Alumni Profile • Randal Baker '86, Todd Vroegop '86 & Matt Seerveld '89
Breakthrough research honored with award

Matt Seerveld, Todd Broegop and Randal Baker

Matt Seerveld, Todd Broegop and Randal Baker

The fastest-growing surgical procedure in the United States has become measurably safer, thanks to research conducted by three alumni, some of it in Calvin’s biology laboratories. And an international award for that research has surgeons from around the world calling and coming to Grand Rapids to learn about it.

Randal Baker ’86, medical director, and Todd Vroegop ’86 and Matt Seerveld ’89, physicians’ assistants, are three of the six-man medical team at Michigan Medical’s Center for Health Excellence, a multi-disciplinary center for the treatment of obesity and related diseases. The team performs more laproscopic gastric bypass surgeries — an average of 24 a week — than any other practice in the state. Using a procedure called “Roux-en-Y gastric bypass” they reduce the stomach to the size of an egg by stapling the major portion of it shut and attaching a smaller stomach pouch to the intestine five feet past the usual juncture. Because their smaller stomachs hold much less and their shorter intestines absorb less, patients lose weight.

As radical as it is, bariatric surgery is less dangerous than a hip replacement. Leaks developing at the staple line — leaks that can lead to abscesses and internal infections — have been the surgery’s major complication, until Baker began to ask questions about the procedures he was taught to use.

Though only about one percent of patients who underwent bariatric surgery through the Center for Health Excellence developed staple-line leaks — compared to a national rate of two to six percent — Baker wanted to improve that. “I started to ask questions of the two major stapler companies, trying to understand the physics of our main piece of equipment in this procedure,” he said. Those questions led to over two years of studies. At first, Baker flew to Tennessee and Arizona to conduct the research, until he found his alma mater could offer him and his staff facilities equal to or better than other labs at less expense.

In the West Michigan Regional Laboratory, located on Calvin’s campus, Baker, Vroegop and Seerveld, and other Center staff experimented with different staple sizes and different ways of reinforcing the staple line — or not reinforcing it. “We found that the staple size being used by 99 percent of bariatric surgeons in this country is the wrong one,” Randy explains. Further, they discovered that if they used a goretex-like reinforcing material in combination with larger staples, the staple line became almost impervious to leaks. None of the patients on whom they’ve used this new combination has developed a staple-line leak.

The International Federation for the Surgery of Obesity recognized the breakthrough quality of this research with an award at their convention last summer in Salamanca, Spain.

Since winning the award, the team Baker leads has gone on to develop, in close collaboration with the Gore Company, a new reinforcing material that not only outperforms the old, but also is absorbed by the body once the danger of staple-line leaks is past. In June 2003 Baker became the first surgeon in the world to use the new material on a human patient. The product subsequently won the Innovation of the Year Award from the Society of Laparoendoscopic Surgeons.

Thousands of surgical patients around the world are now benefiting from the pioneering research of Baker, Vroegop and Seerveld, and the rest of the medical team at the Center for Health Excellence. That team isn’t resting, though. For inquisitive minds, advances prompt new questions — and that means new research is in the works.