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Measuring What's Lost 

You've seen guys who look the way John Wetzel looked, only you may not have stared too long.

Out of courtesy maybe or maybe out of loathing. You know. The guy who sprawls over half a sofa and can't get back up without someone pulling on each arm. Wheezing. A look dull but defiant. Flesh piled up against buttons, against smiles, against motion. A quarter ton of flesh.

"I knew I was dying, in my mid-30s," John Wetzel says. "I couldn't even lay down to sleep. I was 540 pounds."

Of course, you don't get to that weight by surprise, waking up to find your bones cloaked with a monstrous new body. No, John remembers when his third grade P.E. teacher weighed the class. He remembers the number the teacher read off the scale, a number twice as big as any classmate's. "One hundred twenty-eight pounds," grimaces John, as if he hears the moment every day of his life.

John has a theory about all this growth, this growth to a size that made him so different from other kids. He thinks it all started when his parents split and he was adopted by an aunt and uncle.

"Growing up I always felt different, separate. I must have felt rejected, musta felt I was no good. I ate for comfort. And my adoptive parents tried real hard, but maybe they overcompensated. One year I just blew up."

He blew up with great diversity. "There was nothing I wouldn't really eat, except maybe beets and salad. At lunch, the other kids would give me their liver, so they'd have their plates cleaned."

But some classmates offered more than thanks. The fat kid got plenty of teasing and couldn't run after his tormentors. Some used fists instead of taunts.

"I got picked on a lot and I didn't really defend myself until the sixth grade. Then one day, I caught this kid and picked him up and body-slammed him. I guess I had a lot of anger. After that, all through junior high, I fought back. I could take the punches and if I got a hold of you ... ."

John went on into high school at Abramson, but there were few friends made. He got a date to the junior prom, but she went off with someone else. For the senior prom, he didn't even try. "People keep telling you you're different, you become different," he reasons. "I played the fool, the jester, the obnoxious. What did I have to lose?"

He took a job as a gorilla for one of those singing telegram companies. But when you get to be his size, no one can get close and indeed who wants to? John longed for things beyond the easy reach of the heart, beauties that hadn't been seen, favors not felt.

"I finally prayed to the Lord and told him, 'If you don't send me someone who loves me for me, I'm gonna clock out.'"

Someone must have heard; someone was sent. A high schooler named Diana with good cheekbones and eyes as sweet as a song. It was one of those dates you do as a favor to a friend, and John and Diana sat on the seawall while their friends made out in the car.

They dated for the next three years while she worked to finish school. On the day they wed, the bride wore a size two dress. The groom wore a size 60 tux.

But then the march to obesity went on. A large pizza. A whole muffuletta. A full-loaf po-boy. "If people asked us over to eat, they would ask us to bring our own food," remembers Diana.

Four years ago, John was rushed to Methodist Hospital. Soon he was undergoing gastric bypass surgery under the skilled hands of Dr. Ruary O'Connell. It took four hours and the patient stopped breathing a couple of times -- but it was the beginning of something much, much better.

Along with having his stomach shrunk by stapling, John Wetzel underwent a lifestyle change that was short of pizzas and po-boys. The results were awesome. In the first month, he lost 53 pounds. Soon he could cross his legs. Then he was outside, walking all the way to the house next door, Diana walking behind, holding up his now-droopy pants.

John Wetzel sits at the table of his Chalmette home and fingers his small beard as he totals things up. He now weighs in at 220 pounds. He has lost 340 pounds, two average-sized men. "But what I've gained is on the inside," he muses.

He makes sure his four children understand about not judging people on how they look. "Look, I'm a Christian and I've worked as an assistant pastor. But I have to say that some Christians treat me differently now. Christians are the worst tippers."

There is a renewed appreciation for wife and children from a man who wasn't the best husband and father. "The best thing about all this was to have a wife who never left," he says simply.

He's 42 years old now, but in so many ways he is finding out about life. "As a kid, I wished I could run. Then it got to the point where I just wished I could walk. Now ... now I'm about to run."

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