John H. Keitz Jr., 39, subject of film

September 23, 2005|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,sun reporter

John H. Keitz Jr., whose obesity received national attention after a medical emergency prompted a removal from his former Dundalk home, died Tuesday at St. Elizabeth Health Center in Youngstown, Ohio. He was 39 and weighed more than 700 pounds.

"His heart just gave out," said his wife, Gina Christine Sessions-Keitz. "He was so dynamic, outspoken and boisterous. That was his usual personality," she said yesterday from Youngstown, where she stayed after her husband left Maryland for medical treatment at a nursing home there specializing in obesity patients.

"Was he an activist for people with obesity issues? No. He was a man with a heart the size of Russia. He just loved people. And the thought of someone else having to deal with his medical condition just tore him up," his wife said.

Mr. Keitz, who was born in Baltimore and raised in the West Inverness section of Dundalk, was the son of a Bethlehem Steel mechanic. He attended public schools and earned a General Education Development diploma.

"John was the baby of the family with five older sisters," his wife said. Early on, he gained weight while working at local fast-food restaurants and also was a volunteer medic at the Wise Avenue Volunteer Fire Department.

"He was into the martial arts and collected swords and knives and baseball cards. And he just loved to cook," his wife said.

The couple met on a telephone chat line, and at their marriage ceremony Dec. 17, 1997, Mr. Keitz was able to walk down the aisle of the Rosedale chapel where they exchanged vows. His wife said that less than a year later, he collapsed because his legs could not support his weight. He was confined to a bed, but insisted on cooking.

He would cook using an electric frying pan or wok near his mattress and had dinner ready for his wife when she returned home from work.

Over the years, he sought medical treatment at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. He was assisted by the Baltimore County Fire Department, which responded in April when he suffered an asthma attack. The televised removal from his home on Kavanagh Road fostered national media attention.

Mr. Keitz was particularly annoyed by the television news helicopter that day, his wife said. "He did not like being put on the center stage - made to be a laughing stock."

Since then, he had been contacted by media organizations and decided to make his story known - on his terms.

He was profiled in a June Washington Post story and was working with a Wilmington, Del., documentary maker. A production team from Authentic Entertainment also was making a Learning Channel documentary on his life and struggle with weight.

"He was such a sweet guy," said Rishika Advani, an Authentic Entertainment producer based in Los Angeles. "He made everybody feel comfortable. There was nothing you could say that would embarrass him."

He had lived in a Dundalk rowhouse with his wife and sister, Jessie Keitz. With the help of Joseph A. Piner, the Wilmington documentary filmmaker, they tried to move to Delaware. But quarters were not ready when Mr. Keitz suffered a severe asthma attack and wound up in St. Francis Hospital in Wilmington.

"He told me that since he was bedridden, he was never able to do the simple things in life - take his wife out to the movies and to dinner," said Mr. Piner, whose documentary, Shape Up America, is slated for screening at film festivals. "He always kept a positive outlook."

From Wilmington, he went to a Millersville nursing home, Baltimore Washington Medical Center and finally Andover Village Retirement Community in Andover, Ohio, near Youngstown, where he was receiving therapy.

"He wanted to help other people by telling his story in the media, but doing it his way," his wife said. "He did not want anyone to go through the health issues and the stress issues that he did."

About a week ago, he developed an infection. He was taken to St. Elizabeth Health Center on Saturday afternoon and was being assisted by a respirator and dialysis before dying Tuesday.

His wife, who grew up in Oella, is planning a private memorial service.

In addition to his wife and sister, survivors include a son, Jeremy A. Marrs of York, Pa.; four additional sisters, Elaine Gambrell of Bunker Hill, W.Va., Helen Keitz and Sherree Hider, both of Essex, and Evelyn Kuhn of Grafton, W. Va.; and numerous nieces and nephews.

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