GARDINER — Thomas Towle III doesn’t really know for sure how much he weighed. He never found a scale that could measure his mass, so his doctor suggested trying to find a business that had an industrial scale capable of weighing machines or material. If he had ever done that, Towle figures he would have tipped the scales at around 800 pounds.

“We couldn’t even find out exactly how much I did weigh, how bad it was really,” Towle said. “Standing up was almost impossible sometimes.”

The number remains a mystery, but the impact of being saddled with the mass equivalent of three extra men was painfully clear. Towle saw it in the looks of loathing cast his way every time he was able to venture out in public and the fear he saw in his parents’ eyes. His doctor gave Towle, who had yet to reach his 20s, just a year to live if something didn’t change.

“He was at death’s door,” recalled his mother, Carol Towle. “It was heartbreaking. I’d watch him crawl around on his knees because he couldn’t walk. The worst part, for me, was I couldn’t do anything for him. As much as I would preach to him, he had to want to do it for himself. The more I harped at him. the more he’d eat.”

From that starting point, beginning literally on his hands and knees, Thomas Towle resolved to get his life back. That moment came more than 500 pounds ago during what Towle describes as another life.

“I’ll always be addicted to food, but it’s what I choose to do with it that is going to determine the rest of my life,” Towle said. “What I choose to do with it is win every day. I choose to be a winner. I have something to live for and something to succeed for. It’s not worth going back.”

Towle, 35, has hit another roadblock in his odyssey back to an ordinary life: the folds of skin that not only threaten his health, but force him to wear compression garments every day to maintain any semblance of stability and shape. Towle needs reconstructive surgeries to remove the excess skin from his chest, abdomen and legs that all together will cost close to $30,000. He is confident his insurance company will pay for at least a portion of the bill, but Towle knows he will be on the hook for thousands more. Towle is reaching out to the public for help. He is finding people are anxious to respond.

“I need them,” Towle said of the procedures. “They’re the next step in me finishing this journey.”

EARLY TROUBLE

Towle’s only memory of having an average weight, at least until the last few years, was when he was in elementary school. Even as a baby his parents, Carol and Thomas Towle Jr., struggled to keep their son’s weight in check. Carol said they lived with Thomas Towle Jr.’s grandparents right after their son was born. Thomas and Carol Towle had to work, so his grandmother often took care of the young Thomas Towle III.

“She was a firm believer in feeding him whatever he wanted,” Carol Towle said. “If he wanted 10 eggs for breakfast, he got 10 eggs for breakfast. It was a bad situation all around, but we didn’t have a choice.”

Their son began to add weight at an alarming rate. Carol Towle said he weighed about 150 pounds when he was just 4 years old. She put her son on a strict diet when the family moved into their own place.

“When he started kindergarten in Brunswick, he looked like a normal little boy,” Carol Towle said. “By the time he got to fourth grade, he started putting it back on. Food was his friend. It was what made him feel good.”

Carol Towle said she would hide the food she bought in an effort to keep it away from her son, but his determination to find it always seemed greater than her ability to find new spots. Doctors scolded her about her son’s weight and warned her to find a way to make him take it off.

“Well, unless I put a chain around the refrigerator, he manages to get it somehow,” Carol Towle said. “It wasn’t necessarily sweets or candy; it was anything in the house.”

Thomas Towle said he would plan his days around food. When he found a stash, he would take it, and following his mother’s lead, hide it from her so that he could eat undetected. He remembers using any money he got to surreptitiously purchase food.

“I actually took money in fourth grade and bought everyone’s Halloween candy,” Towle said. “That’s how bad I was addicted to food.”

The toll of carrying that weight grew greater, both emotionally and physically. Several times a vein pushed to the surface in Towle’s leg would burst if scratched or pumped. His parents would rush Towle to the hospital. Carol Towle said her son’s blood pressure would sometimes spike so high that emergency room physicians warned her that Thomas could die.

“I almost lost him several times just from asthma,” Carol said. “He couldn’t breath. He was just so big.”

The weight put so much pressure on Thomas Towle’s feet, ankles and knees that walking became almost impossible. A quick trip to the grocery store would mean a day of complete rest the next day, popping pain pills like they were Pez hoping to quiet his screaming joints.

‘DARK TIME’

The weight forced Thomas Towle into deeper isolation until he finally dropped out of high school. Going to school was too difficult and seeing the other students was too embarrassing, Towle said.

“I did an amazing job, I think, of putting a great face on, letting no one know how much being that heavy bothered me,” he said. “I made jokes at myself to survive. If someone was making fun of me, I made fun of myself harder. That way your jokes didn’t hurt me, or at least you thought they didn’t hurt me. Inside, it was a totally different story. It crushed me inside.”

The comments his parents heard still cause them to shake their heads in a mixture of anger and wonder. The wounds were as likely to come from adults as they were from children. Carol, who said she was heavy when young, still remembers being teased, but nothing she heard compared to the contempt heaped upon her son.

“It’s unbelievable how cruel people can be,” she said. “Most people that are obese don’t want to be that way. It’s like being addicted to a drug. You need your cocaine fix or whatever? These people need their food fix.”

And not all the prejudice and judgment was aimed at their son. Towle’s parents said people wondered how they could let it happen.

“It was a very dark time,” Carol said.

That darkness began to lift in the late 1990s when that doctor in North Carolina gave Towle a year to live.

“He asked me how important living was,” Towle said. “It resonated. I decided to do something, but I didn’t know what.”

Doctors proved little help. They all suggested various diets, such as Weight Watchers, NutriSlim or Jenny Craig. All worked for a time, but never gave any lasting success.

Towle realized some success when he began purchasing Herbalife from a woman at his church. He said he replaced regular food with the two shakes and dozens of pills he was gulping down each day. Towle said he shed pounds quickly because he wasn’t eating, but he struggled to stay on the program due to its $400 a month price tag.

“The saying really is true: You lose 50 and you gain back 75,” Towle said. “The minute I went off, I gained it right back. I never established good eating habits. I never established a pattern of exercise. I just looked for a pill to be that magic bullet. When the magic bullet’s gone, or you can’t afford it any more, you go back to what you know.”

JOB HELPS

The turning point, ironically enough, came when Towle landed a job at McDonald’s. On its face, giving a food addict nearly unlimited access to fast food is a potential powder keg, but the job proved to be Towle’s turning point. The managers went to great lengths to accommodate Towle, allowing him to work the takeout window in the back, giving him a stool to sit on and allowing him breaks when he needed them.

“I learned to work at McDonald’s, and I lost weight,” he said. “I was actually getting out of the house. Even though I might not have been standing up and doing exercise, I think the motion, the actual getting out, was a big first step in losing some of that weight.”

His weight continued to fluctuate, but continued to trend downward over the next several years. Towle lost about 200 pounds through improved diet and additional exercise. He tried to read his body better, to stop eating when he felt full. Having a job helped change his outlook, even if he had to come home from that job and collapse until it was time to go back. He still weighed close to 600 pounds.

“You learn to look at things differently,” Towle said. “You look at food differently. You learn to replace the emotional aspects that food brought with other things. Matt and Heather were that other thing for me.”

Towle credits his siblings, Matt and Heather Towle, now 18 and 16 respectively, with giving him the motivation to change his life for good. He recalls the moment it happened. It was 2010. Towle was with his family at Funtown Splashtown USA in Saco. Matt and Heather asked their older brother to go on a ride with them. Thomas sat down, but he was too large to continue. He was forced to get off. In front of his siblings and everyone else around the ride, Towle got up and walked away.

“It broke my heart,” Towle said. “I realized I’d never be able to do fun, enjoyable things with them if I didn’t go further than what I had. They gave me encouragement and spark to ignite what was already in me to go the rest of the way.”

‘PURE DETERMINATION’

Towle’s primary care physician had urged him to consider bariatric surgery. In February 2011 he had a checkup and told her he was ready to try. Towle said his doctor was ecstatic.

She referred Towle to Dr. Jamie Loggins at Central Maine Medical Center’s Central Maine Bariatric Surgery. Over the next several months, Towle went through a battery of tests and evaluations, both psychological and physical, and took classes in nutrition.

Central Maine Bariatric gave Towle final approval for the surgery, and his insurance company, Aetna, agreed to pick up the tab.

“It makes you feel like, OK, I have another shot at this,” Towle said. “I have another tool. Maybe I’m going to beat this.”

In June of 2011, Towle underwent Roux-en-y gastric bypass surgery during which Loggins used a portion of his stomach to create a second smaller stomach. The smaller stomach not only holds less food, creating a sensation of being full after eating about a cup’s worth, but it also passes nutrients more quickly meaning fewer calories are absorbed.

Towle, who had to lose more than 50 pounds to prepare for the surgery, tipped the scale at just over 500 pounds at the time of the procedure. He has since dropped more than 200 pounds.

Dr. Huy Trieu, medical director of MaineGeneral Medical Center’s Bariatric Center, said most people seek help because of serious health problems such as diabetes, sleep apnea and high blood pressure.

“It’s not one of those things where it’s an emergency, but it’s a chronic issue that definitely shortens your life,” he said.

Those who come to the Augusta hospital must undergo what Trieu described as a “pretty extensive educational process” that involves learning about nutrition, exercise and submitting to a psychological evaluation.

Towle said people have a misconception that bariatric surgery makes weight loss easy, as though those who have it are somehow cheating.

But Towle said that belief is based on a lack of understanding of the hard work required after the surgery. Towle has had to give up — forever — some of his favorite foods, even healthful ones, because they now make him sick. The condition is known as dumping syndrome. Every patient has different foods their bodies will no longer tolerate. In short, Towle has had to change his relationship with food.

“People think surgery is the easy way out,” Towle said. “Most of us who have had the surgery go through a lot to get to the surgery point, both physically and emotionally. Then afterwards people don’t understand the lifestyle changes that it takes to maintain, the things you have to know going in that you’re going to have to give up. You sacrifice something. Is the sacrifice worth it? Absolutely!”

“Nobody realizes until they go through it themselves,” his father, Thomas Towle Jr., added. “It’s pure determination.”

GOOD HEALTH

Towle, who now weighs about 270 pounds, continues to lose weight at a slow and sometimes erratic rate, but he is nearing his goal of getting below 250 pounds. He said he’s never had his sights on the 165 pounds that the Body Mass Index says would be perfect. Towle’s big goal is to blend into a crowd and wear the clothes that everyone else wears.

“All I’ve ever wanted out of all of this is to be as healthy as I can possibly be, and live as normal of a healthy life as I can possibly live, and get to enjoy things that average people can enjoy,” Towle said. “Things like that still bring a reality check to me. You really have come a long ways.”

Towle, who takes vitamins and medicine for a low thyroid, said he no longer has high blood pressure and is in good health. At one time, doctors talked about operating on his feet and even replacing his knees. Knee surgery, if it is needed, has been put off for years, Towle said.

“These are all things I’ve avoided by being dedicated and determined to win the battle,” Towle said. “It’s an ongoing battle.”

The highlight of Towle’s day is still hopping out of bed in the morning. It used to take several minutes of starts and stops just to get his feet on the floor and body upright and then only to have the shooting pain begin in his legs, ankles and feet. Towle, who earned a General Educational Development diploma, works full time at Hannaford and takes at least three classes each semester at the University of Maine at Augusta where he is majoring in business administration and minoring in justice studies. He is a regular on the Dean’s List.

“I could stand for 16 hours at work if I needed to,” Towle said. “I don’t have to come home and that next day to rest in agony and pain. I can go like the Energizer bunny. That the biggest change I see in myself.”

More than a decade after being told he had a year to live, Towle now dreams of a future in marketing or working in the corporate offices at Hannaford.

“When he had this surgery, something went off,” Carol Towle said. “He looked at himself differently. He set dreams and goals.”

The extra skin Thomas Towle continues to carry around is more than an unwelcome reminder of his previous life.

“I stretched my skin to horrible lengths,” Towle said. “It doesn’t go back. No amount of exercise will get it back to where it was.”

Towle suffers from rashes and irritations that develop in the folds of skin. He said he showers frequently and has prescriptions for lotions and creams, but the rashes still occur particularly around his chest and on his inner thigh.

Trieu, the MaineGeneral physician, said people who lose hundreds of pounds do often have to deal with excess skin. In some patients, it causes pain because it pulls, and the rashes can sometimes become infected.

“There’s definitely a physical component to it,” he said. “I’ve had patients who are very distraught about it.”

Insurance companies will cover reconstructive surgery if it’s medically necessary, but for excess skin in other areas, such as arms, legs and the upper abdomen, it’s unlikely to be covered, he said.

MORE SURGERY

Towle has begun the process of having reconstructive surgery that will remove the excess skin from his chest, around his abdomen and from his thighs. Surgeons have said they expect to remove more than 20 pounds of skin, which would get Towle close to his goal of weighing 250 pounds or less.

“I will have a masculine looking chest instead of what I have now, which is just bags of useless skin,” Towle said.

Aetna, his insurance company, in 2012 approved a panniculectomy, a procedure to remove the apron of excess skin that hung below Towle’s belly button. Towle said insurance will typically pay for surgery that will prevent future rashes, so he is confident his company will pay to have the skin removed from his chest and legs, which will cost about $15,000, excluding the expected hospital stay and medications. Towle said insurance almost certainly will not pay to remove the extra skin from around his abdomen because it is not prone to rashes. Without the abdomen surgery, which is called a circumferential body lift, Towle said he will be left with a large “spare tire” around his midsection. The lift will cost more than $12,500.

Towle two weeks ago opened a GoFundMe account with the hope of raising $10,000. So far it has generated more than $1,000, which does not include the numerous donations people have given Towle in person. Towle thinks his story resonates with people in the community.

“They’ve seen the progression,” Towle said. “One thing that didn’t change in me is my personality. I don’t look at people based on shape, size, color or anything. I think they respect that in me. They think I’m worth the investment.”

But Towle’s parents say he has always been worth the investment. His father, Thomas Towle Jr., said even when his son was unable to walk around the house, he was always a good son and loving brother to Heather and Matt.

“I thank God you’re still around,” his father said.

“I do, too,” his son said. “I would have missed out on a lot.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @CraigCrosby4


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.