Reporter Jessica Belasco and photographer Lisa Krantz spent four years documenting the life of a morbidly obese man for the San Antonio Express-News. Last month, the task culminated in a lavishly-illustrated story after Hector Garcia, the subject of the story, died at age 49.
Always big, Garcia was treated as “less-than” by school bullies and grew up angry that while other groups are protected by a requirement for politically correct speech, the overweight and obese are still fair game for ridicule. Food was first a friend, then a crutch, during years when, according to Garcia, he didn’t know he was destroying himself. In his thirties he weighed more than 600 pounds, and belonged to the 6.3 percent of the American population known as severely obese. At some point he realized:
Even though the act of eating was enjoyable, the result was incredibly disastrous for me, and it made me unhappy.
He had gastric bypass surgery and lost hundreds of pounds, but reverted to his lifelong ways and gained all the weight back. He never fell victim to high blood pressure or diabetes, but suffered from arthritis, asthma, sleep apnea, and cellulitis. Unable to cope on his own, he moved back into his parents’ house. The weight had bowed his legs, and he tottered around on terribly damaged knees.
In order to qualify for knee replacement surgery, he decided to try weight loss again, this time with diet and exercise. He found a public swimming pool in which to walk and do other movements in the water, but getting out of the pool was such a strenuous, awkward, and humiliating performance that he almost gave up. Fortunately there was another pool with easier access. Eventually he shed more than 350 pounds.
But complications turned the expected two surgical procedures into four operations, and the year of enforced immobility and joint rehabilitation led to weight gain that brought him back near the 600-pound mark again. In addition to all the other physical, psychological, and social problems, he began to experience COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, as the fat kept his lungs from being able to obtain enough air. He described the sensation as similar to drowning, “a whole new level of helplessness.”
In the News
Now middle-aged and immovably ensconced in his parents’ home, Hector Garcia spoke of his room as a prison, and talked about how he was metaphorically chained to his chair. But the outside world was a cruel place where people looked down on him and laughed. He totally admitted to abusing food:
The first opinion people have of me is, ‘he’s fat and he’s undisciplined,’ and while that may be true, that doesn’t make me a bad person … If I had to paint you a picture of my life, it would be of a little kid behind the glass of a store, with his hands pressed up against the glass looking at the world go by.
He was in fact writing a memoir called “Life Behind the Glass.” Describing himself as lonely, solitary, and “the worse-case scenario,” he told the journalist-photographer team that he never remembered being truly happy in his entire life. Talking to the press, he hit all the notes:
Unfortunately, I can’t stop cold turkey. An alcoholic stops alcohol completely, drug addict same thing. I can never stop eating. I always have to have a little bit of that thing that I’m addicted to. That’s what makes it so hard.
Yes, hard. Very, very hard. But not impossible, especially for a patient who had twice managed to reduce his bulk to less than 300 pounds. In preparation for the knee surgery, he had attained a svelte 260. So he knew it was do-able, but apparently, even among all the misery, physical and mental pain, and forced dependence, he could not find the motivation to save his life. He went on record stating:
I know there’s no tomorrow for me. Failure means death for me.
This dramatic language is perhaps more suited to a soldier in the face of battle. Undeniably it takes enormous courage and almost superhuman feats of self-governance to overcome a set of lifelong, ingrained habits. But the expression of these sentiments in such a self-conscious and, some might say, self-pitying way, could raise the hackles of grown-up bullies who lack the compassion Hector Garcia sought. It could certainly rouse some merciless criticism to hear him call himself, “a knight in shining armor, except they don’t make it in my size.”
How do we, as a society, prevent today’s 5-year-olds and 12-year-olds from growing up into replicas of Hector Garcia?
Your responses and feedback are welcome!
Source: “A Life Apart: The Toll of Obesity,” expressnews.com, 12/27/14
Image by Nan Palmero