Losing 650 Pounds, and Preparing to Shed a Reminder of That Weight

New York Times
April 22, 2015
Losing 650 Pounds, and Preparing to Shed a Reminder of That Weight

Dr. Jennifer Capla, Plastic Surgeon, Lenox Hill Hospital
 

ORANGE, Mass. — Once weighing 980 pounds and a contender for the dismaying title of world’s fattest man, Paul Mason lost an astonishing 650 pounds after gastric bypass surgery five years ago. But he was left with a cruel, perpetual reminder of the person he had once been: 100 or so pounds of loose skin that enveloped him like a living shroud.

It is still everywhere: hanging from his arms, draping in folds over his midsection, encircling his thighs, frequently becoming infected, and so cumbersome that it puts him in a wheelchair most of the time. “It’s like carrying around a couple of children,” Mr. Mason said.

Mr. Mason, who is 54, could not find a doctor willing to remove the extra skin in England, where he lived until recently. But through a combination of strong will, good fortune, leaps of faith and the kindness of many strangers, he is now living here deep in the Massachusetts countryside and preparing for the first of a series of skin-removal surgeries in New York City.

With so much loose skin, Mr. Mason said he was prone to infections.  “It’s like carrying around a couple of children,” he said of the weight of it. Credit Josh Haner/The New York Times “When I look back at that person, that 980-pound person who lay in the bed 24/7, just thinking about eating and nothing else, that’s not me,” Mr. Mason said. “I don’t want to be that person.”

It has been an improbable series of events. After an article about Mr. Mason appeared in The New York Times, a plastic surgeon from Lenox Hill Hospital, Dr. Jennifer Capla, received a telephone call from her mother, who is also a doctor.

“She said, ‘You have to help this man,’  ” Dr. Capla recalled.

After tracking down Mr. Mason at home in Ipswich, England, Dr. Capla presented him with a life-changing proposition: If he could get to the United States, she would perform the skin-removal surgery and waive her fees.

Dr. Capla specializes in surgery following major weight loss — her patients have included contestants on the reality television show “The Biggest Loser” — but this would be her most extreme case. The heaviest person she operated on had once weighed 450 pounds. Her heart went out to Mr. Mason.

“I remember seeing an image of him, wheelchair-bound,” she said. “He couldn’t walk. To me it was so sad that he had gone through this whole journey and come full circle, and he couldn’t even do basic things and no one would help him.”

At the same time, a woman here in Orange, Rebecca Mountain, saw a YouTube video about Mr. Mason. She, too, was touched by the distance he had come and the distance he had yet to go.

“It’s easy to sensationalize the story so that it becomes about the weight, not about the person,” Ms. Mountain said. “But this was a really transformative story. There was something. You could see the genuine person in there.”

She found him on Facebook, and they began to talk via Skype. The conversations soon turned personal. “Most of them went on for hours, until the sun was rising in the U.K.,” Mr. Mason said. He had not been in a serious relationship for more than 25 years; Ms. Mountain, 41, had been single for a few years, too.

Continue reading the main story Continue reading the main story Ms. Mountain works for herself making cat furniture — scratching pads, climbing posts — and just about makes ends meet. But she began to save, a little money at a time, until she could afford to fly to England. When she and Mr. Mason finally met, she said, “It was like seeing an old friend, because you’ve already built up that level of conversation and trust.”

 The 100 pounds of extra skin is so cumbersome that it puts Mr. Mason in a wheelchair most of the time. Credit Josh Haner/The New York Times Events began to move quickly. Because of publicity in England, the American talk show “The View” heard about Mr. Mason and brought him over. Ms. Mountain surprised him by proposing on the air. “We knew we wanted to do it, and I thought, ‘Let’s make it public,’ ” Ms. Mountain said.

Mr. Mason moved here late in the fall, and he now lives in Ms. Mountain’s tiny house on a lovely but isolated country road. It has not been easy. Money is a big issue; they are still trying to raise enough for his postoperative care.

There have also been many medical setbacks — Mr. Mason has had recurring infections that have put him in and out of the hospital — and emotional ones, too. Mr. Mason’s lack of mobility necessarily restricts their lives.

“You know who you are when you’re older, but at the same time you’re more set in your ways and more used to doing things your way, so there has to be a lot of compromise,” Ms. Mountain said. “But with Paul it’s been much more effortless than in other relationships I’ve been in.”

Lenox Hill Hospital is also waiving its fees for Mr. Mason’s surgery, which is scheduled for April 28. It is a complicated procedure, and Dr. Capla will be helped by a large team of doctors, including two surgeons from other states. (They are also waiving their fees.)

As for Mr. Mason, he has had a lot of time to think about who he used to be. He attributes his former obesity to a combination of things: a cruel father who beat and verbally abused him and his mother; a female relative who sexually abused him as a child for years; and classmates who ridiculed him to the point where school was a torment.

He worked for years delivering mail, but he eventually got too large to continue and had to go on welfare. After his father died, he moved back home to care for his mother. It was then that he began to eat himself into oblivion. “Food was an escape for me,” he said. “It was like going to a different world, where you felt comfort.”

His life took place in bed and dwindled down to nearly nothing: eat, doze, eat, doze. He had to have round-the-clock care; to change his sheets, his caretakers had to hoist him out of bed with a special machine. When he went to the hospital, he went via forklift.

After his mother died, Mr. Mason sought therapy for the first time. His emotions came pouring out. (He is now working on a book.) That was the catalyst for what followed: the operation, the extreme weight loss, and the desire never to return to that time and that person.

Now he eats sparingly and sometimes forgets to eat at all, until Ms. Mountain reminds him. He is a good cook, and since he moved in, Ms. Mountain’s own diet has improved considerably. She has stopped ordering pizza and started looking forward to her fiancé’s homemade meals.

“I wouldn’t say my body’s a shrine,” Mr. Mason said. “But food, it’s a means to an end now.” He continued: “You dig yourself out of that escapism that surrounds you — I don’t know what word I would use, but it was like crack, really — and then you grasp at life.”

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