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Jeff Mitchell hasn’t left his house in nearly three years and is an extreme example of the debilitating effects of obesity.
STEPHANIE KLEIN-DAVIS | The Roanoke Times
Jeff Mitchell, who weighs about 600 pounds, rarely leaves his bedroom and barely leaves his heavy-duty hospital-style bed.
STEPHANIE KLEIN-DAVIS | The Roanoke Times
Jeff Mitchell, 50, and his wife, Sherri, 44, are together around the clock because Jeff weighs 600 pounds and needs her care. They’ve been married 17 years. “Being married, you love each other no matter what,” he says.
Wednesday, April 17, 2013
For breakfast Tuesday, Jeff Mitchell had an egg and some turkey bacon on whole wheat. For lunch he had a cereal-sized bowl of chicken, broccoli and rice casserole — leftovers from Monday. Dinner was baked pork chops and steamed vegetables. His night-time snack was popcorn.
As diets go, it doesn’t seem particularly unhealthy. But Mitchell is. “Fat” is a manifestly inept word to describe him. He’s morbidly obese. Mitchell, 50, weighs about 600 pounds.
He’s an extreme example of the debilitating effects of obesity, a dominant health issue in America. Believe me, you do not want to end up like this guy. He has no quality of life. He can barely do anything for himself.
Except for a two-week hospital stay two years ago when he suffered from kidney failure, Mitchell hasn’t left his house in nearly three years. Even then, an ambulance crew had to squeeze him through the door.
His wardrobe consists of two shirts that don’t fit him well and a couple of pairs of supersized shorts that are uncomfortable, too. Most of the time he wears a huge hospital smock.
Mitchell rarely leaves his bedroom. He barely leaves his heavy-duty hospital-style bed. His wife, Sherri, 44, and son, Jedediah, 9, wait on him. Just sitting up on the edge of his bed is a major effort that leaves him panting.
When I visited his Stewartsville home Tuesday, he was in the middle of a session with a physical therapist who comes to his house twice a week. In bed, he did 15 abdominal crunches and lifted each of his massive legs 20 times. He needed oxygen to recover from the effort.
“He’s been working on trying to improve mobility,” said Mandy Church, the physical therapist. “He’s been able to walk a few times to the end of the hall. His main goal is he wants a life change.”
There are many challenges, though, all caused or worsened by Mitchell’s obesity. One is an irregular heartbeat. Another is chronic bronchitis.
A third is lymphedema — a massive amount of fluid his body can’t eliminate that’s accumulated on Mitchell’s swollen and blistered left hip. He says it’s 5 gallons’ worth and it looks like it. There’s less on his right hip.
He suffers from sleep apnea, so he uses a breathing machine. He has open sores that heal slowly and come back. He’s way too fat to be considered for stomach-stapling or some other weight-loss surgery.
How did he get this way? How could he have let himself go so badly? Mitchell admits he’s ashamed of his condition. He blames nobody but himself. He did the eating, starting at an early age.
He’s said he’s the youngest of nine siblings and half-siblings, of an alcoholic mother who was married six times and moved around a lot, and a father who was married four times. His dad died when Mitchell was 13. For most of his life he and his mother had a tortured relationship.
He theorizes he used food to escape the emotional pain of his father’s passing, his mother’s mistreatment, and the unexpected death of his first wife in a 1984 auto accident four months after they married.
Mitchell suffered an on-the-job knee injury at a foundry in 1984 when he fell through a floor. Despite surgery, his knee worsened over the years to the point where he couldn’t work after 1996. He’s been disabled ever since.
The family lives on Social Security disability payments, plus $250 a month in food stamps. Sherri, a former postal worker, quit her job to take care of him.
In the 1990s, Mitchell made a little money with a pet-finding database he established called “Lost Paws.” This newspaper did a couple of stories about the service. But it was a sit-down job that didn’t help his weight.
In the past, he’s lost 100 pounds here and 100 pounds there, through low-carbohydrate diets. But “every time I’d lose 100, I’d gain 140,” he told me.
Mitchell mended fences with his mother after his son’s birth. But when she died two years ago, at 77, “I wasn’t able to get to the funeral. So you know what they did? They brought my mom’s body out here. And they opened the casket in the front yard so I could say goodbye to her.”
Recently he had an epiphany, and that’s why he’s talking about his weight. Mitchell knows it’ll expose him to ridicule, but he doesn’t care. He’s staring into a future that looks short and bleak. He wants to stay alive for his son, Jed.
“If I can just go fishing, I want to take my son fishing. I want to take him out in the woods and show him nature. … I want to march up and down the creek banks like I used to,” he said. “This is not the legacy I want to leave my son.”
He wants to live past Jed’s 13th birthday, like Mitchell’s dad did not. For that to happen, he will have to lose a massive amount of weight.
He and Sherri have found a rehab center and nursing home in northern Ohio that specializes in treating people who weigh more than 500 pounds. Medicare and Medicaid, the family’s health insurance, would cover his treatment there, which he says would last from six months to a year or longer. He swears he’ll be their star weight-loss patient of all time.
But Medicaid and Medicare won’t cover his transportation to the place — it’s 459 miles away. Mitchell can’t hop in a car for the nine-hour drive there. He can’t fit in one.
He needs transportation by a specialized bariatric bus — it looks like a large recreational vehicle with an electric lift. The quote he got from a Florida-based company that operates the service is $6,500, and the Mitchells don’t have the money.
He and Sherri have set up fundraising mechanism with a online company called FundRazr.com. So far, friends and relatives have chipped in more than $1,200.
The contributions aren’t tax-deductible. Mitchell says if they don’t reach their goal they’ll return contributions, less a 3 percent fee FundRazr charges. But there’s no mechanism that guarantees that.
Nor is there any guarantee Mitchell will live long enough to lose that weight. But he’s determined to try. He figures the rehab center in Ohio is his last chance.
“I really believe there is a God,” he told me. “I really believe God wants me there.”
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