in life-long contact. “With other surgeries, you fix the problem and that’s it. But this is a long-term relationship,” she emphasizes. “With this surgery, you can have the best of both worlds in medicine.”
Zubowicz explains that performing weight loss surgery is done in a “minimally invasive” fashion. “It’s incredible how much one can do with a few tiny incisions.” In almost no time, the overall quality of the patient’s life improves dramatically. There is nothing else in medicine that she’s seen that accomplishes reversing medical problems so quickly and helps people lead longer lives.
But what about the stigma associated with weight loss surgery? As recently as fifteen years ago, bariatric surgery was thought of as “taking the easy way out” despite its sometimes-dangerous complications and larger, open incisions. Zubowicz stands resolute about reducing that stigma and the lack of knowledge associated with how weight loss surgery is prepared for and performed today.
“The surgery basically jumpstarts the process,” says Zubowicz, and helps tools like diet and exercise be more effective. “Many people don’t know how safe it is, don’t know it’s an option, and don’t know it is available right here in the area,” she says.
Luckily for Greg and Susan Gray, their doctors suggested the procedure and encouraged their consultation with Dr. Zubowicz.
After a three-month process that included nutrition counseling, psychiatric evaluations, and pre-surgery procedures, Zubowicz performed Susan’s surgery in December of 2019 at Novant Health UVA Haymarket Medical Center. Not long after, Greg got serious too. He lost 25 pounds during the pre-surgery process and Zubowicz did his surgery at Novant on his birthday. “It was the best present ever,” he says.
“I think it’s important for anyone considering weight loss surgery to realize it’s a tool to help you get healthy and requires a lifestyle change of eating and exercise habits to be successful. It’s also important to make sure you have a great support system.” –Susan Gray, patient
“Our patients tell us that they feel safe throughout the entire process,” said Stephen Smith, MD, president and chief operating officer, Novant Health UVA Health System Prince William Medical Center and Haymarket Medical Center. “They’ve said that their experience – from intake to consult and from surgery to discharge and follow-up – is remarkable.”
Within a week of her surgery, Susan was able to stop taking her diabetes and blood pressure medications and three months after, she was able to ditch her cholesterol meds, too. Greg’s results have also been incredible. He’s reduced all of his medications, rarely takes insulin, and within the next few months should be able to stop taking all of his prescriptions.
But how much weight have they lost? you ask.
To date Susan has lost 80 pounds and says, “I feel 20 years younger and have so much more energy!” Greg has met and surpassed his goal of hitting 220 pounds and reports that “I have more energy, less overall body pain, and no more achy joints. The hardest part is buying a whole new wardrobe!”