INDIALANTIC — Fred Riley guesses that he weighed 750 pounds at his heaviest, unhealthiest point. But that's just an estimate: The scale built into his hospital bed only measured objects up to 700 pounds.
The morbidly obese Indiana resident with congestive heart failure spent a decade laying on a jumbo leather recliner, wearing a black size-10XL shirt and using an oxygen tank to breathe.
And he says he was addicted to food, devouring about 8,000 calories per day. His food consumption skyrocketed to a whopping 20,000 calories during weekly "binge days" such as this:
Breakfast: Four McDonald's Quarter Pounder with Cheese supersize meals.
Lunch: One Pizza Hut extra-large pizza.
Dinner: Two KFC four-piece dinners.
Snack: One family-sized bag of potato chips, among other items.
"Most super-morbidly obese people have something traumatic that happened in their past," Riley said during an interview this week, chatting beneath the pier gazebo at Ernest Kouwen-Hoven Riverside Park. "It's just like a vicious cycle. The more bad things happen to you, the more you can turn to food."
In a drastic physical and mental metamorphosis, Riley no longer resembles the morbidly obese man in his past photographs. Spurred by sorrow, shame and anger after the July 2014 death of his sister, he has lost 500 pounds and launched a rebooted life in Indialantic. The 54-year-old is attending college full-time in hopes of becoming a nurse.
"He's very inspirational. He came here with multiple diseases, including diabetes and hypertension and high cholesterol. He changed his life completely,” said Riley’s doctor, Eduardo Nevarez, a Health First family practice physician.
“He was able to reverse all of his medical problems — now, he's off of all of those medications. I'm very impressed by that, but I'm more impressed by how he's changed his life. He was not working. He was basically disabled. Now, he's highly motivated. He's exercising on a regular basis. And he's just all positive,” Nevarez said.
“In all honesty, I deal with a lot of people and I have a lot of people losing weight, but I've never seen a story so impressive as his."
Abused as a child
Riley was raised in La Crosse, a rural northwest Indiana town of 537 residents. He said he was sexually abused by babysitters at ages 4 and 5, and his mother — who gave birth to him at age 12 — spanked him until he denied that the molestation occurred.
She remarried when Riley was 11, and he said his stepfather physically and emotionally abused him.
"I think I started using food as a way to protect myself, to make myself look as less sexually attractive as possible. Food was something I could control," Riley said.
"It's emotional eating. It's comfort. It tastes good. It satisfies some of the really deep emotional problems that you grow up with. And so the weight just slowly goes up,” he said.
Bullied and tormented by fellow students, Riley weighed 375 to 400 pounds by the time he graduated high school.
Binge eating disorder is three to four times more common in obese people who were sexually abused as children, reports the Obesity Action Coalition, a national nonprofit based in Tampa. These childhood victims may compulsively eat to manage depression, poor self-esteem, poor body image, impulsive behavior and drug abuse.
"I've worked with a lot of individuals throughout my career — in fact, mostly women — that have told me that at one point in their life, they were sexually abused. They felt that if they put the weight on, no one would ever want to hurt them or touch them again. It's so much more than overeating,” said James Zervios, spokesman for the Obesity Action Coalition.
"It's sad sometimes, because I think we as a society look at people that are dealing with obesity and we just assume that, 'You must be that size because you ate too much.' Sometimes, we fail to realize that there are other issues at play," Zervios said.
Path to morbid obesity
Riley started working as a paperboy at 11, and he went on to work a variety of restaurant jobs ranging from busboy and dishwasher to line cook and kitchen manager. He was also production manager at the Valparaiso Vidette-Messenger.
His waistline continued increasing as years passed, until he weighed more than 700 pounds in August 2004. That's when his health figuratively and literally crashed at age 41 when he fell asleep behind the wheel and drove into a ditch. He was hospitalized, diagnosed with congestive heart failure, started using an oxygen tank to breathe, lost his driver's license, and moved into the house of his younger sister, Jackie Lincoln.
Fearing he would soon die, he fell into depression and felt overwhelmed by the burden of losing so much weight.
"So you just put it off until tomorrow. You just put it off until tomorrow, even as debilitated and helpless as I was. I was bed-bound. I couldn't get to the toilet at one point because I couldn't stand," Riley said.
"(Jackie) had to change my diaper whenever I had to go to the bathroom. Sponge-bathe me. Take care of my medicines. Feed me. I could not do any of that. We had a little table set up, and I spent my time sleeping, watching TV or playing a computer game,” he said.
“And that basically was my life for 10 years," he said.
"Yes, she enabled me. But I don't think I really gave her a choice. I could be really mean, you know? And she loved me."
The 'aha' moment kicks in
During that decade, Riley developed diabetes, hypertension and atrial fibrillation. He had to take insulin and 16 medications; neuropathy was rendering his legs and feet numb; abdominal wounds took years to heal beneath folds of flesh; and his decaying teeth were falling out.
During a 2014 medical episode, his heart began racing in his chest uncontrollably — and six volunteer firefighters had to roll him onto a heavy-duty tarp, drag him outdoors, and load him into a pickup truck for transport to the hospital. He weighed about 675 pounds.
Then on July 17, 2014, Riley’s turbulent life struck rock bottom: Jackie collapsed, stricken with Stage IV pancreatic cancer. She passed away in the hospital that night — but unlike his other relatives, Riley was physically unable to visit his sibling and longtime caregiver to tell her goodbye.
Heartbroken, he also missed her funeral and the scattering of her ashes.
"I was so selfish that I couldn't take care of my weight. That was the ‘aha moment’ for me when something clicks in you — some fundamental change happens — that makes you realize that you have to change,” Riley recalled, crying and gazing out the window at Starbucks in Indialantic.
“It made me realize that what I was doing to myself just didn't affect me. What I was doing affected all my relationships. It was making me miss out. It was making them miss out,” he said.
“I had wasted 50 years of my life, and I owed it to her sacrifice to make sure I didn't waste whatever was left of my life."
How to drop 500 pounds
"I was angry at myself for letting that happen," Riley said, and he took action. The day Jackie passed away, he weighed 650 pounds. Riley had to start caring for himself, starting with re-learning how to stand up for a few seconds at a time.
He essentially lived in bed and in a large living-room recliner, a few feet from the bathroom and a short walk to the kitchen. That’s where he would sit in a different chair and grill a chicken breast and cook a can of green beans: "That's what I ate for weeks and weeks and weeks."
Riley started used the MyFitnessPal calorie-counting app, bought a Fitbit fitness tracker, and joined Facebook weight-loss support groups, losing about 100 pounds.
In October 2014, he moved from Indiana to Melbourne to live with his sister Claudia Walker. His initial exercise routine in Brevard County consisted of walking back and forth inside her house. When he hit about 475 pounds, he finally braved her swimming pool — sitting and scooting down a series of descending steps to reach the pool bottom.
"I would get in the pool, and I would just run in place. Just run and run and run. That's all I would do. I started at five minutes, then up to 20 minutes, and then up to a half hour, and then two times a half hour a day, then four times a half hour a day," Riley said.
"I ate 1,500 calories a day, chicken and broccoli, for eight months. I never cheated. I never looked at fast food. That got me down to 350 pounds," he said.
Having lost half of his former body weight, he ditched his oxygen tank in March 2015 and underwent "gastric sleeve" bariatric surgery in August 2015. He's shed another 100 pounds since then.
'Time can be the great leveler'
Now, Riley is earning straight A's as a full-time college student: In December, he’ll finish his associate's degree from Eastern Florida State College, where he volunteers at the Melbourne Writing Center. He also starts clinicals Monday in his 135-hour Health First phlebotomy program, and he started volunteering at Palm Bay Hospital earlier this month.
"I had two doctors who gave me free care for two years until I got my (Social Security disability) benefits. So now that I'm getting healthy again, I kind of feel I have a responsibility to pay that forward. So I'm trying to get into the health field. I want to be a nurse," he said.
He weighs 250 pounds. After the semester, Riley may undergo surgery to remove roughly 50 pounds of excess skin, fix a hernia, and remove an abnormal mass from his abdomen. Long-term, he may face $100,000 in additional surgeries to repair “the ravages to my body from being morbidly obese.”
"The truth is, having the (bariatric) surgery hasn't made my life any simpler. I still get hungry. I still have to watch my diet. I still have to do the exercises. It didn’t solve my problems," he said.
Riley can no longer eat sugars without becoming sick, and he avoids pasta and rice. Instead, he sticks with proteins, vegetables and fruit, typically consuming 800 to 1,200 calories per day.
He overdid it while exercising in mid-September and his blood pressure and oxygen level plunged, briefly sending him back to the hospital. Regardless, he takes daily 2-mile walks to Ernest Kouwen-Hoven Riverside Park, and he exercises in the pool one hour per day. He suffered another setback when he fell and injured his knee while cleaning up Hurricane Matthew yard debris, but he hopes to resume exercise soon.
Target body weight: less than 200 pounds.
"I learned that we are stronger than we think we are. Maybe if you don't look at the big picture, and you just look at the now ... don't look at it like, 'I've got 500 pounds to lose.' Look at it like, 'I'll eat chicken for lunch and not McDonald's.' You just take it in small increments — but those small increments add up,” Riley said.
“Time can be the great leveler, or equalizer. You might not be able to accomplish everything today. But you can accomplish it all, if you just give yourself a chance."
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