Memorial Hermann Doctor Turns Personal Weight Loss Struggles Into a Career By Helping Others

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When Dr. Sameer Murali first meets patients, he asks, “Why do you want to lose weight? Why is this important to you – right now? »

“The answer is the most telling thing,” he said.

This is how Murali learns what challenges he will face — and how he can best help — on his patient’s journey to better health.

Murali, 42, is an obesity medicine specialist at Memorial Hermann and an associate professor of surgery at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston.

When patients have a vague reason for losing weight, such as being healthier or living longer, he urges them to be more specific: Why do you want to live longer? What do you want to be able to do with this body?

“You need a clear view of why you’re doing this,” he said.

For example, one patient was motivated by the desire to run with his child. “As soon as I heard that, I knew I wasn’t going to have a problem,” Murali said.

He sees himself as a guide and weight loss as a “hero’s journey”, a story by Joseph Campbell to go on an adventure and return home transformed.

Spending time getting to know the patient is key to finding happiness forever, Murali said.

That’s why his first appointment with patients is a one-hour consultation. Topics include medical history, mental health, anxieties, nutrition, and peer support.

“We travel through the universe of elements that could lead to weight gain, he said. “I will treat your weight gain the same as if you had a fever.”

Just as a fever can be caused by tuberculosis, COVID, malaria, or leukemia, weight gain has a myriad of possible underlying causes.

And during this first session, Murali admits: “The person in the group who benefits the most is me. This is what I wish my doctor had done for me.

He often tells patients, “Whatever your struggle is, I believe it has a very deep root. That’s what my story told me.

Murali knows weight loss first hand, as he has struggled since childhood.

When he shares his own story, patients often tell him that they are relieved to be treated by someone who understands. “It gives them hope and courage.”

cycle of shame

Murali’s parents immigrated from India in the 1970s and Murali was born in Oklahoma.

Her father worked in oil and gas, and his career took the family first to Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, and then to Holland. They moved to Houston, settling in Katy, when Murali was in fourth grade.

Right off the bat, he said he felt like he didn’t belong. Abroad, he identified as an American. But for standardized testing in the United States, he was asked to bubble up in another ethnicity. Other students teased him relentlessly, he said.

“I had a feeling of rejection,” Murali said. “That continued throughout my early years.”

Eating has become a coping mechanism.

“I can’t say when it happened or how, but the food was something that comforted me, especially the sweets,” he said.

Murali began to gain weight. Her pediatrician asked her to lower the number on the scale but never explained how.

By the time he was in middle school, he was one of the taller kids in the class. He said he developed feelings of guilt and shame, which became a cycle.

“You’re trying to appease yourself with the one thing that’s making it worse,” Murali said. “And it’s getting worse and worse.”

His only respite was to travel to India to visit his grandparents. “When we were going there, I was losing weight,” he said.

In India, he ate home-cooked meals three times a day. There were no snacks and nothing was processed. He walked everywhere and learned yoga from his grandfather.

But after two months, he was coming home and starting to regain the weight he had lost. In the United States, there was access to junk food, including chocolate milk and pastries.

Murali said the experience taught him an important lesson: the environment shapes health. He continues to see this today, with some neighborhoods lacking access to healthy food.

“Your zip code matters more than your genetic code in this country,” he said.

Practice obesity medicine

Murali’s peak weight of 220 pounds was while he was in his twenties. Unhealthy habits from childhood, including not being athletic, contributed to weight gain in college.

And when he entered medical school and eventually residency, he saw the effect anxiety and stress had on his weight. “It’s a perfect hurricane, not even a mere storm,” he said.

Two key experiences changed everything, he said.

The first was a year abroad in India on a scholarship to study music. He started going to the gym, walking everywhere, finding a dietitian and eating fresh food.

Murali has lost about 35 pounds and her relationship to food has changed.

The second, and most important, he said, was to find something that provided meaningful meaning and a crucial weight loss goal. He was studying medicine and saw the correlation between obesity and disease.

But medical school training lacked a connection. “We had no module on nutrition. Zero,” he said. “Weight was treated as a behavioral issue, not a medical issue.”

He decided to audit nutrition classes.

During his residency in internal medicine, he saw a young man with a significant weight problem deal with diabetes, heart failure and hypertension.

“I remember refilling his meds and thinking, ‘This is useless,'” Murali said. “I’m supposed to be the guy helping her, but I don’t have the tools.”

Soon after, he would devote his career to promoting health through weight loss.

Murali studied the social determinants of health. He dove deep into diabetes and the understanding of insulin resistance, focusing specifically on the prevalence of the disease among South Asian immigrants.

He gave a series of lectures on insulin resistance – and considered becoming an endocrinologist, but found a better fit in obesity medicine.

He had been practicing the specialty since 2011 in California, alongside bariatric surgeons.

Then, in October, Murali moved to Houston, bringing home his holistic approach.

COVID’s call to arms

“Obesity is the climate change of healthcare,” Murali said. “Like climate change, we continue to ignore this problem, and obesity is a problem that will get worse. Like climate change, everyone is pointing the finger at someone else.

The biggest finger is pointed at the person in trouble, Murali added.

“It’s like you’re the problem and you’re somehow flawed,” he said. “It’s a stigma that lives on today.”

The pandemic offered him the opportunity to study the health risks of obesity, in collaboration with an infectious disease epidemiologist Dr Sara Tarto.

In 2020, their team produced, “Obesity and Mortality in Patients Diagnosed with COVID-19: Results from an Integrated Health Organizationin the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, which concluded that “obesity plays a profound role in the risk of death from COVID-19.” Patients in the study came from Kaiser Permanente Southern California, an integrated healthcare organization.

In fact, Murali said the risk of obesity is greater than many other comorbidities. People with a BMI of 40 or more were two to four times more likely to die from COVID-19.

“When I saw that data, I realized that was the smoking gun,” Murali said.

Treating obesity was absolutely necessary from a medical point of view, he explained.

“COVID for me was like something you can’t ignore,” he said. “It was like a call to arms. I can’t describe it any other way.

A new home in Houston

Murali’s pursuit of innovation brought him home.

While on a trip to visit his parents in Houston, he met Kyle Price, senior vice president of Memorial Hermann Health System.

Memorial Hermann already had NewStart, weight loss surgery program.

“But surgery is only one aspect,” said Price, who oversees Memorial Hermann products and ensures the system has the right doctors in place and the right programs at its sites. “How to build a program that looks at all aspects? »

He wanted to create a comprehensive program for all other weight loss pathways that assesses medical conditions, social determinants, and emotional health.

He is now working with UTHealth’s Dr. Deborah Horn, medical director of the UT Center for Obesity Medicine and Metabolic Performance, and a team of specialists to create a new program. There are dietitians, exercise physiologists and even anthropologists on board.

“When you meet Dr. Horn, you can just feel his passion,” Price said. “I was looking for someone who had the same passion. You had to at least match it.

Murali had that electricity, Price said.

“He’s our guy,” he said. “We have to bring him into the team. He would bring his knowledge and expertise.

Price said he hopes to introduce the model in January.

“How do we change the trajectory of people’s health? There are so many opportunities there,” he said.

In the meantime, Murali is working at the clinical level — to build a new weight management practice within UTHealth and Memorial Hermann.

Murali started seeing patients in November – and already has a busy schedule.

“It is our responsibility to lead and create a vision for the future,” he said. “There are very effective treatments that can help people. We have more drugs and surgery for obesity now.

He added: “These tools are vital. Not because they fix anything, but they are a way for our patients to be more involved in their own care.

Peyton is a freelance writer based in Houston.

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