Brian Allaby ate his way almost to death. Last spring, at 415 pounds, his body shut down.
He woke three days later in the intensive care unit of Whitehorse General Hospital.
“All I knew about food was that it’s to keep you going. I didn’t know overeating can kill,” says Allaby.
Allaby doesn’t have the technical vocabulary to describe his collapse but, simply put, he stopped breathing.
For more than a year before that, he couldn’t walk three metres without being so completely out of breath he’d have to sit down.
“I didn’t have a family doctor, I went to a walk-in clinic,” he says. “The doctors always said, ‘Quit smoking, quit eating, quit this or that. Yadda yadda.’ They never really explained it all to me.
“I never could look down at my feet, so I didn’t notice they turned black. Then the black slowly grew up my legs. The skin was stretched so tight from putting on weight that a feather could split the skin on my legs. They got infected, so I definitely had to move around less.”
I met Allaby 18 years ago when he was a well-loved window washer in the Okanagan. He pulled a cart on his bicycle to do the job. At Rotary meetings people would talk about Allaby’s big heart. He’d gather broken toys all year, fixing them, then dress up as Santa on Christmas Eve and give them out to kids as poor as himself.
He moved to the Yukon 12 years ago and says he’s felt like hibernating ever since. Or at least preparing for hibernation.
“I love food. That’s my big problem. I can eat all day, nonstop, whenever I feel like it, which is always. It’s nothing for me to eat two loaves of bread in a day. I eat two medium pizzas at one sitting. I’d get a big bag of leftover doughnuts at the Salvation Army soup kitchen and eat them all at once.”
My 51-year-old friend is on social assistance and has always bought whatever’s cheapest to eat – the most fatty ground beef, frozen No Name pizzas, lots of day-old breads, bologna and pasta. For a treat he’d buy a big bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and devour it alone.
At age 40, Allaby got his driver’s licence. Two years later he had an accident that broke a bone in his lower leg. He says it didn’t heal properly and he always had pain walking, so he walked less often, gained more weight and ended up using a motor scooter to get around.
Allaby grew massive. I sometimes hesitated to invite him to my place for social gatherings because of the seating dilemma. He couldn’t sit on my couch because he wasn’t able to lift himself up from it, but I was afraid he’d break my chairs. I felt cheesy and shallow for not including him as often, then simply blocked it out.
Other people trimmed him from their invite list and, after his mom died, he sat alone in his basement apartment, just eating.
But all of that changed with the big collapse. He got a dedicated doctor and he got scared.
“I lost 75 pounds between March last year and November when I last weighed myself.
“The nutritionist at the hospital explained things to me. I cut out all fat. I drain the fat off hamburger meat and rinse it too. I cut out most of the breads and pastas. It’s a constant battle, though.”
Last summer Allaby could be seen gleefully whizzing along the millennium trail on his scooter and, bit by bit, he got up and walked, then rested and walked more. He rides the Handi-Bus faithfully most mornings to the Canada Games Centre to do a workout in the pool.
Today, Allaby’s visiting my house for a low-fat lunch. There’s still a lump in my throat when I remember seeing him unconscious with an oxygen mask in the hospital last spring. I despised myself and wanted to come home and smash all my damned chairs.
Now I ask Allaby what advice he’d give to others struggling with weight.
“Get up off the couch and move around. Even in your home, walk up and down the halls. Just keep moving, that’s the main thing. If you stop moving, it’s going to cause problems.”
The holidays are over and Allaby wants me to go with him to the hospital for an accurate weigh-in for this story. In November he was 341 pounds, but is anxious Christmas may have sabotaged his program. He missed pool workouts and splurged a bit on food.
I follow him past the hospital reception desk and down a hall. We push open a door that says, ‘Shipping and Receiving.’
There are cardboard boxes and a bay door for trucks to back in and unload their cargo. On the concrete floor I see a steel scale about four feet by five feet. Allaby steps on.
“They take me here to weigh me,” he explains. “I can come any time I want.”
The moment of truth. The red numbers seem to scroll like a slot machine. We stare and hold our breath. The numbers stop at 378 pounds.
I am mute. I swallow hard. Allaby pulls out a pocket calculator to tally up the damage.
“I gained 37 pounds over Christmas!”
I watch Allaby blink and peer longer at the glowing red numbers on the scale.
“Now what?” I mumble.
“I’ll keep trying, that’s what. I have to keep trying. Otherwise I’ll be six feet under.”
Roxanne Livingstone is a freelance
writer who lives in Whitehorse.