MARS HILL, Maine — Just like millions of other men and women across the United States, 46-year-old Lynne Dews is an emotional eater.
The Madawaska resident tended to turn to food to soothe negative emotions related to life, financial or relationship stressors, or tied great food to holidays and celebrations with family and friends. For the past few years, however, the primary emotion that Dews has connected to food has been despair, as the substance that most people associate with sustaining life has threatened to rob Dews of her own.
Six months ago, the former music teacher weighed more than 500 pounds. Her size forced her to withdraw from society, confined to a bed in her home, receiving few visitors beyond the handful of nurses and friends who stopped in to offer care.
On Wednesday afternoon, however, Dews said those memories of the past are no longer dragging her down as deeply as they once did — finally, the numbers on the scale are going down.
Approximately two months ago, Dews entered the Aroostook Health Center, a 72-bed residential care facility in Mars Hill owned by The Aroostook Medical Center that focuses on both long-term care and rehabilitation services. The move came in January after she hit her “personal rock bottom” at the home she shares with her father.
“Admittedly, I was talking suicide,” she said, tears welling in her eyes during an interview at the facility. “And my doctor told me that if I did not lose weight, I would be dead in five years. And I did not want that to happen.”
Dews, an only child, said she was raised in a household where she was expected to eat everything on her plate at meal times. She said she was never really taught about nutrition and how to prepare a balanced meal.
She became an elementary school music teacher, conducting her student musicians standing up until weight gain made it too painful.
“Eventually, I got to be 400 pounds and I had to conduct the band and chorus using a chair,” she said.
In January 2006, Dews’ world came crashing down around her after she was diagnosed with meningitis and spent more than two weeks in a coma. She gained more weight and lost more muscle mass, and along with it the ability to care for herself.
“That is when caregivers had to start coming in to help me,” she said, adding that two caregivers were needed because her father needed medical attention as well.
At times, complaining about Dews’ attitude, caregivers would simply stop coming, leaving her care to her father.
“You are in your 40s and your father has to help you take a bath,” she said, her voice breaking. “Can you imagine how humiliating that was?”
In January, her father’s caregiver saw Dews’ state of mind and contacted the police. Dews said she had no one to help her, so she was left to lie in bed in her own feces and urine, unable to sit up or even to roll herself over. She was hospitalized in Fort Kent and then at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, but doctors were unsure what to do with her, as there was no apparent acute threat to her life, other than her morbid obesity.
Individuals are considered morbidly obese if they weigh 50-100 percent more, or 100 pounds above, their ideal body weight.
“They were going to send me home, but I didn’t want that at all,” she said.
With the assistance of Reneva Fitzpatrick of Elder Independence of Maine, Dews was admitted to the Mars Hill facility. Gail Hallett, skilled clinical supervisor at the Aroostook Health Center, acknowledged that she was initially nervous about the idea.
“We knew that we would have to prove to her insurance company pretty quickly that we were being successful,” Hallett said. “But right away, she came in with this strength, this positive attitude and set about to work hard.”
Hallett said initially, it took two or three nurses to work with Dews daily to meet her needs. Now, it takes just one. They have reduced the number of medications she is on by more than half and have made sure to have a nutritionist, social worker, occupational therapist and physical therapist to help Dews meet her goals.
Dews has done well in an environment where food is prevalent, Hallett said.
“We have a lot of events here where we celebrate with food,” she noted. “Especially when you are in geriatrics or long-term care, we want the patients to maintain their weight or even gain weight or just be happy. So we have a lot of parties or offer lots of cookies or desserts. And Lynne is always around that, and she isn’t eating it.”
Doctors put Dews on a diet of 1,200 calories a day. She has lost 37 pounds so far.
“I’m hungry a lot,” she said. “But it is manageable. And I have so much support here, from the staff, from the residents who are here with me, from my friends on Facebook and from the people in know in Madawaska. I give so much credit to the people here at this facility. I don’t think I would have been successful anywhere else.”
The Aroostook Health Center was recently awarded Medicare’s top rating of five stars on its Nursing Home Compare website, based on a recent inspection.
Dews has no set discharge date, and likely will stay at the facility for up to 100 days. She acknowledged that she is “nervous” about leaving, but believes that she can be successful in losing even more weight once she is discharged.
“My mother told me that when I can, the first thing that she wants to do is take me shopping for clothes,” she said, smiling at the thought. “I haven’t been shopping for clothes with my mother since I was a teenager.”