Patrick Deuel, 47, has struggled with weight issues all his life, but by the time Discovery Health featured him in a documentary special in 2005 he was tipping the scales at 1,072 lbs. Living in Valentine, Nebraska at the time he had not left his room in seven months, or left the house in seven years. His wife Edie claims that she fed Patrick his favorite foods because he loved him, and that she hadn’t “realized how bad it had gotten.” In the documentary Patrick tells the camera that he if something he wants is denied, he’ll “rip you to shreds.” This type of demand for and constant supply of food caused Patrick to balloon to the startling weight that threatened his life.
In 2005, when the documentary was filmed, Patrick’s health was deteriorating at an alarming speed. He couldn’t so much as move himself, his heart was failing, and his eyes had a dark, sunken look. He was in extreme peril and was forced to lay on his stomach to prevent his organs from being crushed. His skin was oozing pus from unhealed sores, and the stress his body was under meant death was imminent.
The Discovery Health documentary, which reached over 5 million viewers, chronicled the drastic measures needed to get Deuel out of his house. His bedroom wall was knocked down, and a special ambulance was needed to transport him to Avera McKennan Hospital in South Dakota where he received the gastric bypass surgery. After the surgery Deuel shed half of his weight, though he didn’t completely stick to the diet as planned. His wife still fed him the fatty, sugary, and salty foods he craved, though presumably less of them, while he stayed in a obesity recovery clinic for a year.
Success and setbacks
After returning home Deuel continued losing weight, but after hitting a low weight of 370 lbs, he started gaining again. Never one to stick to doctor’s orders he refused to quit smoking or to cut out unhealthy foods altogether. By 2007 he was already back at 560 lbs, but still grateful to be able to get around and move despite having diabetes and congestive heart failure. Throughout his ordeal Deuel has insisted that genetics is to blame for his enormous weight struggles, while snacking on cheese cubes and chips and lunching on buckets of KFC.
PATRICK: I decided to tell my story in public to get three specific messages out. First, to the insurance companies, I would like to say that weight in excess of 100 lbs plus overweight is NOT COSMETIC, as they tried to tell me for the 42 years I was so overweight.
And not all weight problems are just some fat guy or gal overeating either. Genetics play a great big part of weight problems, and the problem is global and spreading. Insurance companies have to recognize that morbid obesity is a DISEASE that needs TREATMENT, and should definitely be covered by insurance. My weight problem would not have become so severe if the insurance companies like Medicare and Medicaid would have listened to me when I told them my weight was life threatening.
The second point is the medical profession’s treatment of morbidly obese people. They are greatly ignored by the bulk of general practitioners and specialists other than bariatric experts and surgeons. There was not one hospital in Nebraska that would take me because of liability issues because their facilities were inadequate to ensure my safety. At least one hospital in every state should have a bariatric specialty unit in place in order to handle the morbidly obese patient.
The third and last message is about transportation for the morbidly obese. I was transported from Valentine, Nebraska to Sioux Falls, South Dakota in a Bariatric Ambulance. They are wider, and have a wench in them to pull up the patient into the ambulance. There are only 6 of these ambulances in the US, spread out all over. The one I used was from Denver, Colorado. That ambulance had to wait 2 days to come and get me because of the waiting lists, and then drive over 500miles to Valentine. Then it loaded me up and drove another 250 miles to Sioux Falls. What would have happened if another morbidly obese person in Colorado would have become ill? There would have been no transportation for him/her, and they would have died. EVERY STATE NEEDS TO AND MUST HAVE A BARIATRIC AMBULANCE CENTRALLY LOCATED IN THE STATE. That way, the morbidly obese will have the opportunity to have the same kind of medical transportation as is available to the general public.
KEARNEY — Patrick Deuel hasn’t weighed 1,072 pounds for six years.
But people still know him as the “Half Ton Man.”
On June 4, 2004, he arrived at the hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D., days, perhaps hours, from death. But he survived, underwent gastric bypass surgery and shed pounds by the hundreds, dropping to 370 by 2006.
Getting smaller made him big.
Newspapers and TV news stations chronicled his story, which led to an agent, documentary films and rumors that Oprah might book him. Deuel seemed poised to give Jared Fogel, America’s most famous sandwich shill, a run for his money.
Most who followed his story wanted to write an ending something like this: “Patrick Deuel makes most of a second chance, eats healthily, exercises regularly and earns a fortune as inspirational speaker.”
Deuel’s story is still unfolding. But the past six years sure haven’t been Hollywood.
A resident of Valentine when he gained notoriety, today Deuel lives in Kearney with Edie, his wife of 15 years. She works at Cabela’s. He mostly spends his days on the Internet.
He’s not an inspirational speaker.
He’s still on disability.
He weighs something more than 500 pounds right now. He says he’s not sure because he hasn’t stepped on a scale for a long time.
It’s the bottom line so many people hold for Deuel that rubs him like 80-grit sandpaper under the eyelids. He resents being reduced to a number, being judged solely on a measurement. In a nation where nearly seven out of 10 adults are medically overweight or obese, chances are the judges aren’t standing in front of the mirror when they pass judgment.
“I really don’t pay that much attention to my weight,” he says. “If I have been able to go out and do what I want to do, I’m where I want to be.”
But his weight, after all, is part of his identity.
Born and raised in Grand Island, Deuel was always heavy. Schoolyard taunts motivated him to try a variety of diets, but the pounds never stayed off for long.
A back injury suffered at a restaurant job led to disability, Social Security and food stamps. And he grew increasingly inactive, which led him to pass 600, then 700 pounds.
And then, a series of severe tooth infections resulted in super obesity, he says. The infections, in 2003 and 2004, sapped his strength and left him bedridden. Edema — abnormal, watery swelling within tissues — nearly exploded his body, stretching his skin so tight it tore if Edie touched her husband wrong.
His was shutting down. He was dying.
His family physician in Valentine couldn’t find a hospital to take him. Either it lacked the specialized skill necessary to treat such a unique patient, or it simply was unwilling to hemorrhage red ink for a man who likely wouldn’t live anyway.
And that’s when Fred Harris, a bariatric specialist at Avera McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D., agreed to treat Deuel.
Rescue workers cut into a wall in Deuel’s Valentine townhouse to get him out and into a special ambulance. After arriving at the hospital, medical treatment, which included a special diet, alleviated the edema and rapidly dropped his weight.
Then Harris performed the gastric bypass, which created a new stomach in Deuel, more like a pouch, about the size of a thumb.
When Deuel returned to Valentine in January 2005, he weighed about 600 pounds.
Immediately, he resumed bad habits.
While his calorie intake was restricted to about 1,200 per day in the hospital, he soon was consuming double that at home. He opted for higher fat, higher calorie options rather than the low-fat, high-protein foods recommended by Harris.
And even worse, he started smoking cigarettes again.
Despite straying from the carefully scripted regimen prescribed by Harris, Deuel continued to lose weight. He got a big boost in March 2006 when Harris removed an 81-pound sheath of flabby, loose skin that hung from his waist to his knees. Almost overnight, he could move with much less effort.
“I made the comment to Edie, ‘I hadn’t realized walking could be so easy.’”
The movie script seemed to be writing itself. In fact, Deuel found all he had to do was play himself in a couple of documentaries, including one titled “Half Ton Man,” which continues to air on cable from time to time.
They were paid a flat fee, Deuel says. He wishes he would have negotiated for royalties.
By his own definition of wellness, Deuel was doing well. He took walks with Edie regularly. He could drive again, which he did all the way from Valentine to northeast South Dakota to go on a fishing trip. And for the first time in years, he attended family gatherings on special occasions, which pleased his wife to no end.
He even bought a bike. And he surprised his parents by riding along their street in Grand Island after Edie had gotten them out onto their front porch under another pretense.
“My dad said, ‘Hey kid, you got a license to run that thing kid?’” Deuel says, throwing back his head in laughter.
“That was pretty neat,” Edie says.
But the pinnacle experience of the new Patrick Deuel occurred on Nov. 4, 2006, when he attended the Nebraska-Missouri football game at Memorial Stadium. To sit on a bleacher and cheer his beloved Huskers was a dream former Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly had revealed to the nation back when such a possibility seemed very remote.
But it couldn’t last.
Life just isn’t perfect, and neither is Deuel.
Last week, he sat on a folding chair next to the sliding door of his Kearney apartment. He wore a green T-shirt that didn’t quite fit adequately and a pair of sweatpants. His lap looked like he had stuffed two lumpy pillows underneath the sweats.
He opened the door, flicked a lighter and blew smoke outside. He says he knows he needs to quit and he’s quick to point out a single pack lasts him several days. He’s experimenting with an electronic cigarette to try to cut down further.
While he’s counting cigarettes, the same can’t be said for calories. He says he’s more aware of what’s good and what’s bad for him, but he eats more than he did when he first got the smaller stomach.
“I know I’ve stretched mine out to a certain point,” he says. “I don’t eat as much as I used to, but I probably eat more than a gastric bypass patient should.”
Over the past year, he has suffered from frequent infections in the surgical mesh imbedded in his midsection. Just like his abscessed teeth, the infections robbed him of energy.
His left knee hurts constantly, as does his right shoulder. And recently, his hip locked up on him while he was walking from the bedroom to the living room. It hurt so badly, he says, it took him 20 minutes to hobble eight or 10 feet to a chair.
“Right now, I couldn’t ride (a bike) if I wanted to,” he says.
He can still walk around the apartment, but he’s practically homebound. He hasn’t been to physical therapy in a year. All of which conjures very bad memories of his past surreal weight gain.
Harris, the Sioux Falls surgeon, has retired. So the Deuels have made an appointment with a bariatric specialist in Lincoln. They hope he can cure the infections. If so, they believe Deuel will get his energy back and can resume higher levels of activity.
But they’re not sure what, if anything, his Medicare and Medicaid will cover.
Deuel once hoped to achieve a target weight of 240 pounds. There is no target anymore. But that doesn’t mean he can’t have a quality life, Edie says, as she describes the story ending she would write.
“I would like him to be able to do what he wants to do, go where he wants to go and be the person who he is,” she says.
Some look at what Patrick Deuel is and feel inspired. In him, they see their own struggles. And they admire his unapologetic honesty.
Others feel disgust. His wounds, they believe, are purely self-inflicted, while they help pay for fix after fix.
Deuel appreciates the supporters and pays little mind to the critics.
Because however it ends, the story is his.
“When it comes down to it, it’s my life to live.”