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Comfortable in her own skin


When Rachael Santillan, 45, made the decision to have weight loss surgery five years ago, it was a matter of her health and not being able to perform at her job like she envisioned when she had first become a photographer.

“My decision was made when I was on top of a mountain in Africa, huffing and puffing. I had struggled to get there, and as a photographer I had to lose the weight. I promised myself when I got back home that I would do it,” said Santillan.

She had gastric sleeve surgery in 2017, taking her from 255 pounds to 160. Her weight loss was invigorating, but she soon developed a secondary issue with leftover excess skin.

“When you lose weight rapidly, you have loose skin. No matter how much you exercise, it will not go back,” said Santillan.

Santillan said after having two children and being overweight for 20 years, the extra skin was already an issue. However, the weight loss, mostly in her stomach area, produced excess skin that prohibited her from wearing the clothes she wanted. The clothes that she had looked forward to wearing after the weight came off.

“The waistband of my pants was really uncomfortable,” said Santillan.

All of the progress she had made to be at a lesser weight seemed to stall when it came to shopping and finding clothes to fit.

“I felt so good to be thinner, but I still couldn’t wear the clothes that I had looked forward to wearing after the weight came off,” said Santillan.

She started researching options for skin removal and plastic surgery when she found the Cape Fear Valley Plastic Surgery office.

“He had just opened his practice, and I think I was one of his first clients,” said Santillan.

Dr. Leif Nordberg, 54, arrived in Fayetteville two and a half years ago from Connecticut.

“We started with breast cancer reconstruction before setting up the practice for body contouring from weight loss,” said Nordberg.

Santillan said she considered a lot of possibilities while looking at “before” and “after” photos.

“It’s a little funny, but I really looked at belly buttons. If someone can’t aesthetically put a belly button on, what else can’t they do?” mused Santillan.

She said she also was concerned with rare side effects such as skin necrosis, which is a complication where the skin dies, creating a hole, or even surgeons leaving suture marks.

A trend in plastic surgery is going to another country to have procedures, but Santillan said she quickly ruled that option out.

“I love the fact that he’s right here. He’s local. He’s a phone call or a visit away,” said Santillan.

Nordberg said that he has seen dangerous results with patients who have visited him after bad experiences.

“We see a lot of complications and disasters from patients going out of the country. It’s really frightening,” said Nordberg.

“It’s key that your surgeon is nearby to check on you. We follow our patients and take care of them afterward. It’s critical to a successful outcome.”

That was reassuring to Santillan, who had five pounds of skin removed in early 2021. And for Santillan, it changed her world. In her professional career, she has been able to do things that she wanted to do all along before the weight crept on.

“I feel like in my job, I’m much more confident. I can do anything that my job requires,” said Santillan. “It just feels really good. All my previous joint pain is gone.”

The skin removal and body contouring also have given her the confidence to step out of her former comfort zone to wear new bathing suits and try new hairstyles.

“I wore a two-piece this summer to the beach, which I never thought would be possible. This year, my tummy was showing. It saw the light of day. It’s nice,” said Santillan.

She also said that she is growing her hair out for the first time in years.

“When I was bigger, I had a signature bob, but I can have long hair now. The bob just looked better with my round face, and now I’m trying something new,” said Santillan.

Nordberg said that Santillan’s results are exactly what he hopes for with each of his patients.

“With the weight loss, patients feel healthier, look great, come off various medicines and take steps forward. We are the last leg in their journey,” said Nordberg.

He said he averages 20 to 40 new patients a month for procedures including skin removal. He said that one of their most common surgeries is abdominal contouring along with excess skin removal and a tummy tuck.

“But everyone is a bit different. Everything is a la carte style, tailored to your body,” said Nordberg.

Nordberg said that one of the first steps is a direct consultation with his office to determine a course of action.

“We get to understand the patient’s desires and wants. We can look at the body with 360-degree improvements in mind including addressing rolls on the back, which we call bra fat, or even the flank right above the butt. We’ve had really great results with mommy makeovers, which usually include a breast lift, taking in at the waist with a tummy tuck,” said Nordberg.

Nordberg also talks about recovery in the consultation, which he says is vital to discuss upfront.

“There is a lot of education, which is important for a good outcome,” said Nordberg.

Afterward, he offers a recommendation, and the patient undergoes medical evaluation testing to make sure they are healthy enough for the surgery.

“Once our patients have had their pre-op visit and everything comes back satisfactory, we plan a date for surgery. Then there is an aftercare and recovery stage,” said Nordberg.

Nordberg said he has a handpicked staff, who develop relationships with patients for the greatest outcomes and are available to answer any questions during the post-op stage.

“Our staff truly cheerlead for the best result. It’s a team effort and important for our office to be available. Our patients know they can get a callback or be seen. The greatest benefit for patients is that the team is local,” said Nordberg.

Santillan agreed. “They have the most attentive staff.”

And for Santillan, the careful attention from beginning to end from the local office was exactly what she was looking for along with the result of a healthy, fit body.

“I just feel so much more comfortable in my skin and so much healthier,” said Santillan, “because that’s what it really was about for me.”

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