Saturday, July 05, 2008

Half Ton Mom

*Spoiler Alert* If you haven't seen this doco yet, I'm about to spill the beans.

Has anyone not seen the documentary 'Half Ton Mom'? It is the story of the worlds heaviest woman, 29 year old Renee Williams. The program follows Renee's attempt to secure a gastric bypass operation, in spite of the fact that her 'super morbidly obese' status meant that most hospitals would not even consider her. Given less than a year to live, she finally finds a doctor willing to do the surgery which at first appears to be successful and she loses a massive amount of weight quickly (it was something like 4 stone in 12 days). If you have watched to this point, then it's a good idea to grab a box of tissues in the ad break. Twelve days after the surgery that was supposed to save her life, she develops an infection and suffers a fatal heart attack. Sad!

When I get talking with my friends about this documenatary and about the super-morbidly obese in general, it turns out that most people I know have strong opinions about the issue. The #1 knee-jerk response is usually 'how could she let herself get like that?', followed closely by #2 'but who was bringing her food?'. Ok, yes, obviously there is all of that, she wouldn't have been gaining weight on salads and lean protein but I tried to watch the program with an open mind and pay attention to what Renee was saying about her condition, how she let herself get so fat that she couldn't get out of bed. For a start, she had always been obese, but became bed-ridden after a car accident and gained so much weight that she never managed to get on her feet again. Clearly she didn't want to be obese and as she talked it became clear in my mind that, yes, this is a disease, not just physical but also mental. In the state she was in, she definitely had a physical disease. At 75 stone and bedridden, the task of losing fat would be daunting. You would have, maybe a good 25 stone to go before you could even get mobile. Losing weight while immobile would involve some major, longterm, serious calorie restriction. A huge person, bedridden, would probably have less muscle and bone mass than a fashion model and I can't imagine that their metabolic rate would exactly be humming along. So, physically, I can understand why she was saying 'I need help'.

On a mental level there seemed to be a real disconnection between what she was saying and what was being revealed by her family and friends. She acknowledged that she ate to deal with emotional pain but then went on to say that she didn't eat much at all and felt that she ate about as much as a 'normal person'. All of her family emphasised that Renee was 'very fond' of fattening food and, before she became bedbound, was able to eat six hamburgers in a single meal. She also seemed to have a strange relationship with her body. More than once she emphasised that she wasn't like other fat people, emphasising in an almost surreal fashion that she felt she still had a flat stomach. There are several shots of her saying 'I'm fat but at least I'm pretty' while touching up her immaculate makeup in a small handheld mirror. It reminded me of a program about anorexics where one of them said 'I know I'm sick but I'm not that bad, and at least I'm not fat'.

Currently, here in NZ, there has been some debate over whether or not the government should fund gastric bypass surgery and offer it as the surgical 'cure' to obesity. Many people see this as the 'easy way out' for an obese person, but I think it's a kind of brute force solution to a very complicated problem and definitely not 'easy'. I tend to think of an obese person as an addict, not very different to someone that is addicted to a 'real' drug like heroin. The problem is that a drug addict can be put into rehab, detoxed and hopefully taught some life skills to help them deal with life without their old coping mechanism. An obese person would have trouble getting anything other than advice to 'eat less and exercise more'. A drug addict may also appear normal, possibly even attractive. An obese person wears their problem out there for all the world to see and I think that the world in general has a problem with seeing a persons weakness. It's ok to be disfunctional, but you must appear normal, or at least endearingly abnormal if you can pull it off. I can imagine that a fat person, after the gastric bypass, still has their same issues, their same problems but now they have a much smaller stomach. Even if you survive the surgery and get thin, it seems to miss the point. After all the years of research into obesity, is this really the best we have to offer? Didn't anyone understand the real message of the Otago University 'Relaxtion not Diets' study? Yes, it's about what we eat and how we exercise, but that's not the whole story. Sometimes I think that society is about to give up and form a new tradition of gifting a gastric bypass on the 21st birthday, 'welcome to adulthood, your cake eating days are now over'.

As sad as the Half Ton Mom documentary was, it did have one spark of hope in the form of Renee's older daughter Mirina, whom is 13 going on 35. This remarkable and smart girl had been heading toward obesity herself and was consistently told by her family that it was a genetic problem and there was nothing she could do about it. She wasn't buying into that. She devised a system of avoiding junkfood and playing outside with her sister and is now an apparently normal (and way too mature) teenager. It's very sad that she lost her mum, but she is out there spreading the message that a healthy lifestyle needs to start early and from this it seems that the legacy of the heaviest woman in history might end on a positive note after all.


  1. I too saw this Docomentary, and was gutted when she died. So sad for her and her famly. Good post

  2. Anonymous1:03 pm

    her daughter was smoking hot

  3. Anonymous10:37 am

    You still do not address the issue of who is providing the food. If she was immobile - then that should have been the opportunity for her keeper to feed her healthy food! A little over ten years ago in California there was a young girl 13 or 14 who tipped the scale at about 400lbs; she was so large that she could not even get up to use the rest room and was found sitting in her own fecal and urine waste. The courts pressed child endangerment charges on the mother for feeding the girl, even though the mother had tried to get the child medical help. The same should go for anyone who contributes to the obesity of these ginormus people!

  4. I am re-watching her special on TLC. She is in total denial and that is the problem with most of obese people (or people with addictions, anorexia, bulimia, etc). She stated she didnt smell, that she didnt eat all the time, that she could move fine. As you watch the show half-way through her cook, children and close family ALL testified on how compulsively and abunduntly she ate. They also stated her sores were unsanitary and smelly. She was bed ridden for 4 years and had everything handed to her. She gained 400lbs in 4 yrs for lack of mobility. To top it all out she was referring to her as overweight... Everything about her was complete denial. I surely hope that hospital and doctors had this woman signed all kinds of affidavits and retainers because I could not see her surviving this. People who allow themselves to become fat-monsters must do some homework before undergoing surgery or the easy way out.

  5. Anonymous2:22 pm

    I work in a hospital and must say that bariatric surgery IS NOT the 'easy' way out. They have to undergo intensive physical and psychological testing, then have to go (ironically) on a strict diet to get in the best nutritional condition possible.
    Secondly, I've seen people REGAIN weight even after a gastric by-pass. There is a multitude of possible complications from this type of surgery and it is a life long commitment on the part of the patient.
    In as far as how and why people continue to bring the super obese food, they are guilt-ed, cajoled, begged to be brought food,and generally made to feel responsible for the person's happiness. Unfortunately, that 'happiness' is related to the food brought to them....It's sad, really. Everyone ends of being a victim.

    1. I agree, and it's interesting to get an insider's view. It is very hard to say 'no' to an addict. Their addiction/habit controls their behaviour and they can be unbelievably manipulative and deceptive.
      I also knew someone that regained with a gastric band, simply by not following the diet.


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