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Robert Walls used to worry about whether he was going to wake up the next morning. But on a recent day, his main concern was how his hair looked.
That's why he found himself in a barber's chair in Lawrence, getting a fade, shooting the breeze. He was to appear on the Fox affiliate in Kansas City the next day; after his most recent TV spots, friends had told him he was looking a little shaggy.
Walls is used to trimming down — just on a much greater scale. Over the past five-plus years, he has shed more than 750 pounds, about the equivalent of four average-sized men.
The 33-year-old has been getting a lot of media attention lately, after a chance encounter with a customer at the Lawrence restaurant where he worked. Nancy Wilson, of Lawrence, was so inspired by Walls' story she emailed seemingly every news outlet in the region; several of them contacted, and profiled, Walls. Even so, he worries about the real message getting lost in all the hype.
That message is this: He lost a lot of weight, sure, almost a half a ton, but there's nothing glamorous about it. At his heaviest, he was confined to a nursing home, a 20-something watching his elderly roommates being carted away in body bags. He got gastric bypass surgery because he was likely going to die otherwise.
He would give anything not have to gained all that weight in the first place, not to have the scars on his stomach and the flaps of extra skin, a constant reminder of his previous life. Still, the extreme weight loss has given him this platform, and he intends to use it for good.
"I'm willing to do anything I can do to help others not get to where I was," he said. "I'll speak to any group of people, whether it's kids or adults. But they have to be prepared to hear the truth. I'm not going to sugarcoat it. I'm going to tell them I was so big I couldn't fit behind the wheel of a car. I'm going to tell them the real horrors of where obesity could get them."
Walls, an aspiring chef who works as a line cook in Lawrence, grew up near Manhattan, Kan. He was always a big guy; his problem wasn't so much with the foods he ate, he says, but portion sizes. He tried losing weight on his own, with crash diets, but he would just shed a few pounds before putting on even more.
In 2008, he moved to Illinois for a job. Not long after, he got so sick he ended up in the hospital, then a nursing home, where nurses introduced him to the idea of gastric bypass surgery. He found out he had to lose about 100 pounds to even do the procedure, which he underwent that September.
Walls ultimately went from 962 pounds at his peak to 205 now. He says he didn't do it alone: He credits everyone from his bedside nurses to his fraternity brothers with helping guide him through the experience. And it's taken years of rehabilitation and large-scale lifestyle changes to get him to this point.
"Gastric bypass is not a magic fix," he said. "Just because you have weight loss surgery doesn't mean you can continue to live the life you're living."
He has already counseled several teens and adults struggling with obesity, as well as people set to have gastric bypass surgery. His cooking background — he has a degree in culinary arts — allows him to share insight into preparing healthy food.
But the battle doesn't end with weight-loss surgery, Walls says. He still struggles with his health, and has even lost jobs because he was too ill to show up. And the body-image issues don't go away, either.
"There's still times today I'm totally not comfortable with the fact that I've lost all the weight. I look at myself in the mirror and think, 'Damn, I look sick, or, Man, I need to eat something,'" he said. "It's just such a change.
"It's a hard adjustment for me every day. But every day, I get a little more comfortable with myself."