A Real Challenge

Facilitating a support group can be a challenge at times but as a rule they are fun and on some occasions I can actually feel as though everyone has learned a valuable lesson and that perhaps I have made a difference. At one particular meeting I questioned my ability to stay in control of this usually great and respectful crowd. It was a rowdy bunch for some reason or another. Perhaps it was the Michigan weather that all of us have had enough of. We were stir crazy or just crazy. The topic to be discussed was titled, “Relationships”. Tough topic to say the least but I would give it the good old college try.

I started off with the usual upcoming events, good stuff, bad stuff and open discussion to questions in general. One guy discussed his inability to eat well at three months post surgery. I did my usual ‘look’ at the audience and they knew at that moment that I would turn this one over to them. Hands went up across the room. Questions were asked of the gentleman: What have you been eating? How fast? What time of day? Your food selections are too fatty, you should know better, etc. This back and forth bantering went on for awhile and at one point I thought I had lost control of the evening altogether. I wasn’t sure if the young man was going to be able to comprehend all of the comments but something told me that he was getting the picture. The group was respectful and tactful and all the while managed to educate their fellow support group member.

As I stood at the podium and tried to figure out how I was going to get back on track one of the front row patients smiled at me and said, “You should be proud of what you have created.” “Do you mean my creation of havoc?” I asked. “No you have taught these patients well enough that they are able to answer questions professionally and accurately. They are a reflection of you.” I would have never thought of it that way. I was proud of the group because they did answer the gentleman’s questions professionally and I must say that I could not have done a better job.

I was able to finally get back on track and begin the lesson of the evening. At the end of the session and as usual great questions came from the group. They have a thirst for knowledge, they challenge my knowledge, and I like that. This group knows their surgery very well even to the point of being able to explain their procedure to their primary care physicians and to anyone else who will ask for an explanation. It is a requirement that our patients not only know their ‘new mechanics’ but also know what can happen if they do not respect their new system. They learn about vitamin and mineral deficiencies and what it means to keep their bodies in tune with exercise and good nutrition. They know why we do particular blood work and bone densities. They understand what I often call the funky testing and why we call for it. For all they learn, it is not what their facilitator has taught them as much as their desire to be a better educated patient. I teach them what they want to know, it is as simple as that.

Support groups are such a valuable resource to any practice and unfortunately to this day many bariatric practices do not provide this important means of postoperative patient education. We need to continue patient education for years after any bariatric procedure; surgeons need to be aware of this as should the patients themselves. Our educational process should be inclusive of all areas of the medical profession for the simple reason that we call on various other professionals to assist us with patient care. Primary care physicians, cardiologists, endocrinologists, gastroenterologists, psychology professionals, nutritionists, exercise physiologists and insurance companies are more accepting of the bariatric patient once they understand the whole picture of the surgery.

I am proud to say the memory of the meetings like the one regarding relationships stay with me for a long time. The educational agenda that had been prepared for the patients was not as important as what I learned that night. I learned that sometimes you will lose control of a large group, that it is a real challenge to get back on tract, and that sometimes losing control is educational even for the facilitator. And most important is that a good challenge can make us realize that it never pays to be complacent in what you do.

My love of this group is a shinning light of my life and of my work in this business, they will never allow complacency.

Jacquelyn K. Smiertka, RN, has been a bariatric surgery clinical coordinator for thirty years. Mrs. Smiertka is a member of the ASBS and IFSO and has presented papers at numerous meetings in the United States and Europe. She is currently the owner of Beyond Change - Living a Healthy Life After Bariatric Surgery

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