For this surgeon, it’s personal: Cooley Dickinson bariatric doctor found health and her calling in her own weight-loss experience

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 03-29-2023 5:00 PM

NORTHAMPTON — When patients walk into Cooley Dickinson Hospital for weight-loss surgery, Dr. Ursula McMillian wants them to know she understands what they’re going through.

A little more than a decade ago, McMillian weighed more than 300 pounds and struggled with conditions including high blood pressure and diabetes, which ran on both sides of her family and contributed to the early death of her parents. After undergoing bariatric, or weight-loss surgery, McMillian now sports a much slimmer physique, and posts exercise and nutrition content on social media.

But she says bariatric surgery treats far more than just outside appearances.

“What I tell people is, this is not for you to be cute. You’re already cute,” she said. “This is to give you a better quality of life and to help you live longer.”

Growing up in Connecticut, McMillian knew from an early age that she wanted to be a doctor. Her mother, who worked as a nurses’ aide, supported her ambitions, frequently telling anyone who would listen that McMillian would be a doctor and carrying around a copy of her report card to back up the claim.

McMillian eventually became valedictorian of her high school class at Kolbe Cathedral High School and received a scholarship to attend the University of Connecticut, becoming the first in her family to go to college. But unfortunately, her mother wasn’t there to witness it — she died when McMillian was 16 due to a hypertensive stroke, brought on by a spike in blood pressure.

“One day she was fine, but because she had high blood pressure that she wasn’t treating correctly, she ended up having a stroke,” McMillian said. “She died two days later.”

Following her mother’s death, McMillian and her siblings moved in with her father, continuing her studies and entering medical school at UConn after completing her undergraduate degree.

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But her father, who worked two jobs for most of his life, also had health issues. He died at age 64 from kidney failure due to diabetes complications, shortly after McMillian started work as a bariatric surgeon.

Speaking about her parents’ deaths and the opportunity she had to attend school, McMillian becomes emotional.

“It could’ve been me,” she said. “That’s why I really want to help people like me.”

After completing a residency at Yale New Haven and a fellowship at Danbury Hospital in Connecticut, McMillian served several stints at other western Massachusetts hospitals before arriving at Cooley Dickinson in November 2021, helping launch the first bariatric program at the hospital. She performs surgical operations such as gastric bypasses and sleeve gastrectomies, which involve removing part of the stomach, eliminating hormones that cause the patient to feel constant hunger. To date, the bariatric program has performed 22 surgeries since its inception at the hospital.

“Dr. McMillian has lived this. She’s not just selling this to a patient just to get you on board or because it’s her job,” said Rebecca Masi, a practice manager at Cooley Dickinson who has known McMillian since 2014. “She is very passionate about making these quality of life changes and really following through with it. When she says that once you’re a patient, you’re a patient for life, she means it.”

McMillian’s own experience as a patient and her passion for others to improve their life quality inspired Masi herself to undergo a sleeve gastrectomy under Dr. McMillian last December. Since doing so, Masi says she’s lost 44 pounds. “It’s been fantastic,” Masi said.

African Americans and other people of color have higher rates of obesity than other groups — according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Black Americans more prone to obesity than non-Hispanic whites, putting them at higher risk for high blood pressure and diabetes.

“Obesity is about 70% genetic, so unfortunately, it’s something we’re born with,” McMillian said. “It can be so taxing on the heart and on the lungs — some people die just from their obesity, and that shouldn’t be right. So I want to put that information out there that yes, this is more prevalent in African American culture, but there’s something that you can do about it.”

She gave the example of one recent patient she had seen several years ago, who weighed more than 500 pounds and initially resisted the idea of bariatric surgery. But he recently contacted McMillian again after needing an operation for a hernia and realizing he would be at high risk due to his high blood pressure and diabetes.

Since undergoing sleeve gastrectomy surgery with McMillian, he has lost nearly 300 pounds and can now have the hernia operation safely.

“He is an absolute rock star,” she said of her patient. “He went back to the doctor and the doctor didn’t know who he was because he looked so different. Before he was such a high risk, and now, he’s got nothing.”

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.

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