At nearly 600 pounds, Hector Garcia Jr. had to struggle to get to the bathroom across the hall from his bedroom so that his mother, Elena, could wash him after having cut his hair in November 2010. A month before, Hector started dieting after he realized he was close to his highest known weight, 636 pounds.

A Prisoner in His Own Home

Photographer Lisa Krantz documents one man’s struggle with obesity

Body image and health in America is a mess. Most visual media like magazines, movies, and TV make subtle to overt declarations about who is too skinny and who is too fat. Reddit’s /r/FatPeopleHate (which is exactly what it sounds like) has nearly 100,000 followers. I will not dignify that with a link.

According to the World Health Organization, 39% of adults aged 18 years and over were overweight in 2014, and 13% were obese. Obesity is severely misunderstood in the general population, and is often attributed to “laziness” rather than being recognized as an actual health problem.

At some point, people stopped being able to see the person beyond the condition. A common mindset is that obese people are to be judged, not to be helped.

Garcia gets a visit from his family to celebrate his 45th birthday on Nov. 20, 2010. His sister, Rebecca Freed, from front, her daughter, Lauren Ibarra, stepdaughter, Brooke Freed, and Rebecca’s husband, Tom Freed, brought him Gerber daisies, balloons and a card.

Photojournalist Lisa Krantz wants you to know that Hector Garcia, Jr. was more than a statistic. He was a person, and he wanted his story to be known. Over the course of four years, Krantz and writer Jessica Belasco of the San Antonio Express-News created a moving portrait of Hector.

“That was always one of the most important things to me. Not ‘giving him a voice’ as we say, but actually his voice being heard,” Krantz says. “I just really wanted to tell a story, and that’s exactly what we always talk about doing, telling these untold stories.”

When Krantz first met Hector, she was immediately struck by how eager and thorough he was when it came to recounting his past, and what led him to weight he then carried.

“He could talk about it from the time he was a child. and I had never heard anyone who could articulate it in that way,” she says.

Garcia stretches as he wakes up at his home in November 2010. At more than 600 pounds, he used a continuous positive airway pressure machine for sleep apnea. A month before, he began trying to lose weight.

From “A Life Apart: The Toll of Obesity”:

Chubby as a child, Garcia was picked on and ridiculed. He began dieting in high school but always regained the weight he had lost and more.

By his mid-30s, when he reached his peak weight, he had gastric bypass surgery and lost nearly 400 pounds but gradually regained it.

With both knees so damaged by his weight that he barely could move, Garcia mustered the determination to shed about 350 pounds again, this time through dieting and exercise, in order to have double knee replacement surgery when he was 46.

In the two years since then, as his weight approached 600 pounds yet again, Garcia’s body became as much a mental prison as a physical one.

To save others from the same pain and alienation, Garcia allowed a San Antonio Express-News photographer to follow him for the past four years to see close up the toll obesity takes.

“My life is a cautionary tale,” he said.

“Obesity is horrible… It’s like being in prison and the prison is your own body. It starts to betray you after a while because it’s taken too much damage,” Hector Garcia Jr. said in November 2011 as he began his journey to lose 300 pounds in hopes of having life-changing knee surgeries.

Krantz first met Hector through his sister, Rebecca Freed. She told Krantz that people like her brother are “prisoners in their own home.” They may have the financial resources to get help, but they lack the mobility. Sometimes the problem is vice versa. There is no easy solution.

“She just really wanted to help her brother. She thought that if there was a story he would get help,” Krantz says.

Garcia is skeptical of the sugar-free cake his mother bought for him as he celebrates his 45th birthday with his niece, Lauren Ibarra.

Krantz recalls her very first meeting with Hector as being similar to most of the subsequent time she spent with him. He would sit in his big chair, and Krantz would sit next to him in a folding chair. Sometimes she would take pictures, but other times she would just listen.

“It was just quote after quote of ‘Wow, that explains it on a whole new level.’” she says.

Hector was kind, open and curious. They talked about his weight problem, but they also talked about one another’s lives. They had a mutual fondness for bad reality TV. He knew as much about Krantz as she knew about him.

“It really was just a total partnership, him and I.” she says. “It wasn’t ‘Oh, I’m telling your story’ it was “You’re telling your story, I’m just taking the pictures.”

Hector Garcia Jr. rests after walking laps for the first time at the Palo Alto College Aquatic Center pool in May 2011. Barely able to move without the aid of a walker because of his damaged knees, Hector could walk in the water with less pain and began an exercise routine based on walking laps in the pool.
“Because I was lonely, because I was ostracized, because I was mistreated, I turned to food for comfort,” Hector said of his lifelong relationship with food.
Hector Garcia Jr. plays with his nephew, Brandon Garcia, of Houston, on Thanksgiving at his sister’s house in November 2011. Having lost more than 200 pounds, Garcia was able to leave his house and attend his family’s Thanksgiving gathering for the first time in several years.

Hector’s weight ballooned up and down most of his life, but in 2012, he saw hope on the horizon. After dropping more than 300 pounds, he could finally get knee replacement surgery.

“That was his big goal, the golden apple,” Krantz says.

Unfortunately, the surgery changed Hector’s life for the worse. He had the first two surgeries months apart, but a complication required him to undergo four operations in total.

“He never really was mobile again after that in the way that he had been before the surgeries. It was just this downward spiral.”

Hector Garcia Jr. and Lupita Mendoza share ice cream cones at Marble Slab in December 2011. Hector met Mendoza, who lives in Alabama, on Facebook through a mutual friend and got together for coffee and ice cream when she visited San Antonio. “I never developed social graces. I never learned to meet people because I didn’t want to get hurt. And of course for girls or women, I was setting myself up for rejection and I knew it. So I just didn’t do it,” Hector said of his lack of romantic relationships.
Obesity “strips you of your pride, it takes everything away from you,” he said. “You can’t hide it. It’s always there, it’s always in front so people always see it.”
As he begins to drift off, Hector Garcia Jr. is prepared for anesthesia and his first knee replacement surgery at Mission Trail Baptist Hospital in July 2012. After years of carrying hundreds of extra pounds, Hector could barely walk on his damaged knees. He’d lost more than 300 pounds on his own through dieting and exercise so he could have both knees fixed.

His knees more fragile than ever, Hector retreated to old habits. He spent most of the last couple years of his life relegated to his bedroom. By late November of 2014, his health was on a steep decline. Breathing, in particular, was the most difficult for him.

Hector passed away Dec. 8, 2014, just a few hours after Krantz and a friend visited him at his home.

“It was a huge shock, because I had just been there. So that’s a hard thing to reconcile when you’re just with someone and all of a sudden they’re … they die. You can’t ever expect that. But I will say that I had started to become a lot more worried about him. I knew that it was a possibility,” Krantz says.

Hector Garcia Jr. undergoes physical therapy in July 2012 after his first knee replacement operation. Not being able to exercise as he had before the surgery was a setback for Hector. “You can’t go into the water, you can’t get onto the treadmill… And for someone like me who is very regimented and has to stick to certain plans because of my problems with abusing food, it’s the kiss of death,” Hector said. “It destroyed me basically because I started gaining weight again. Slowly but surely the weight started coming
Hector Garcia Jr. takes a seat as his family gathers for a photo on Thanksgiving at the home of his sister, Laura Garcia, in 2012. After his knee surgeries, in pain and unable to exercise, Hector grew depressed and once again turned to food for comfort. “If I had to paint you a picture of my life, it would be of a little kid, behind the glass at the store, with his hands pressed up against the glass, looking at the world go by. Life has been going on and I have been missing it. I’ve been missing it my whole life,” Hector said.
Hector Garcia Jr. lights the candle on his cake for his 49th birthday Nov. 19, 2014 as his mother, Elena Garcia, begins to sing to him at their home in San Antonio. By his birthday, Hector was confined to his chair, only walking to the bathroom and his bed. In January 2013 Hector was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and as he gained weight, the disease progressed rapidly.
Elena Garcia breaks down as she tells the story of her son Hector Garcia Jr. collapsing and her efforts to revive him the night before in their living room to other son, John, and his wife, Rosa, left, after they arrived from Houston on Dec. 9, 2014 to comfort her. “He was having more and more trouble with his COPD. He couldn’t get enough oxygen into his lungs,” Elena said. “Two minutes, that’s all it took… I thank the Lord that he didn’t suffer. He suffered so much his whole life.”

After Hector’s death, his story reached thousands of people, just as he hoped it would. The Huffington Post published some images from the project and got more than 10,000 likes on their Facebook page. Krantz said that, of course, some of the internet comments were cruel, but for every rude remark, there were several stories from people who emphasized with Hector and his situation.

“A lot of people are not understanding, and aren’t empathetic, and don’t care, and are so incredibly quick to judge by someone’s exterior appearance, and that is disheartening. But this story, I think, has changed some people’s views, and that is the purpose,” Krantz says.

Hector Garcia Jr.’s body is removed from his home Dec. 8, 2014, by contractors with the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office. Hector had walked 40 feet from his room to answer the front door when his mother arrived home without her key. “Mom, I can’t breathe, Mom, I can’t breathe,” Hector’s mother, Elena, described him saying before he collapsed in her recliner. “Just that walk from the bedroom door, that’s all it took,” she said.

After Hector’s story was in the Huffington Post, The Doctors, a talk show, asked Krantz how they could contact Hector’s family. Shortly after, the show flew Hector’s mother, Elena, and sister to Los Angeles. They surprised Elena with a six month weight loss package that included a personal trainer and meetings with a nutritionist. According to Krantz, Elena has already lost nearly 30 pounds.

“I made a promise to mijo,” Elena said to the San Antonio-Express News. “I’m going to lose that weight.”

Crumb, one of the Garcia family dogs, lies on Hector Garcia Jr.’s bed shortly after his body was removed by contractors with the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office early Dec. 9, 2014.

All photos by Lisa Krantz, courtesy of the San Antonio Express-News

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