Health case study: Food for thought
Chef Liam O'Dowd really enjoyed his food, until his weight almost cost him his life. But, he tells Joy Orpen, it was thanks to the support of his family, rather than the need for emergency surgery, that pushed him to tackle his bulk
If you ask Liam O'Dowd, 63, when he began to overeat, he quips: "About three hours after I was born." Then he reveals that, when he was a baby, he would finish his bottle, then grab his twin brother's and polish that off as well.
It's not surprising, then, that Liam became so obese that he worried he would die prematurely.
Having grown up in Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny, Liam went to Dublin when he was just 16 to watch a match – and never went back.
"I had a brother in the city, and he got me a job as a commis chef," says Liam. His love affair with food was now truly established. Some years later, he met Nuala Hanahoe at a dance and, in 1972, they married and had two children.
Three years later, Liam bought the lease on the restaurant attached to Teddy's Ice Cream shop. Teddy's has brought pleasure to children for more than 50 years. On the day that Liam took over, Elvis Presley died.
In the early years, he was still in reasonably good shape, but, as time went on, the pounds began to mount – and mount and mount.
"Customers would say how nice it was to see a big chef," recalls Liam. "I'd be picking all day long. At night, I'd have a meal and a few pints. Being a chef and trying to lose weight is almost impossible."
By the 1980s, Liam weighed 31 stone. He found it hard to find affordable clothes. Then, one day, he stumbled on Plus & Minors, a speciality clothes shop in Dublin. "I couldn't believe it," he says. "For once, I could choose what to wear. I was like a child in a sweet shop."
In 2004, Liam had something more serious than clobber to worry about when he got a pain in his side and thought it was a kidney infection. However, his astute doctor suspected that it was an aneurysm.
Liam called a friend, who was a nurse, and asked what an aneurysm was, and she replied, "God help anyone who has one of those."
Following an ultrasound, Liam learned that he had an abdominal aortic aneurysm measuring 4.5cm.
An aneurysm occurs when a bulge develops in the wall of an artery (or blood vessel). If it's not dealt with in good time, the artery can rupture, leading to internal bleeding, stroke – and even death.
So Liam was sent to St Vincent's Hospital, where he was seen by a vascular consultant.
"She was worried about the weight I was carrying," recalls Liam. "It meant they couldn't get to the aneurysm. At the time, I was lined up for a gastric band, but, when I told them about the aneurysm, they said that was now out of the question. Someone suggested I get the gastric band in America and, while the money was a problem, I wouldn't have been allowed to fly because of the aneurysm."
Liam's well-padded back was not just up against the wall, it was nailed to it. He was in very big trouble.
"I was worried the aneurysm would rupture. By then, it had grown to 7.4cm," he says.
Fortunately, his vascular consultant came up with a solution – keyhole surgery, which is less invasive than conventional surgery.
The incision is much smaller, while the surgeon is guided by camera images displayed on a TV monitor.
So Liam was transferred from St Vincent's to St James's hospital. He says on the night before the operation a doctor warned him that he was facing a very serious procedure. "What are my chances of surviving?" he asked the medic, and the reply was just 15 per cent.
"I didn't know what to do," Liam recalls. "Should I phone Nuala and tell her? In the end, I didn't – I just had a cup of tea."
Liam was awake while surgeons did the tricky work of inserting a stent into the damaged artery to strengthen it. The whole procedure took about five hours.
When hospital staff struggled to transfer their heavily overweight patient from the trolley to the bed, he surprised them by getting off the trolley and on to the bed all by himself.
Following his surgery, Liam relaxed somewhat. "That's when the trouble started," he says. "I couldn't swim because of the stent and I couldn't exercise because of arthritis in my knee. And I was eating and putting on weight – two stone a year."
On one occasion, Liam drove a good deal of the way to Donegal with one hand. "After a while, I found I couldn't reach the steering wheel with the other hand – I was just too fat."
By now, he was desperately unhappy and says there were nights when he cried himself to sleep. While some people stared and made hurtful remarks, others tried to help. His loving family pleaded with him to slim down. Then, on his mother's 90th birthday, he sat on her new bed and it broke. "I knew World War Three was going to break out," says Liam.
His sister, Phyllis, decided enough was enough, and made an appointment for him with Motivation Weight Management.
"They got me to see a doctor, then they put me on a programme," he says.
Bread, potatoes, sauces and all sugars were off the menu. He was also advised to drastically reduce the size of his food portions, to drink lots of water and to do gentle exercises with a hand bicycle.
But, he says, the best medicine of all was the encouragement he got from the people at Motivation, as well as from family and friends.
In April 2012, Liam weighed more than 41 stone. Since then, he's lost 19 stone. Liam still has some way to go, but he is determined to stick to the plan.
He explains that there are less obvious downsides to being overweight.
"You get blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol, gout. You're conscious that everyone is looking at the state you're in. It makes you feel really crap," he says.
Liam says it's very important to talk openly if someone you care about is overweight. His cousin, Betty, made him promise to lose weight, and her request registered with him in a very real way.
He's just sorry that she never lived to see him lose that weight.
"If you have enough people kicking you in the backside to do something, you will do it," Liam says. "That's why I'm doing this interview – I'm getting nothing out of it, but, if it helps one other person to take that first step to lose weight, then it's well worth the effort."
For further information on Motivation Weight Management, tel: (1850) 306-000 for details of clinics nationwide, or see www.motivation.ie
Sunday Indo Life Magazine