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Rodney Williams dreams the nearly impossible dream of going to the 7-Eleven for a cup of coffee. “I miss that,” he says, reminiscing about traveling the five blocks from his home for the day’s simple pleasure.
But now, Williams can’t go the distance. The 45-year-old man is restricted to a bed in the living room of the two-bedroom duplex on Texas Avenue SE he shares with his wife of 21 years, Roberta, and their four children—Rachel, Rene, Nicole, and Raymond. He is trapped inside four walls plastered with handmade cards sent by his daughters—“Happy Father’s Day, from Rachel”—and a large painting of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. by his son Raymond. An unshaded lamp provides the primary source of light, although snatches of daylight steal through an open front door. That slivered view offers Williams his only encounter with the outside world—the postman making a delivery, the next-door neighbor leaving for work, children skipping rope on the sidewalk.
Williams props himself up with a mound of pillows; another three or four support his left arm. He spends most of his days staring at a 25-inch color television. Sometimes he plays Nintendo.
“I don’t even have as much room as a prisoner,” he says. “When I’m happy, I’m here. When I’m sad, I’m here. When I have to go to the bathroom, I’m here.”
Williams is prisoner of his weight—all 500 pounds.
“If I’m thirsty, I have to ask somebody to bring me a glass of water. I hate that. I’m a pretty independent person. Every day a little more of me is eaten up,” Williams explains. “Everybody looks at me and says, “He’s just fat.’ ”
If he were anorexic, Williams complains, he would be the object of sympathy and someone would help him find medical attention. “But if you’re overweight or suffer with obesity, people say you shouldn’t eat so much—push away from the table. So there’s no concern. There is an array of complications associated with being morbidly obese.”
A beached whale, Williams wants to swim life’s currents again. But without assistance from a couple of strong people, he can’t even maneuver his one-quarter-ton to a wheelchair. Most of the time, the wheelchair languishes near the threshold between the living room and kitchen. Moving his bulk around in his bed is a job in itself. He currently depends on two frayed drapery cords, jury-rigged to each side of his bed, to help him flip his mass from side to side.
An adjustable, hospital-style bed with braces and overhead bars would make life easier. That, combined with body-building weights to strengthen his upper torso, could make it easier for him to propel himself into the wheelchair, and secure the modicum of freedom he desperately seeks.
“Right now, I have one weight somebody gave me,” Williams adds, displaying an egg-shaped object he often squeezes. “It really helps strengthen my hands, my wrist and forearm.
“But that’s not enough,” he admits.
Williams was a big haul—200 pounds on a 6-foot-1-inch frame—even in his early 20s. But he didn’t consider himself fat, and his weight problems didn’t begin until after he injured his knee in 1987 while on the job, working as a manager for the New York Times home delivery service for the District, Maryland, and Virginia.
“I broke the kneecap, tore the ligament and cartilage. Then I started having problems with blood clotting in my legs. My legs got worse to the point I couldn’t get around,” remembers Williams. “I tried to get a doctor to come out to take a look at me, but I was limited to the doctors I could go to because I was on workman’s compensation [insurance]. Besides, I think they didn’t really give a damn; I had the wrong address and basically the wrong color.”
Williams’ self-image was that of a macho sportsman. He bowled on two league teams and played basketball on another. He boasted award-winning skills as a fisherman. He worked seven days a week, sometimes up to 17 hours. But he wasn’t the same after the accident: He never returned to work, and swung himself around on crutches. By 1990, his mobility had substantially decreased. There was no denying the big man was turning chubby.
Most people would have taken notice of the ballooning gut. Perhaps they would have skipped a meal or added another 15 minutes of exercise to their daily workout. Not Williams; he maintained his normal diet, which had been dictated by a more rigorous physical schedule.
Medical reality crashed in on Williams in 1992 when his circulatory problems resulted in a leg infection and required emergency surgery. The incision the doctors made was large enough to fit the average size forearm into. Despite post-surgery therapy, Williams became totally immobile; his knees rejected the load they were asked to carry. Bad became worse, and the transformation into the 500-pound man was complete. Unable to escape his image, Williams surveyed the man he had become—tree-trunk neck and legs. He stopped shoveling food.
“It was a living nightmare,” he says. “I felt I was becoming an embarrassment to my wife and kids.”
His funk descended into depression. “I was used to being this very active person….I got to a point I wouldn’t look in the mirror or take a picture. It was taboo. It made me more depressed. It made me realize how much I needed the help I couldn’t get,” he adds.
Williams credits wife Roberta with forcing him to realize “the man in the man is me.”
“It’s not how you look. It’s who you are; I could be 500 pounds or 50 pounds and still be a jerk,” he laughs. “I have to thank God for my wife, because some women would have left by now.”
Although some would be repulsed by Williams’ physical condition, Roberta looks forward to the special time she and her husband spend together on Saturdays.
“You ask the kids about Saturdays, they’ll tell you, “That’s mommy and daddy’s day,’ ” says Rodney Williams. “And once or twice a month, we have romantic dinners….It may be harder, but it’s not impossible.”
A demure woman in her 40s, Roberta Williams works as a beautician, but she also has become her husband’s unofficial nurse. She’d like to be his unofficial nutritionist, too, and hopes that she can learn to prepare low-calorie, low-fat meals for him. Neither of the Williamses wants a handout; they simply want to be taught and will take things from there.
Dr. Terrence Fullum saved Williams’ leg in 1992, and since then he’s been trying to save Williams’ life. The fat man’s determination and desperate medical condition have inspired Fullum when other medical experts turned their backs.
“I’m embarrassed I can’t get anyone in my profession to do the right thing,”says Dr. Fullum, a surgeon in private practice, who for the past year has been trying to bully the local hospital that has obesity expertise, the National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH), into accepting Williams as a charity patient.
Medicare doesn’t cover obesity treatment unless it is causing other directly life-endangering conditions like heart disease and diabetes, which are often related to being overweight.
Fullum says Williams’ body shows signs of strain: His heart already is starting to enlarge, he has diabetes, and there is danger he could develop problems with his kidneys because he is retaining water.
NRH’s reluctance to take on Williams is prompted by racism, says Fullum. The hospital staff “didn’t even touch him,” and Dr. Stephen Wills, chairman of admissions, “hasn’t even seen Rodney.”
“If he were white, they would have already taken him,” adds Dr. Fullum. “He’s running out of time. If he doesn’t get help, I know over the next three years he’s going to die.”
Officials at the NRH reject Fullum’s broadside: “One need only look at the racial composition of our patient population and hospital staff to see that such a charge is totally without basis,” Dr. Richard S. Materson, senior vice president for medical affairs, said in a prepared statement.
“The goal of weight loss alone is not an acceptable medical criteria for admission into any rehabilitation hospital,” he adds.
If color isn’t the obstacle, money shouldn’t be either, says Councilmember Kevin Chavous, who along with Dr. Fullum hopes to create a special foundation to fund the medical care Williams needs.
It’s a matter of interest and willingness by the medical profession to come to the aid of a “very decent person,” says Chavous, in whose Ward 7 Williams lives.
“If we can’t help Rodney Williams, then there is something terribly wrong with the system,” he adds.
Williams remains undaunted, although his voice hints of fatigue. At the top of his mind is Walter Hudson, a Chicago man who weighed nearly half a ton. Comedian, activist, and health food advocate Dick Gregory came to Hudson’s aid, helping him to lose more than 300 pounds. But the pounds soon returned and Hudson eventually died at 46.
“I have nightmares about Walter all the time,” says Williams. “I’m too young to be down for the count. I have goals, hopes, dreams, desire, I want to get back to where I was before I got like this.”