Life is all about connections. It is knowing the real estate broker with the pocket listing that checks all your boxes and the friend who clues you in to a job opening at the firm of your dreams. When it comes to your health, getting connected to the care you need is paramount. Just ask Rich Heller.

For almost 20 years, this Milwaukee resident has been a patient of Kathleen Sawasky, MD, internal medicine physician at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin Springdale Health Center. Rich has always been diligent about his annual checkup, and over the years, Dr. Sawasky has helped him manage his diabetes, cholesterol and high blood pressure. When he has had issues that required the expertise of a specialist, she has been able to direct him immediately to the right physician.

In 2005, when Rich noticed he was becoming short of breath as he climbed stairs, Dr. Sawasky ordered a stress test. The results were abnormal, so she recommended he see cardiologist and MCW faculty member James Kleczka, MD, who referred Rich for a successful double bypass procedure. However, as the years passed, his health continued to be less than optimal.

“I was not taking good care of myself,” Rich said. “I kept gaining weight every year. I tried a low-carb diet and lost some but put it all back on.”

Dr. Sawasky continued to support Rich, eventually discussing the possibility of gastric bypass surgery. In the fall of 2016, Rich was ready to commit.

“I was creeping up to the 400-pound range,” he said. “I wondered if I was going to eat myself to death or what I was going to do. I was having problems with my knees and hips. I told Dr. Sawasky I was ready to move forward.”

Bariatric Surgery 

Once again, Dr. Sawasky accessed the Froedtert & MCW health network and connected Rich with Tammy Kindel, MD, PhD, bariatric surgeon and MCW faculty member.

“His body mass index was 52 (between 18.5 and 24.9 is ideal), which is important to note because this was not just about treating his body weight, it was about trying to best manage his metabolic disease,” Dr. Kindel said. “He had type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, all of which are obesity associated. Surgical weight loss can help with all these medical issues.”

Rich had laparoscopic Roux-en-Y gastric bypass surgery at Froedtert & MCW Froedtert Hospital in September 2017 and has turned his life around. He began by walking on a treadmill every day. Then he got a bike. He has dropped 200 pounds and can now ride 20 to 50 miles in an afternoon.

“I know people who have lost a considerable amount of weight through diet and exercise but put it all back on again,” Rich said. “I am not going to let that happen, so I’ve been very diligent.”

Specialist Referrals

Reviewing her long history with Rich, Dr. Sawasky said that when referring anyone to a specialist, she considers not only the expertise of that physician, but also her own understanding of her patient, a knowledge that goes beyond symptoms.

“You develop a relationship with patients and get to know something of their personal lives, about other things that may be affecting their health,” she said. “You get to know a patient’s personality. When I make a referral to a specialist, I send the patient to someone I trust and whose style and bedside manner are suited to that patient.”

These days, Rich is sitting easier in his bright blue 1978 MGB and keeping up with his exercise program.

“I’m not going to be running marathons, but before my surgery I was looking at knee and hip replacements,” he said. “Not anymore.”

“He’s had a remarkable response to his surgery,” Dr. Kindel said. “He was able to be discharged within 24 hours and has not had any complications. His weight loss has been significant, and most importantly, we have seen dramatic improvements in his metabolic health. He is down to one blood pressure medication and off all his diabetes medications.”

“I look forward to my physicals now,” Rich said. “I get a high five at my appointments. Dr. Sawasky is very supportive. She supported me before I had the surgery and was never judgmental. I hope she can be my doctor for the rest of what I need doctoring for.”