Weight loss surgery leads to new life in tackle football

Patient calls gastric bypass ‘the best thing that's ever happened to me’

An athlete prepares to throw a football from the turf field inside the Sanford Fieldhouse.

Jessie Ahlers is living out her best, healthiest and most active life as the starting tight end for the Sioux Falls Snow Leopards.

But as she explains, that wasn’t always the case.

“I was in the military and once I got out, I just started gaining weight, and I had tried everything possible to lose that weight,” Ahlers told Sanford Health News. “I talked to my primary doctor, we did medications … I did a lot of different things to try to lose the weight and it just wasn’t coming off.”

At her heaviest, Ahlers was 283 pounds. She was prediabetic and living with sleep apnea.

“I’m a very active individual and so I could just tell that I was really wreaking havoc on my body,” Ahlers said. “I had two ankle surgeries and knee surgery and it was just really difficult to do the things that I loved to do. After some more discussion with my primary doctor, we decided that maybe gastric bypass would be the route to go.”

A new lease on life

She met with Curtis Peery, M.D., a Sanford Health surgeon who specializes in minimally invasive and robotic procedures.

“As we were discussing things, he’s said that I would be a good candidate for it,” Ahlers said. “I made the decision that I really wanted to enjoy my life and I needed to do this for me. We went forward with everything and it ended up being the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Dr. Peery said Ahlers was a good candidate for several reasons.

“Jessie is a great example of what we need when it comes to bariatric surgery, and she’s also a great example of a lot of the misconceptions that people have about obesity,” Dr. Peery said.

“She was very physically active, very disciplined and wasn’t able to get the weight off, and it was keeping her from doing the physical activity she actually wanted to do. And so what she did was she learned the tool. She committed to that process and worked with my team to learn how to do it … followed through, and she’s had tremendous results.”

Dr. Peery said weight loss surgery is not magic. It takes a lot of work from the patient — a commitment Ahlers had from the start.

Committing to change

“She was very committed to the process and understood from the get-go that she really needed to learn how to use the tool,” he said. “By following the instructions and the dietary plans … she’s able to support herself and has not missed a step. Her performance has just increased tremendously.”

Tremendous results and a new lease on life having lost nearly 85% of her excess body weight.

“I’ll go shopping now and I’ll look at something I’m like, ‘That will never fit,’ and it does,” Ahlers said. “I feel like I’m actually getting to live my life now. I am active in all these sports. I was able to join a professional women’s tackle football team. I’m doing things that I’ve always wanted to do and continue doing, and I feel like my body is not hating me for it. I really feel like I’m able to live my life to the fullest after having this surgery. So it’s been the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Dr. Peery said the conversation begins with a primary care doctor or a consultation with a bariatric surgeon.

Learn more: Weight loss procedures at Sanford Health

“At that point in time, we sit down, we take a look at what the issues are, your insurance policy, and then come up with a solution for the patient,” Dr. Peery said. “That’s why we have different surgical solutions because different procedures have different risks and benefits, strengths and weaknesses.”

Now at 186 pounds, Ahlers is just grateful to move and compete.

“To get out on that football field and to have your body do things that you never thought it would be able to do, it’s confidence boosting,” she said.

“I think back to a year ago and I never would’ve been able to do those things. And it almost makes me emotional thinking about how I was living my life to how I’m living it now, because my quality of life just all around is so much better.”

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Posted In General Surgery, Sioux Falls, Weight Loss