Even as a child, James Pitt had a weight problem.
His mom remembers it starting around the time he was three, after his tonsils were removed. Growing up as a heavy child, Pitt decided to try dieting at just 10 years old. It was the first of many tries.
“I can tell you, for some of us it doesn’t matter what you do, how much you restrict your diet or how many times you go on a diet,” he said. “I’ve been trying not to eat since I was 10. It’s just a constant struggle of up and down, up and down.”
Pitt remembers being in the best shape of his life as he graduated from high school. However, at five feet, seven inches tall and weighing about 180 pounds at the time, he was still technically overweight and nearly obese.
In college and later in medical school, Pitt’s weight problem took a turn for the worse as he ballooned to nearly 300 pounds. Then, after he graduated, he became Dr. James Pitt, DO — a surgeon.
In the early 2000s, Dr. Pitt started performing gastric banding surgeries to help obese patients. The minimally-invasive procedure places a small band around the upper portion of the stomach. The device makes patients feel full and get hungry less often.
During patient checkups following the banding surgery, Dr. Pitt saw that the device worked. His patients were slowly losing the weight they had struggled with their entire lives. Patients with serious weight-related health problems such as high blood pressure and diabetes were seeing those problems improve or disappear completely.
In 2006, after helping dozens of patients, Pitt decided to help himself. He had a gastric band placed on his own stomach.Today, many pounds lighter, Dr. Pitt often shares this story with the new patients he meets. It’s a rare type of connection between a doctor and patient.
“I let them know that it’s not an easy decision and I had to make the same decision they are making. That’s why I share it with them,” Pitt said. “There aren’t a lot of operations where I can say, ‘I know exactly what you mean.’ But this is one where I can.”
Dr. Pitt grew up in rural Iowa near the town of Pella. With a nurse for a mother and a nurse’s aide for a father, health care was simply a way of life.
“I grew up around it,” Dr. Pitt said. “My future father-in-law was also a small town osteopath in the same area.”
When he went to college at Northeast Missouri State — now called Truman State University — he decided to pursue forestry as a major. But he ended up spending time with a group of friends who were mostly biology pre-med majors. So he changed his path.
“I decided I could do that to,” he said. “And it went from there.”
Another turning point happened when he was a junior in college. At that time, Dr. Pitt’s father had become seriously ill from heart disease. He went to Phoenix for cardiac bypass surgery. Dr. Pitt spent time with his father after the surgery and saw him recover. He was amazed at the improvement he saw in his father.
“It was watching the change that happened in him,” Dr. Pitt said. “He went into the hospital near death because of his heart disease. But he goes into surgery and then comes out of the hospital much better than he went in. That’s what got me thinking about surgery.”
Dr. Pitt later studied medicine and surgery at the Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine. He was introduced to Columbia Surgical Associates as a resident and joined the practice 1993. He spent his first seven years as a surgeon serving patients at the Lake of the Ozarks. He and his family — wife, Karen, and children Jason, Jessica and Kelly — moved to Columbia in 2000.
Another perk is working at Boone Hospital Center, which he praised for the hospital’s very high standard of care.
“It is the best hospital between Kansas City and St. Louis — it just is the best,” he said. “They get things done right. They know how to take care of people.”
Dr. Pitt is kept busy doing anywhere from 12-20 surgeries each week. He operates on people with hernias, gallbladder problems, gastric reflux and other health issues. It’s a job with a lot of variety. But he finds working with obese patients through the gastric banding process to be the most rewarding.
“Most of the things we do in surgery, we can get people back to where they were before the surgery. If somebody has a gallbladder that hurts them, we can get rid of that pain and make them feel better,” he said. “But the change that we can help people achieve with gastric banding is so much more immense than that. Literally, you can give people their lives back.”
Dr. Pitt has seen many patients through life transformations. One of his patients is actually a national model for a new gastric banding advertising campaign.
Five years after his own gastric banding surgery, Dr. Pitt said his weight is down to 213 pounds and it’s still dropping.
He said he’s not always his own best patient, and thus he can relate to his patients who sometimes struggle after the surgery. “It took me a couple years to figure out how to do things right,” he said.
Yet, he is continually making progress toward his goal — getting back to the 180 pounds he was when he graduated from high school.
Pitt said doing surgeries every day can become like any other job. Yet, there are times when he reflects about the amazing level of trust that his patients have in his abilities.
“This is a privileged job to have people lay down on an operating table. A lot of satisfaction comes from that,” Pitt said. “When you really get down to just the nuts and bolts of what we do as surgeons, I think you can talk to anyone who takes care of patients and they’d say they can’t think of anything they’d rather be doing.”
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