Extremely Big Red

October 10, 2004

You go to a college football game. You find your seat. You stand and cheer. No big deal.

But when you are Patrick Deuel and three months ago you weighed 1,072 pounds, going to a college football game is not just a very big deal. It's what you live for.

Deuel's goal is to be able to attend the very first Nebraska football game of his life, inhale the fresh air and "become part of that sea of red," he says.

That's a lot of red. This is a man who weighed 90 pounds in kindergarten, whose arms weigh 120 pounds apiece and who can't wait to fit back into his XXXXXXXXXXL Huskers T-shirt. And you thought you were Nebraska's biggest fan.

It's not going to be easy. Until June, the 42-year-old former pancake house manager hadn't been out of his bed in at least seven months. Hadn't been out of his house in Valentine, Neb., in seven years. (The doors weren't big enough.) Couldn't lie on his back to sleep because there was so much fat on his chest that his lungs couldn't expand. Couldn't roll over without the help of two or three people.

"He was terminal," says his doctor, Frederick Harris. "He was going to die."

For 14 years, Patrick and his wife, Edith, had been begging for help. Insurance companies he approached kept saying that treatment for his morbid obesity--partly the fault of his genes--was "cosmetic" and refused to help.

No hospital within 400 miles of Valentine was willing to take a man who weighed almost as much as the entire Nebraska defensive line. The Deuels were trapped. Meanwhile, adults and high school kids drove by the house shouting obscenities at Patrick.

Enter Dr. Harris, who refused to let Deuel die. Harris pleaded with Avera McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.Dak., to take Deuel, even though the facility wouldn't be able to collect the hundreds of thousands of dollars his care would cost. When the hospital said yes, the problems really began.

It took a specially equipped ambulance--one of only six in the country--to transport the half-ton man. When the vehicle got to Deuel's house, a local rescue team had already cut down the wall between the garage and his bedroom with a saw.

"Patrick was facing a wall not a foot and a half from his face," says Dan Gray, the man in charge of the move for American Medical Response. "That's what he'd been staring at for months."

"I was sure I was going to die in the ambulance that day," says Deuel. His skin was stretched so thin, a cut or a hernia could kill him. Lying in the wrong position could kill him. Edith was scared, too, but she couldn't be there with him because she had to work.

"They'd said their last goodbyes the night before," Gray said. "They thought this was the end."

Six strong men pulled Deuel onto a Hovermat--a mattress that floats inches above the ground on a cushion of compressed air. The mattress was lowered onto a stretcher that was pulled into the ambulance by a winch.

Then they drove four hours to Sioux Falls--"We couldn't give him food," says Gray, "but he never stopped smiling"--where the hospital had already widened the door to his room and laid a king-sized mattress across two reinforced beds clamped together.

Placed on a strict 1,200-calories-a-day diet, Deuel began losing a toddler a day: as much as 20 pounds. Tell Jared from Subway that. Deuel just keeps getting thinner. "He really wants to go to that Nebraska game," says Harris.

Last week he was down to 684 pounds, which meant he had lost 388 pounds, which meant he could finally ride in a reinforced wheelchair (weight limit: 700 pounds), which meant he could actually be wheeled outside now. It was the first time he'd regularly felt sunshine on his face since 1997.

If he can lose another 334 pounds, he'll be at 350, which he hopes will allow him to walk proudly, on his own, into Memorial Stadium.

Nebraska had better hold a bunch of seats. Deuel and his sunny face have made so many friends, everybody wants to be there for his moment. Nurses, doctors, hospital janitors.

"My crew and I are coming," says Gray. "We love Patrick. He's a very smart, eloquent man. He's the favorite call we've ever made."

He's still a mile from pulling it off. "He's just getting to the hard part," says Tina Ames, a hospital spokesman. To help him live a normal life, Harris plans to perform risky gastric bypass surgery (stomach stapling) on him soon.

We college football fans whoop for and worship the athletes on the field. But just this once, could we stand and cheer for a fan?

After all, wouldn't it be great to go to a game where the goosebumps comeback victory happens before kickoff?

If Patrick Deuel can lose another 334 pounds, he'll be at 350 and could attend his very first Nebraska football game.

COLOR PHOTOPETER READ MILLER

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)