Friday, January 25, 2008

"Unburdened" - by Joe Eaton

Roanoke Times, The (VA) - May 27, 2007
Author: Joe Eaton The Roanoke Times

Halfway up the first flight at Patrick Henry High School, Shannon Burnette gasped for breath.

He tried to swallow it, tried not to make a spectacle of himself as other students rushed past on their way to class. His heart beat in his ears. Shannon lifted a size 17 adidas, set it down, pulled against the railing and rose.

A few more steps and the stairway began to swirl. Pain jabbed behind his kneecaps and into his lower back.

Shannon leaned against the wall and waited.

He started again, his wet T-shirt clinging to his chest.

Before Shannon reached the top, the class bell rang. He was late again.

"I felt messed up, like my whole life had fallen apart before my eyes. I couldn't take it anymore," Shannon said, remembering life at 430 pounds, remembering the stairs.

That life is gone.

Shannon, 17, now weighs about 250 pounds.

Gone are the size 60 pants, replaced with size 48. Gone are the 9XL shirts from the big and tall shop. Gone are the adidas, replaced by size 13 K-Swiss.

Shannon dropped more than 150 pounds in 18 months, 120 of it in one year. He lost weight the hard way, by swapping candy and cheese-covered spaghetti for tofu and greens, by replacing television with deep water aerobics and weightlifting.

He had to. He was afraid to die.

Big boy

Shannon is not an extreme example of childhood obesity in America.

About one-third of American children and adolescents are obese or at risk for obesity , according to a 2006 study by the Institute of Medicine.

In the past three decades, the obesity rate for children ages 12 to 19 has more than tripled from 5 percent to 17 percent.

A 2003 survey by the Department of Health and Human Resources found a similar number of overweight and obese children in Virginia, which it rated 25th among the states in prevalence of childhood obesity .

Doctors point to a variety of causes for the jump, including poor eating habits, access to high-calorie food at home and at school and a culture where children prefer television, video games and the Internet to physical activity.

Michael Hart, a gastroenterologist who runs an adolescent weight management clinic at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, is one of the doctors who treated Shannon during his weight loss.

Hart said he treats at least one child a day with weight problems like Shannon's. Walking around town, he sees many more.

The only thing uncommon about Shannon is that he lost weight, Hart said.

"At his age, it took a hell of a lot of determination and will to succeed."

Adolescent obesity is on the rise, but it hasn't gotten any easier to be the fat kid.

In grade school pictures, Shannon has chubby cheeks his teachers called cute.

At 11, he weighed 200. At 13 he broke 300. At 15, he weighed 426 pounds.

In middle school, Shannon worried about looking different.

In high school, he worried about girls. They danced with him at school dances, but they treated him like a teddy bear, not as someone to date.

He sat alone on the school bus.

"Nobody wanted to sit with me," he said. "Nobody could sit with me."

As Shannon gained weight, his mother, Brenda Burnette, said they both ignored the problem.

Burnette, a Roanoke bus aide, thought her 6-foot-4 son was just "big boned." She thought the weight would go away when he stopped growing.

"We just loved to eat and didn't think about nothing," she said.

For breakfast, Shannon often ate gummy worms and chocolate bars, pizza or spaghetti.

Lunch was hamburgers, pizza, french fries and nachos from the school cafeteria.

For dinner, it was more of the same. His favorite was the Golden Corral buffet, where he would devour five to 10 plates of steak and pot roast.

Between meals, Shannon snacked on Cheetos, candy and potato chips. He drank at least five 20-ounce bottles of Coke a day.

"Shannon ate constantly from morning to night," his mother said. "He didn't move, just looked at the TV and ate."

And he got bigger.

At 15, Shannon began waking up at night unable to catch his breath. He had sleep apnea, which is often caused by obesity .

In the morning, his mother often could not wake him up. He struggled to stand up off his mattress, which rests on the floor.

Walking became difficult. Shannon's joints screamed from the load. His flat feet hurt.

Eventually, Shannon began attending school for only a half day.

He worried he might not graduate.

Doctors told him his weight was sending his blood pressure and cholesterol soaring. He was borderline diabetic.

They told him he might not see 20 if he didn't lose weight.

"I was shocked at first. And scared," Shannon said, recalling the day a doctor told him he could die.

Losing it

At first, the lesson didn't sink in.

Shannon wanted liposuction and gastric bypass surgery. If surgeons shrunk the size of his stomach and bypassed part of his small intestine, Shannon figured he could lose weight without exercise and changing his diet.

Hart referred him to the University of Virginia Medical Center, one of the few hospitals that perform bariatric surgery on teens, but doctors there decided he was not a candidate.

Surgeons perform gastric bypass surgery on teens only in the most extreme circumstances, Hart said.

Shannon didn't start losing weight the hard way until he was 16. He had help.

Shannon's caseworker at Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare declined to be interviewed, but Shannon and his mother said the agency was one of the keys to his success.

The agency found funding for Shannon to attend Weight Watchers and set him up with a personal trainer. It helped Burnette cover the expense of healthy food.

The YMCA gave Shannon a scholarship.

Four or five days a week, Shannon began exercising at the Kirk Family YMCA. He walked the track, played basketball, lifted weights and took water aerobics classes.

Every other week he weighed in at Weight Watchers.

At night, Shannon complained about muscle spasms. Several times during the first few months, his mother took him to the emergency room for severe pain.

"The exercise tore him up," she recalled.

He was using muscles that had not been worked hard in years, Hart said.

Shannon also changed his diet. He followed the Weight Watchers system, which assigns points to food and gives members a target number of points to eat every day.

Shannon found the new food tasteless. He hated the exercise.

"Nobody likes anyone messing with their food," Burnette said about the change. "He had to learn what to eat."

For breakfast, Shannon ate bagels or shredded wheat. At school, he ate salad for lunch. A common dinner was baked chicken, a baked potato, salad and corn.

The family replaced whole milk with 2 percent. Shannon stopped drinking soda.

Slowly, his weight began to drop.

The more he lost, the more dedicated he became.

One day, he started to like his new food.

Burnette, whose mother also lives in the home, said Shannon's eating plan helped the entire family.

"When Shannon ate a salad, we all ate a salad," she said.

But Burnette, who is 41, said she is too old to totally change her eating and exercising habits. She said she feels lighter, but doubts that she lost much weight.

Sometimes, the change was also too much for Shannon. Phil Johns, one of his trainers, said Shannon often stayed the same weight for weeks or even gained a couple of pounds. At one point, Shannon lost only 9 pounds in six months.

When that happened, he slowed down, cut workouts short and moped.

Sometimes he ate a Whopper.

'A different person'

Johns, a 23-year-old who lost 60 pounds a few years before Shannon's weight loss, switched Shannon's exercises. They tried group classes including yoga and Pilates and increased his time on the treadmill.

Again Shannon's weight started to drop.

As the weight fell off, Shannon, who had always been a quiet kid, began to talk and joke.

Dave Amos, who teaches the water aerobics class Shannon attends twice a week at the YMCA, said Shannon rarely spoke when he started the class.

He was the youngest person in the pool by at least 10 years, Amos said.

Then one day, after several months in the class, Shannon sneaked up behind Amos in the pool and grabbed his foam floating "noodle" out from under him.

"I couldn't believe it was him," Amos said. "All of the sudden, he's just a different person."

Others also noticed the change.

Johns said the two had long planned to eat at the Golden Corral buffet to celebrate Shannon's 17th birthday.

When the day came, Shannon ate one plate of food. He didn't want to exercise harder than usual. And his appetite was gone.

"Shannon used to roll with the buffet," his mother said. "He can't roll with it no more."

Burnette now refuses to take him to Golden Corral. It's not worth $9.29 for one plate, she said.

A new life

At 11:15 a.m. on a recent day at Patrick Henry, students swarmed into the cafeteria for lunch.

Holding a plate, Shannon strolled past trays of pizza and cheese nachos steaming under heat lamps.

He picked up a salad with slices of ham on it, a side bowl of chicken salad and two packages of crackers.

He nibbled at his salad while the girls who surrounded him ate pizza and hot dogs.

"Shannon lost mad weight," said Monique Dudley, 17, who has known Shannon since they were 5. "He just looks better."

At 11:45 a.m. lunch finished.

Shannon dropped his plate in a trash can. He hurried down a long hallway toward choir class, where he sings bass.

At the end of the hallway, Shannon faced the stairs. His classroom was on the third floor.

He took the stairs at a trot, size 13s flying, his long legs skipping steps.

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