By the time Isaiah Sutton was 16 years old, he had reached 190 pounds. Worse, as his weight increased, he became increasingly sad and depressed and eventually didn’t want to leave the house.
But after a check-up last year with Temple pediatrician Eric Schaff, things began to turn around for Isaiah. Schaff told Isaiah and his mother about a program he was starting that would pair overweight teens with medical student mentors who would help them lose weight.
Now in his second year with the program, Isaiah meets with his mentor, second-year medical student Brandon Chatani, along with other teens and their mentors at a support group every Wednesday after school. The meetings are designed to inform the teens not only about their weight, but about a wide range of topics from the importance of sleep to family planning to acquaintance rape.
“Everything is so tied into weight at that age,” said second-year medical student Sadie Wachter. “So we focus on healthy eating and exercise, but we also talk about things that can affect other aspects of their lives as well.”
In addition to the talks, the teens and their buddies also engage in physical activities ranging from basketball to hip-hop dancing to martial arts. Once or twice a week, each med student sends a text message to their teen mentee, offering encouragement and support.
“We figured that since all the kids text, that would be the best way to communicate with them,” said second-year medical student and student organizer Ida Teberian, who sends messages back and forth with Isaiah on a regular basis. “It’s the same as texting a friend — just to say ‘hi’ or see how they’re doing. It lets them know we really care, and it also is helpful in getting them to come back the next week.”
The personal attention appears to be working for young people like Isaiah.
“We’re like family, and they’re cool people,” he said. “I’ve been having a lot of fun.”
“After Isaiah started the program, we began to see a change in him, for the better,” said his mother, Tina. “He was able to interact with kids who were like him, and it helped him a lot.”
Isaiah has lost about 10 pounds so far. Now, Sutton says, her son is active and makes healthier choices. He runs on the school track team and even writes a family grocery list that includes healthy fruits and vegetables.
“It’s helped him with his weight, but it’s helped the rest of our family be healthier too,” said Sutton.
“Many patients, teenagers especially, don’t always make the connection between weight loss and health,” said Teberian. “They don’t realize what they eat affects their health beyond just gaining weight.”
In addition to the support of their medical student mentors, the teens also receive incentives for losing weight — $5 gift cards for the first five pounds, $10 for the second five pounds, $15 for the next and so on.
“Research has shown that adults respond well to incentive-based weight loss programs, but no one really looked at it for teenagers,” said Schaff. “We’ve actually found that the teens are very responsive to it, because for many, it’s their only source of income.”
The program started informally last year, with a group of students who worked with Schaff and were interested in helping out in the community. The students say that Schaff was the driving force behind getting the program off the ground.
“He really has an amazing relationship with his patients,” said Teberian. “Most of the teens in the group are referred there from Dr. Schaff. And he was so supportive of his patients, wanting to help them, that for the first year, he paid for everything — the supplies, the snacks and incentives — out of his own pocket.”
“Adolescence is hard enough without the added social problems associated with being obese — self-esteem issues, depression and isolation,” said Schaff. “My hope for this program is that the multiple strategies the group employs will help these kids achieve their weight loss goals before transitioning into adulthood, which brings on a new set of problems related to overweight and obesity.”
Medical students lives are busy, to be sure. But the students agree that the time they spend with their teen mentees is well worth it.
“I’ve had weeks where I’ve been so busy with school work that I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to make it to the session,” said Teberian. “But every time I go, I always feel instantly better. It’s so much fun, and when you’re in the midst of your school work, it gives you the chance to stop and say ‘This is why I’m here. This is why I’m doing what I’m doing.’”