Key West comedian finding obesity is not a laughing matter

Key West comedian Chad Newman, who concluded his obesity is no laughing matter, starts a social media campaign to lose weight.

08/22/2014 6:04 PM

08/23/2014 10:23 PM

For most of his life, Chad Newman has embraced being the lovable fat guy who did self-deprecating stand-up comedy, played a giant roulette ball for a gambling boat commercial and strutted his super-sized stuff as a dancing stripper for the “Chippenwhales.”

“My stage name was Kid Cholesterol,” the red-haired, blue-eyed, baby-faced Newman said, laughing. “It literally was the best job I’ve ever had. Women, as it turns out, are completely insane when they get together with alcohol and no guys.”

In high school, he squeezed into a fluffy tutu and danced during a talent show: “His mom wanted to crawl under the seat and hide, but everyone else was laughing,” said his father, Richard Newman, a longtime college professor. “Chad always was a cutup, and everyone loved him.”

At age 45, Newman still pokes fun of himself, saying that at 72 inches tall with a 68-inch waistline he’s a “human sphere.” But he knows his weight is no longer a laughing matter.

He has ballooned to 420 pounds, and has been piling up life-threatening, weight-related medical problems: Type 2 diabetes; high cholesterol; high blood pressure; diabetic retinopathy; sleep apnea; edema in his legs; and a recent heart blockage that required implantation of a stent.

“Chad really is at that point of crisis,” said Newman’s personal trainer, Dan Reynen.

For Newman, that point was hammered into his brain during his latest role at the Red Barn Theatre in his adopted hometown of Key West. He wasn’t dancing as a “Chippenwhale.” He was wheezing nonstop as “The Whale” in a play by the same name about a 600-pound, dying man trapped in his upstairs apartment.

“Playing Charlie every night brings it home to me: If I don’t change, this is my future,” Newman said. “I will die.”

So after inner bouts of depression and resigned thoughts that he would not live to celebrate his 50th birthday, Newman is trying — again — to take off the weight. He has relaunched “Too Fat to Fail,” a social media campaign, three years after his first public attempt failed miserably.

That time he tried to lose with good nutrition and exercise. This time he’s planning to undergo bariatric surgery.

“I’m not a big fan of the gastric bypass or sleeve surgeries, but for Chad I think it is ideal,” said Reynen, who worked with Newman during his first “Too Fat to Fail” quest. “We had some success and got Chad down to about 380 pounds. But Chad’s inability to get a grip on his eating habits continues to derail him.”

Newman doesn’t smoke. He doesn’t take drugs. He’s a light drinker. “My addiction is food. It always has been a comfort to me.”

Even though Newman repeatedly says “There’s a lot of fat comedians, but not a lot of old fat comedians,” he can’t stop overeating. That’s why he is investing so much hope in the surgery, which creates a stomach pouch of only a half-ounce to an ounce. That will force him to restrict his food intake.

“I know it’s not a magic bullet,” he said. “I still will have to exercise and watch my nutrition.”

He also knows he needs lots of support: “I can move mountains for others, but I can’t do anything for myself. If I know others have invested into my weight loss, it will guilt me into achieving.”

The surgery costs $20,000 and is not covered by his medical insurance. He has saved $5,000 and is trying to raise the rest by having people support him with the purchase of “Chad Pounds.”

Local caricature artist Lothar Speer created a likeness of Newman that was minted on coins. Gold pounds cost $100. Silver half-pound coins cost $50. And copper quarter-pound coins cost $25. “They are the world’s first Fit Coins,” Newman joked.

Steve Panariello, who with Newman co-founded Digital Island Media, a production company, offered to lend his friend the money: “But knowing Chad for 10 years like I do, it’s true that he really needs to do it for everybody else. If it was anyone else, I’d say ‘That won’t work and let’s go see a counselor.’ ”

Friends and supporters crowded into a launch party held at the Bottle Cap bar in Key West, at which Newman playfully dressed in a hospital gown. Most attendees had a story about how Chad had helped them out. To date, he has raised more than $6,500.

Newman has been documenting the ups and downs of his weight-loss journey with blogs and photos on www.toofattofail.com, Facebook and Twitter. He and Panariello also plan to make videos, maybe even of the surgery. Newman hopes to inspire others who are dealing with the same problems, Panariello said.

“He’s trying to help others, and and he’s trying to create a help-me-not-hurt-myself situation,” Panariello said. “He’s trying to outsmart his own addiction. It’s hard to do.”

Newman has tried to hide his excessive eating. Panariello said he found chocolate wrappers stuffed under the bed in hotel rooms they have shared while on work projects. Panariello also figured out that when Newman volunteered for tasks alone, it was to sneak food.

Newman says he is a “foodie” who savors good meals, and he has an out-of-control sweet tooth. “Damn you, Ben & Jerry’s,” he said.

He wrote in one blog post: “Now that everyone in town knows about what I’m doing, I have a thousand pairs of eyes helping to keep me honest. It’s like my own personal NSA keeping tabs on everything that I eat.”

On a recent trip to Harpoon Harry’s, a regular breakfast spot, he ordered French toast. The waittress told him: “Really? French toast?”

Newman switched to fruit. And he wouldn’t even dare show his face at Key West’s Dairy Queen anymore.

Before his first “Too Fat to Fail” attempt, he had tried many other diets. His father said he even took classes to cook his own healthy food. But Newman said he secretly feared that becoming a normal-size person would make him less funny, less loveable.

For most of his adulthood, his weight hovered between 300 and 330 pounds. That changed about five years ago, when he began taking insulin for his Type 2 diabetes. A side effect is weight gain, and it didn’t take long for Newman to climb over 400 pounds for the first time.

In a 2011 blog post he wrote: “I am not get-rid-of-the-love-handles fat. I am artery-hardening, life-shortening, can’t-walk-up-a-flight-of-stairs fat. I’m sweet Jesus I’m being sucked into his gravitational field fat. And that is going to change.”

But it didn’t. He worked with a nutritionist and a personal trainer. He sought help from a therapist. He symboically flushed candy down the toilet. He could not stick to the plan. He got discouraged. He threw in the towel for more than a year.

“I didn’t know how I could surmount this,” he said. “If I couldn’t do it when I had to lose 100 pounds, how am I going to do it when I need to lose 200 pounds?”

Panariello said: “We’ve had to work on him wanting to live; to stop eating himself to death. Not too long ago, Chad said, ‘Well, I don’t have anything else that makes me happy.’ ”

Panariello realized it was because Newman can no longer do many of the activities he used to love, like riding motorcycles or getting on a boat to go fishing. Newman said traveling also has become difficult; he had to buy two plane tickets for himself for a recent trip to Los Angeles.

It doesn’t help that Newman’s work is mostly sedentary; he sits for hours at his computer editing video. He is dedicated and does meticulous work. The two-person company won a 2010 Emmy for technical achievement for its project on the sinking of the USS Hoyt S. Vandenberg to create an artificial reef.

But he wasn’t as dedicated to himself. In May, he asked Speer to draw a caricature of “Skinny Chad.” Newman had never seen himself looking fit, and he wrote on the blog that Skinny Chad was inside him, waiting to get out.

He also put together a “skinny bucket list,” which includes walking the Seven Mile Bridge, horseback riding, parasailing and parachuting.

“It really bugs me that the Army can push a tank out of a plane and land it using a parachute, but I’m too fat to go parachuting,” he said, laughing.

The list also includes climbing a mountain, maybe even Mount Kilimanjaro.

He took the first big step, meeting with Dr. Nestor de la Cruz-Muñoz, chief of the Division of Laparoendoscopic and Bariatric Surgery at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

“Because I have so much weight to lose, he recommended the gastric-bypass surgery for me,” Newman said.

In that procedure, which usually takes less than an hour, the surgeon makes a small pouch in the stomach. Next, the surgeon attaches a Y-shaped section of the small intestine directly to the pouch, allowing food to bypass a large section of the small intestine, which absorbs calories and nutrients. So a person eats less and absorbs fewer of the calories that are consumed.

“For people who lose weight on diets, they go hungry and do not eat as much as they like,” Cruz-Muñoz said. “The majority of obese people can’t do that long-term. The pull toward eating more is just too strong.”

He said part of the reason, studies show, is that morbidly obese people tend to make less of the hormones GLP-1 and PYY (which make a person feel full) than thinner people make. Morbidly obese people also tend to make more Ghrelin, called the “hunger hormone.”

The surgery not only changes anatomy but also appears to change the production of those three hormones so that a patient craves food less and feels fuller faster, Cruz-Muñoz said.

For years, the self-employed Newman could not afford or acquire health insurance due to his weight and pre-existing conditions. That changed with the Affordable Care Act. He now pays $467.56 per month for the My Cigna Health Flex 1250 Health Plan. But it does not cover bariatric surgery because Florida is one of 17 states that chose not to cover it under the new law.

“It’s very disheartening,” said Cruz-Muñoz, who said he has performed about 4,200 of these “life-saving” surgeries.

“People think obesity is the patient’s fault — if they were not lazy and had some kind of willpower, they would not be obese,” he said. “There is a lot of discrimination against the obese, socially and in the workplace. This is one example. I always tell patients, if they say it would not cover breast cancer surgery, what an uproar there would be over that. No one stands up for the obese.”

Cruz-Muñoz said not covering bariatric surgery also is “short-sighted. Obesity is associated with about 50 medical problems. By losing the weight, most of them get better or go away.”

He cited a meta-analysis of international bariatric surgery studies from 2003 to 2012, which was published in a December 2013 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“What it showed with gastric bypasses is about 84 percent of diabetics get off their medication, 65 percent with high blood pressure get off their medications, 80 percent have sleep apnea go away, and cholesterol returns to normal for about 90 to 95 percent,” he said. “There are a lot of different things it does.”

Newman provided spreadsheets from Cigna that show this year the insurance company already had paid $17,000 for his medical bills (out of $30,000 billed) and will be shelling out thousands more for his recent trip to Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach for the cardiac catheterization, during which surgeons removed a blockage in his heart and installed the stent. His annual drug costs are $12,000.

Cruz-Muñoz and Newman’s primary care physician, Dr. John Norris, say bariatric surgery should not be the last resort in morbidly obese patients.

“While it not necessarily should be the first choice, it should be an earlier choice,” Norris said. “People shouldn’t wait until they’re too sick with all the complications.”

Norris weighed 355 pounds before he underwent bariatric surgery himself. He now weighs 210. “I tell my patients I’m the test dummy,” he said.

The surgery changed “the emotional content of eating” for Norris, who no longer even enjoys his once-favorite food, veal parmesan.

Newman is drawing support from his family, his friends, and longtime girlfriend Joannie Sullivan. They met at a charity speed-dating event nine years ago, and she says he has often talked about having the surgery.

“But he’d say, ‘I’m an emotional eater, and unless I learn the reasons why I’m eating, the surgery won’t be successful,’ ” she said. “I feel now he’s ready to learn and figure out those things, which are frightening to people. They don’t want to go there.”

Sullivan added: “He knows it’s not just having surgery; it’s a complete life change.”

With the tiny stomach pouch, Newman won’t be able to eat and drink at the same time. He’ll have to carefully monitor his nutrition, making sure he eats his needed protein first.

There always are risks of complications. The pouch can stretch, and patients who lose a lot of weight can gain it back. But Cruz-Muñoz said studies show that morbidly obese people who don’t have the surgery die earlier than those who do have it.

“About 300,000 Americans die each year from obesity-related complications,” he said. “It’s the second-most-common cause of preventable death, behind cigarette smoking.”

Most of the times that Newman has been on stage, he is making people laugh. But there were only tears at the end of the play The Whale.

Newman brought so much empathy to the character of Charlie, who repeatedly said: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“Everybody wanted to help [Charlie], all circling around the whale,” Norris said. “But in the end he refuses to let them do it. Chad is the opposite of the whale. He wants help. And he deserves it.”

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