People Are Not Their Disease

I spent many weeks in the hospital recently due to my father’s lengthy illness. Although the hospital is familiar to me as a nurse, it’s quite different when you have hours to observe the surroundings and interactions as a visitor. Six times in three weeks, I heard visitors and staff make discriminatory comments about another patient who was also there for several weeks. This individual suffered from numerous health conditions, involving several surgeries and procedures.

Much to my dismay, sadness and frustration, I heard others describing the patient as “the obese guy,” “the big fellow” and even “the fat guy in room 462.” All the while, my dad was referred to (appropriately so) as “the gentleman in room 460,” when others would inquire about him to facilitate care or transportation.

The difference? My dad suffers from cancer; the other gentleman suffers from severe obesity. Lack of empathy and ignorance often comes from lack of knowledge or misconceptions that this disease is a lack of will power. More than 3 million individuals suffer from obesity and 12 million suffer from severe obesity. This disease does not discriminate between ages, gender, ethnic or socioeconomic lines. The fact is that severe obesity is a complex disease with a strong genetic predisposition. People suffer from obesity or severe obesity; they are not an obese person. My father suffers from cancer, he is not cancer .Your aunt may suffer from breast cancer, she is not breast cancer. People are not their disease.

Evaluate your own language, and catch yourself. Learn more about this chronic disease. Until we, as a society, see severe obesity as a disease, we will never optimize collaborative efforts to cure it.

About the Blogger:
Tracy Martinez, RN, BSN, CBN, is a certified bariatric nurse and Program Director at Wittgrove Bariatric Center in LaJolla, Calif. She is the past-president of the Integrated Health section of the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery. Ms. Martinez is a member of the OAC National Board of Directors and an avid animal lover and advocate.

5 Comments for this Post
  • Jim Fivecoat
    May 16, 2012 at 7:28 pm

    Well said Tracy!

  • Shaw
    May 17, 2012 at 8:06 pm

    Thank you for putting this out there. I am a person that has ‘suffered’ severe obesity my entire life. Seems no matter what I do, the emotional or financial aspects come in and destroy what progress I may have made and I gain back 2 to 3X what I lost. I’ve gotten bigger every year, or it seems like it. I keep waiting to explode. I remember doing liquid protein in the 6th grade, Atkins the next year and so on to my mid 40′s now. I have become almost incapacitated and do not live a life. I had a child, my only one, that was born with Spina Bifida and all that it entailed. He spent so much time in and out of hospitals (40+ surgeries in 17 yrs). He was treated at UCSF, a teaching hospital. I hated hearing the groups of interns standing at the doorway with the head honcho describing him as a Spina Bifida. I finally got the courage to say something one day, “He is NOT a Spina Bifida, He is a person that has Spina Bifida!” That’s all it took, from then on I was shouting it from the roof tops! Having him at least kept me moving. Sadly, at 17 he was diagnosed with cancer and died in ’07. I’ve got no reason to move now. He was my job, I was his caregiver as well as his Mom. I spend most of my days lying in bed and I do go to counseling, although I don’t think it helps much. So, I’m quite sure I’ve hit the 500lb mark by now, don’t know since I won’t stand on an industrial strength scale. I’m just sittin’ back waiting on the inevitable heart attack…or to explode, whichever comes first. By the way I’ve been diagnosed with severe depression, panic/anxiety disorder, social phobia, agoraphobia and was just approved for disability since I can’t move enough to work. Sad existence, huh? Oh well, it’s the life of a woman who suffers from severe morbid obesity.

  • Leslie
    May 22, 2012 at 5:21 am


    Thank you for sharing in such a personal way. First let me say I am so sorry that you lost your son. I too have ‘suffered’ from severe obesity my entire life. By the 3rd grade I was 250 pounds and put in the hospital to lose weight. I know exactly what you mean when you say that every time you made some progress with losing weight you gained it back 2 or 3x. I am now 43 and believe that if I had been left alone as a kid, and not put on every diet that came along, I would never have reached my top weight which was 468. That was 8 years ago and I was almost home bound then. Just walking to the end of the driveway to get the mail made me feel like my heart would explode! I ended up having a weight loss surgery in December 2003 which almost killed me. I was in a coma and on life support for some time. I remember being the “big lady” in ICU that required all hands on deck when it came time to turn me or change me. It was awful! My life/health got better after the surgery (and months of rehab) but I never got down to what would be called a “normal” weight. The lowest I got was 320, then I started to gain again. The type of surgery I had was restrictive (it was a VBG, the precursor to the lapband) and in order to eat and not have food get stuck, which caused severe pain, I would eat “slider” foods. Food covered in gravy, mayo, dressing, queso, they would slide right through the opening with no problem. You can imagine that it did not take long for the weight to start going up again. I was back up to 404 pounds when I had a revision done. That changed it from the VBG to a gastric bypass (that was seven years to the day of my first surgery 12/3/2010). I got down to 304 in no time then only 6 months later I got pregnant! After 10 years of marriage, we unexpectedly had our first baby! I was 42 (he turned 1 yr old 4/29). I want to get on the floor with him, run and jump with him. I want to ride roller coasters! I don’t want to stick a bottle in his mouth to keep him quiet so I don’t have to take him out of the stroller. I can’t give up! That is what brought me to this website today. The bypass is a tool, but I can still gain all that weight back if I give in. I don’t know what causes this condition of obesity. The depression that goes along with it is overwhelming sometimes, I understand. Please know that I am not trying to give you a pep talk. I just want you to know that you are not alone and even in your darkest hour you were able to help someone else, me.

  • cntry_rose
    May 24, 2012 at 3:10 pm

    Tracy, I can imagine your frustration in hearing the degrading remarks made in reference to the gentlemen who was in the hospital at the same time as your father. It’s a shame that even in a place of healing and help someone is degraded for their size. :-/

    Shaw, Please do not give up… you are worth fighting for! I’m sorry for the loss of your son, that has to be pain like you’ve never felt before, but I also have to believe that your son would want you to live the best life you can. If you are not able to have surgery for your weight problems, perhaps there is another alternative that you can try? Please seek help in that avenue and believe in yourself to live the life that you envision.

    Leslie, I’m a 2 year gastric bypass patient and I will cheer you on as you are working through your journey to better health! Being obese for most of my adult life I know the frustrations and the despair of losing weight only to see it creep back up within a few months. Yes, the bypass is a tool, one that we use each and every day, sometimes each and every hour… but it’s a tool that works when we use it correctly. Congratulations on your success thus far and best wishes for your reaching your goal of a healthy life style.

    • sheryl
      June 1, 2012 at 11:36 pm

      I had gastric bypass in September of 2009. I lost 140lbs. I am still considered obese but happy in the skin I am in. I was clinically diagnosed obese at 6 months old and put on a diet formula to control my weight. Right or wrong I think this is where all of my problems started. I struggle today not with good but with alcohol addiction and want to raise awareness to those around me and those interested in weight loss surgery. This is a serious side affect. “We” tend to replace our addictions with something else. I wish alcoholism on no one else. It is a horrible demon to live with. I would rather be far the rest of my life than live with this curse. Please be aware of this issue and NEVER TOUCH ALCOHOL AFTER SURGERY!
      !! It is VITAL!

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