When Robert Walls graduated from high school in 2000, he weighed 330 pounds.
Seven years later, he weighed 940.
“I was always a bigger guy, and I gradually started getting bigger,” said Walls, who moved from Kansas to Midland last month to become kitchen manager at Riley’s Bar & Grill. “I had issues just like any other big person did, but I never thought there was anything wrong with me. I was happy being ‘Big Rob.’ But as I started getting bigger and sicker, I started becoming more ashamed.
An aspiring chef, Walls had to leave culinary school because he was too sick. At his peak weight of nearly 960 pounds, he moved to Illinois to take up a graphic arts job.
“The job didn’t work out — it got to a point where I couldn’t physically handle the job,” he told the Midland Reporter-Telegram (http://bit.ly/19c2uCI). “I didn’t have any family where I was. Before you know it, I found myself homeless.”
Walls attempted different diets and weight-loss plans, but the pounds never stayed off.
“I would see ‘TV weight loss’ this or ‘this diet’ that,” he said. “I was trying all this different stuff. I lost a couple hundred pounds from different diets, but even then, I couldn’t sustain it. I would lose 200 pounds and then gain 50.”
Eventually, Walls ended up in the hospital, where they made the decision to admit him to a nursing home.
“I couldn’t go out and work. I couldn’t stand on my feet 10 hours a day,” he said. “It was like being in prison — not being able to do anything for yourself.
Walls was in and out of nursing homes for a few years, a time he described as “very, very lonely.”
“I spent a lot of time in those nursing homes by myself, staring at the walls, online chatting, doing graphic design work, even online dating,” he said. “I was very standoffish with family and friends. I would go months, sometimes years, without talking to family. I would never visit family and friends because I was so ashamed. I went from being a very rah-rah, outgoing, front-of-the-crowd person to being more withdrawn.”
But there was an upside to all the loneliness. Though he was stuck in hospital and nursing home beds, Walls decided to continue his education. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in hotel restaurant management and degrees in culinary arts and graphic design.
Then, he met two people who he said saved his life.
Ron Goodman and Paige Whitney were both nurses at Walls’ nursing home, and they introduced him to the gastric bypass surgery.
“They were telling me how they felt I was too young to be in a nursing home,” Walls said. “I was 27, and I was seeing people die every day. I would go to breakfast with a lady who’s 75 or 80 years old and have a conversation with her, and then I would go look for her at lunch — and she’d be gone. I was living in a place where people go to die.”
Walls was approved for the gastric bypass surgery, a procedure that divides the stomach and leads to a smaller functional stomach volume. When accompanied with diet and exercise, patients lose a large amount of weight over time.
Dr. Subhash Nagalla, a bariatric surgeon at Odessa Regional Medical Center, said people with a body mass index (BMI) over 40, or over 35 with life-threatening conditions, qualify for the gastric bypass surgery. A normal BMI is between 18.5 and 24.9.
First, Walls had to lose more than 100 pounds to prepare for the surgery. When he underwent the five-hour operation in September 2008, he weighed 844 pounds.
Weight loss after gastric bypass surgery varies widely depending on how seriously the patient follows a proper diet and exercise, Nagalla said. Most patients typically lose about 40 pounds by the second month after surgery and 100 by the sixth month.
By Walls’ first month check-up, he had already lost 100 pounds.
However, that weight didn’t come off easily, Walls said. The gastric bypass surgery involves special diets that must be followed, or patients could gain back all the weight they’ve lost. Walls was put on a diet where he was only able to eat 2-ounce portions of food at a time.
“I went from being able to eat KFC every day to eating puréed food and protein shakes,” he said. “All of my favorite things were pretty much nonexistent.”
Walls continued losing weight over the next few years. When he had lost about 400 pounds, it became apparent he would need surgery to remove the loose, hanging skin on his body.
More than 90 percent of patients who undergo weight loss surgery experience loose skin, Nagalla said. The skin loses its elasticity because of significant stretching to accommodate excessive weight gain. Eventually, it reaches a state where it cannot recoil after dramatic weight loss.
It’ll be five years this September since Walls’ surgery, and he’s still losing weight. Currently, he has lost nearly 750 pounds.
Walls’ results aren’t typical, Nagalla said. Most patients lose weight for 18 to 20 months after gastric bypass surgery. However, most patients also don’t start out as 960 pounds, he said.
“He did very well,” Nagalla said. “That’s not the typical result. Usually, when you have such a high BMI, the surgery technically becomes very different. However, the more weight that a person has, the higher the chance of losing more weight.”
The most important thing now is to keep that weight down, Nagalla said. If a patient doesn’t follow dietary restrictions and continues eating fried and high-calorie foods, there’s no way you can prevent them gaining all the weight back.
Walls said his problem now is that he’s not comfortable weighing so little.
“I’ve never weighed this small,” he said. “I weigh 215 pounds now. The last time I weighed 215 pounds was in the sixth grade!”
Though he eats “whatever he wants” now, he eats small portions. Walls said he wants to feel healthier and is looking for a trainer to help him become more physically fit.
“I was a very ultra-athletic person, very strong,” he said. “As I’ve lost weight, I’ve started to gain some of that back. I want to put on mass, I want to put on muscle, I want to feel more physically fit.”
Adjusting to life after the surgery is mentally and physically taxing, Walls said.
“It’s hard because you look in the mirror and don’t see that 900-pound person anymore,” he said. “Everything I did was wrapped around being that big. It changes your entire identity — who you are, what you wear, what you eat, how you carry yourself.”
Physically, Walls said he loves that he can wear clothes that aren’t from the Big and Tall store. He used to need sizes 8X, 9X and 10X.
“I actually have a wardrobe now,” he said. “Back then, I spent all my money on shoes and hats because I could wear shoes and hats, because I couldn’t wear clothes.”
Last month, Walls moved from his native Kansas to Midland to take up the kitchen manager position at Riley’s Bar & Grill. He is responsible for ordering, recipes and nearly all of the cooking.
Adjusting to Midland has been difficult at times, he said.
“I think that if you’re not strong mentally, it is a very depressing place,” he said. “There is nothing but alcohol and oilfields here.”
Luckily, Walls said his “restaurant family” takes care of him, including assistant manager Mary Ann Brashear.
“He got down in the dumps one day, missing home, missing family,” Brashear said. “I let him know real quick that he’s got family here, too.”
Though Walls has been interviewed by Lifetime Television, A&E and Food Network to appear on various shows, he said he doesn’t want to glamorize the weight loss process.
“I feel they don’t give a very accurate glimpse, a real enough glimpse, of what a person goes through,” he said. “I don’t want to tell my story from a glitzy, glamoury, ‘it was easy’ perspective. Because it’s not. It’s not easy.”
As for reality weight loss shows like “The Biggest Loser” — Walls said they’re a “total crock.”
“Those people have every celebrity fitness trainer, every celebrity dietitian, every celebrity everything,” he said. “They lose 100 pounds, they go off the show and then six months later, you see them on the red carpet somewhere enjoying their 15 minutes of fame — and they’ve gained it all back, plus 20 pounds.
“I’d really just like to stress that it does not happen overnight. It’s not easy. Don’t believe what you see on TV — with the magic diets and people having these weight loss surgeries and all of a sudden they’re smaller.”
Visit Walls’ YouTube page at http://www.youtube.com/channel/UCuga2TXmbK_-gjHysWaW8eg to see his weight loss journey.
(Photo: In a July 2013 photo Robert Walls, chef and kitchen manager, stands in the kitchen at Riley’s Bar and Grill in Midland, Texas. Walls used to weigh more than 900 pounds but has worked to get his weight down to 215 pounds. (AP Photo/Reporter-Telegram, Tim Fischer) Tim FischerReporter-Telegram)