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- October 30, 2000
- Vol. 54
- No. 18
Empathy by the Pound
Dr. George Blackburn Sensitizes Doctors by Allowing Them to Experience Ersatz Obesity
It didn't. Then last year, on a recommendation from a neighbor, Gadbois began treatment at Boston's Center for the Study of Nutrition Medicine, an obesity clinic run by Dr. George Blackburn. "I couldn't believe how different his thinking was from any of the other doctors that I've met," says Gadbois, 42, who underwent stomach-reduction surgery in December and now weighs 264 lbs. "He didn't make me feel guilty for being fat. He treated it like a disease."
In the fight against expanding waistlines—according to the National Institutes of Health, 97 million American adults are 20 lbs. or more overweight—Blackburn, 64, is out to combat not just fat but also the kind of physician insensitivity that Gadbois and other obese patients frequently encounter. Blackburn maintains that many doctors feel uncomfortable discussing obesity in the span of a typical office visit—in part, perhaps, because the topic receives scant attention in medical school. "In 15 minutes, doctors have to bring up a subject with which they have no sympathy, no feeling for what it is," he says.
To remedy this, Blackburn helped found in 1998 the Center for Obesity Research and Education (CORE), a group of eight medical centers across the country that conduct workshops that teach physicians how to better treat overweight patients. One of his favorite tools: the "fat empathy suit," a sand-filled bodysuit that comes in two sizes, one weighing 20 lbs. and the other weighing 34, that he has doctors briefly don. "Carry that weight around even for a day, try to cross your legs—you won't be able to," says Blackburn. "You'll be breathless."
The daily struggles created by obesity are something Blackburn, who lives in Boston with his wife, Susan, 51, and their daughter Valeria, 17, has been working to ease since 1969. Then employed as a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop an intravenous food product for critically ill patients, he put out a call for people to test what he had created. "When they learned they'd be losing weight," he recalls, "volunteers flooded out of the wood-work." That desperate hunger for a weight-loss plan—even one that meant being fed via IV—convinced Blackburn to dedicate his career to battling obesity.
But for the University of Kansas School of Medicine graduate, who also has three children from a marriage that ended in 1972, the most effective empathy suit was his own body circa 1995, when the 5'9" doctor reached 203 lbs., placing him on the verge of obesity. Although he had long struggled with his weight, going from overweight to obese, says Blackburn, "is like going off a cliff. Once you go over it, whole new enzymes go off and new fat cells are made."
Having shed 20 lbs. five years ago through a regimen of daily walks and well-balanced, reduced-calorie meals, "I know the importance of controlling my body weight every day," says Blackburn. To that end, he has kept the weight off with 30-minute treadmill walks and Slim-Fast shakes twice daily. He also uses a pedometer to ensure that he takes at least 10,000 steps a day.
Indeed, those who know him say Blackburn rarely sits still and is tireless in his pursuit of educating doctors about obesity. "He's got his finger on everybody's pulse," says Dr. Caroline Apovian, an associate professor at the Boston University School of Medicine whose own work to help the obese was inspired by Blackburn's. Apovian, who runs a Boston clinic that features roomy chairs ("You can see the look of relief on patients' faces that they can actually sit in the chairs," she says) and waiting-room magazines with plus-size models, also knows firsthand how Blackburn's supportive approach can help with weight loss. "When I was a [student] I lost some weight, and he'd always mention it," she recalls. "He used to call out, 'Caroline, you look great.' "
Which is just the kind of attention, says Blackburn, that can help someone keep the weight off and prevent obesity-related health problems down the road. "If ever there was a situation where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," he notes, "this is it."
Anne Driscoll in Boston
- Anne Driscoll.
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