On June 20, 2010, my life changed forever.
I was 37 years old. I had been overweight my entire life and had long given up doing anything about it. Like everyone, I tried the diets and they all failed me. None of it worked because none of it was ever going to work. Sure, I lost weight, but I always gained it all back plus more.
So I gave up. I just figured I would be heavy the rest of my life, however long that lasted. I got bigger and bigger. 350 pounds became 400 pounds turned into 450 pounds and then one day I hit 500 pounds. There seemed to be no limit to how much weight I would gain and I seemed powerless to stop it.
Food was my drug and I was addicted. I could not stop eating. While others would be out socializing and enjoying life, I would be sitting in my apartment by myself binge eating pizza, ice cream, fast food and every junk food item imaginable.
As I started to get older, the consequences of my food abuse began to show more and more. I developed high blood pressure. Then came an irregular heartbeat, apparently a result of my 12-can-a-day diet soda habit. I developed sleep apnea. I was on multiple medications for conditions that were not normal for an otherwise healthy adult in their 30’s. Then my mobility started becoming restricted. I started having difficulty getting out of bed in the morning. If I fell, it took 2 strong people to help me up. I couldn’t put my shoes on by myself anymore. I couldn’t buy clothes from anywhere anymore. Everything in the big and tall store was too small. All of my clothes had to be specially tailored to fit me. The size 7X underwear that I mail ordered was getting too small and that was the biggest size they had.
And then, it happened. On June 19, 2010, I developed shortness of breath walking a very short distance. I decided I was probably just tired or dehydrated and went home and took a nap. That decision nearly cost me my life.
The next day, on my way to work, the whole house of cards came crashing down. I got out of the car and with each step toward the office door, I began to suffocate. I was breathing in and out as fast as I could, but there was no oxygen to be had. By the time I got near the building, my legs gave out and my skin turned a pale white.
This was the end, I thought. 37 years will be all I get. There in the parking lot, I started to think how disappointing it all was. I was convinced I was dying of a heart attack and wasn’t going to live. With the oxygen slowly leaving my body, I decided I had to get help. I fished my phone out of my pocket and somehow called my parents, who had just dropped me off because my car was in the shop.
They came back and got me and took me to the emergency room. While on the way there, barely conscious in the car, my mind started to run wild. Since I knew I was going to die, I started giving my Mom instructions on what to do with my belongings, who to call and how to empty my bank account. Then, I had a thought.
When my parents brought me home from the hospital as a newborn baby, I weighed 6 pounds and 10 ounces. Now they were taking me back to the hospital, 37 years later, and I weighed over 500 pounds. Boy, I really screwed that up. What had I done? I had been given a good life and I wasted it.
We got to the ER and I must have been white as a sheet, or turning blue when I stumbled in. I remember the receptionist saying "can I help you?" And I remember whispering to her, out of breath "I can't breathe."
I have never seen so many people move so quickly in my life. They had me into a wheelchair, into a room and on a table in about 30 seconds. I had oxygen, an EKG and an IV going in another 30 seconds.
They continued to run tests. I was in the ER for about 6 hours. A few hours into it, I had to go to the bathroom. So I took off the oxygen mask, went and came back completely out of breath. They checked my blood oxygen level and it had dropped 30 points.
No more going to the bathroom. "You're not going home anytime soon with oxygen levels like that,” they told me. Finally, after several hours and more tests the doctor comes in. “We don't think it's your heart, Mr. Ganey. Everything looks good there.”
That's a relief. So if not a heart attack, then what? Another doctor will see you soon.
After more time, here comes another doctor, a cardiologist. He ran me through the diagnosis, the tests, explained everything in detail. He was impressive. He said they ruled out the heart and instead suspected blood clots in my lungs.
He didn’t have to say any more. I knew what a pulmonary embolism was because I had read about it over the years. The journalist David Bloom died from a pulmonary embolism in 2003 while covering the war in Iraq for NBC. The blood clots develop in your legs and travel to your lungs where they accumulate. If enough of the clots build up, they cut off your oxygen supply and you die instantly.
Except I was lucky. I made it to the hospital on time. I was going to live. I have never felt a greater sense of relief in my life.
But back to the doctor. He told me that what they really needed to do was a CT scan to confirm the blood clots in my lungs, only there was a problem. The machine had a weight limit of 350 pounds and they couldn’t do the test. The doctor told me he would admit me and begin treating me for a pulmonary embolism based solely on the best guess he could come up with on what was happening.
Essentially, what he was telling me with the utmost sympathy and sugar coating was this: I was too fat for the machine, so they were doing the best they could. After several hours in the emergency room, I would be admitted.
How long? 2 or 3 days, on the low end. They're going to try to avoid operating. Operating? If the blood clots in my lungs that were suffocating me didn't break up on their own, they would have to cut me open and take them out.
For now, the treatment was blood thinners, or more specifically anti-coagulants. They shot me full of something called Heparin and started a Heparin IV drip, which would last for a week. I must have gone through 20 of those bags. In addition, they started a fairly high dose of Coumadin. This would take a few days to take effect. Coumadin? My grandfather was on that drug for years at the end of his life. I knew it was a powerful drug with awful side effects.
But at least I was going to live.
During my time in the hospital, I met several doctors, 2 nutritionists, specialists...everything. After some more tests, the following became very clear to me:
1.) I came very, very close to dying. I was told 1 in 4 pulmonary embolism victims die within seconds. The first symptom is sudden death. The blood clots form in the legs due to inactivity, travel to the lungs and collect there. This is called Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT.) The clots clog the main arteries in your lung and cause shortness of breath or worse.
2.) The #1 risk factor for what happened to me was my weight.
3.) I had a choice: lose weight or die. I was told this would keep happening to me. One nurse point blank asked me: “Do you really want to spend the rest of your life in the health care system?”
The week I spent in the hospital was a miserable time. I couldn’t do anything without somebody helping me. The low point came when I needed help going to the bathroom. With every limitation, with every lack of mobility, I became more and more enraged at myself.
How did I let it get this bad?
What am I doing?
Is the food really worth it?
Because of the tubes and wires, they wouldn’t let me take a shower. That’s right, I went one whole week without a shower. As you can imagine, I wanted to kill myself. Also, the nurses would come every few hours to draw blood. Because of my weight, they could never find a vein to draw the blood. I had blood drawn from my hands, my wrist, my fingers...you name it. They couldn’t get the IV into my hand and wound up sticking it into my arm, where it became infected.
More limitations. More special treatment. More being told I couldn’t do something because of my weight.
And then I snapped. Enough was enough. There would be no more of this.
I drew the line. This is where it would end. I didn’t want any more sympathy. There would be no more pity for Bryan Ganey.
I'm only 37, I thought. I've got things to do. There is more to life than eating. I will not go out like this. I will find other things to eat. I will seek out other food, more nutritious food. This all ends now.
And so, I was discharged from the hospital after a week. I weighed 577 pounds. I walked out of that hospital, head held high, absolutely determined to not come back. There would be no more sympathy for Bryan. There would be no more blood clots. There would be no quick fix. All I cared about was getting started.
My message for the medical community was simple: I don’t want your pills, I don’t want your surgery. All I want is for you to get out of my way.