Sunday 1 February 2015

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

Liam O'Dowd

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."

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.

Sunday Indo Life Magazine

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