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Focus on J. Christopher Eagon, MD

J. Christopher Eagon, MD is an associate professor of surgery. His specialties include bariatric surgery, obesity management, gastrointestinal surgery, hiatal hernia, gallbladder surgery and biliary surgery.

Dr. Eagon sees patients at Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital, Medical Building One, 1040 North Mason Rd., Suite 120, Creve Coeur; and Center for Advanced Medicine, GI Center, 4921 Parkview Place, 8th floor, Suite C, St. Louis.

FOR AN APPOINTMENT, PLEASE CALL: 314-454-8886 (Creve Coeur) or 314-454-8877 (St. Louis)

What happened in the course of schooling to influence you to choose your specialty?

When I was in medical school, my research project and thesis studied motion sickness and its effects on gastrointestinal motility (how food moves through the GI tract). This is how I became interested in GI motility -- before I decided to go into surgery.

During my surgical residency at Washington University I met Samuel Klein, MD. He was doing research involving obesity and there was interest in a surgical program on obesity. Because my research involved GI motility, it was a natural fit to take on the clinical problem of obesity. When I returned here as an attending physician in 1997, I began bariatric surgery on obese patients – before that time it was not a common procedure.

Since then, I’ve continued to expand that surgical and research aspect of my practice because the bariatric patients have done extremely well. They are very appreciative of the care given to them and the dramatic improvement in the quality of their lives.
Dr. and Mrs. Eagon with their boys at the Statue of Liberty

When were gastric bypass surgeries first performed?

The first gastric bypasses were introduced in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but it wasn’t a common or popular operation for obesity. Surprisingly, bariatric surgery was performed more in the 1970s than the 80s and early 90s. The dramatic increase in bariatric surgeries in the late 90s and early 2000s is the result of twenty years of data accumulation from successful patient outcomes and the introduction of laparoscopic techniques.

What brought you to Washington University?

After attending Harvard Medical School, I matched here for my residency in June of 1988. I grew up in Minnesota, so I didn’t have any real connections to St. Louis. Even in those days, this was one of the highly ranked programs. I was offered a job here following my residency and after some additional research training.

I spent two years of my residency doing research at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. I then did a two-year research program in Medical Informatics at the University of Utah before returning here.
Can you explain Medical Informatics?

Medical Informatics is the use of information technology and computers to help clinicians manage health information. It includes bibliographic retrieval, outcomes research, hospital information systems and signal processing. It is a pretty broad area, but my main interest in the tools of Informatics is patient outcome studies.

Which aspect of your practice is most interesting?

The most interesting phenomenon is the psychological impact of bariatric surgery. We operate on people’s stomach and intestines, yet what they notice is the effect on their sense of hunger -- which goes away for about six months after the operation. Because they are not hungry, they lose weight. They have much improved self esteem and self control. It’s not because the food is being physically blocked from passing through their intestines, it is because the operation has a psychological impact.

What new developments in your field are you most excited about?

What’s exciting about the future for bariatric surgery is the research involving innovative technologies that will be less invasive, but still result in weight loss and reduction of obesity and co-morbidities.

At Washington University we have been studying several different new therapies on an experimental basis – transoral gastroplasty, laparascopic vagal blocker/ gastric electrical stimulator. At this time none of these procedures are to the point where they will replace standard treatments for obesity. The standard treatments remain gastric bypass, adjustable gastric band and sleeve gastrectomy.

What is the typical amount of weight a patient can expect to lose after bariatric surgery?

The average patient we treat for obesity starts with a body mass index (BMI) of about 55 before surgery; normal BMI is between 20 and 25. That converts to about 380 pounds, which means about 180-200 pounds of excess body weight. The patient typically loses about 130 to 140 pounds in 12 to 18 months. This is still about 40-60 pounds above ideal body weight, but enough weight is lost for a significant persistent reduction in obesity-related diseases.

About one third of the patients we operate on are diabetic; two-thirds to three-fourths of those patients are essentially cured of their diabetes after surgery. Diabetes actually corrects itself fairly rapidly, so a large percentage of those people are off their medicines within a matter of weeks to a few months.

There is also a dramatic reduction in the use of medicines used to treat other obesity-related diseases (high blood pressure, high cholesterol, reflux). These conditions disappear or are significantly improved as a result of the bariatric surgery. In addition, about 80% of patients using a CPAP machine for sleep apnea no longer need it after weight-loss surgery.

Is there a particular award or achievement that is most gratifying?

My most gratifying achievement is having five kids. I’m also proud of my involvement in innovative procedures – we performed the first transoral gastroplasty in the United States here at Washington University. This is a natural orifice procedure using a stapling device that goes down the mouth. It creates a staple line in the stomach that makes a sleeve-like channel which food and drink must pass through in order to get into the main chamber of the stomach.
Dr. Eagon and family

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

In terms of choosing what to do with your life, you shouldn’t worry about lifestyle or how much money you’re going to make. You have to do something you really love. If you follow that rule, you will ultimately stay happy.

If you weren’t a doctor, what would you be doing?

When I was younger, I wanted to be a truck driver. I’d much rather drive than fly on family vacations. I don’t think I actually would have been a truck driver – but I do love to drive.

If I wasn’t a clinical physician, I would probably be a research scientist. After college, I thought seriously about getting a PhD. I enjoy doing research, but I enjoy surgery even more.

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Copyright 2015 Washington University School of Medicine