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Spencer native who sought weight treatment in Ohio dies

SPENCER — R.J. Woodbury sometimes called his mother as she arrived home at night from her second-shift job.
He wanted to make sure she was locking her doors. Or he might ask how the dogs were doing.
On certain mornings R.J. would call just to tell Connie Woodbury something simple, such as, “I thank God I have you as a mamma.”
Woodbury was talking with his mother by telephone about 10 days ago when he mentioned feeling dizzy. He didn’t want to alarm her, he said, but his blood pressure was erratic and his blood sugar low.
“He was just saying, ‘I’m all right, I’m all right,’ ” Connie Woodbury recalls.
But as he was transported from the Minerva Park Nursing and Rehab Center in Columbus, Ohio, to the Ohio State University Medical Center, her motherly instincts told her this was more than a dizzy spell.
By Tuesday, Connie Woodbury and her daughter, Monique, were driving to Columbus in hopes of talking with R.J. in person. The hospital staff was waiting for them when they arrived Wednesday, and it was apparent R.J. was in deep trouble.
He died peacefully Thursday afternoon.
To Connie Woodbury, R.J. will always be her loving son, her funny man, her Oakland Raider fan, her drummer in the North Rowan High School marching band — and somebody whose story made a positive impact on others.
“He was never, never a disappointment with me,” Connie says. “Even with his size, I never was ashamed of my son.”
R.J. Woodbury was 30.
And at one point in his life, he weighed close to 1,200 pounds.
Since September 2005, R.J. had lived in assisted-living facilities in Ohio — first in Andover, then in Columbus — where he methodically tried through various operations, diet and exercise to lose enough weight to return someday to North Carolina.
“This was the year he was supposed to be coming home,” his mother says.
R.J’s weight reached a high of 1,189 pounds. In January 2007, Discovery Health Channel chronicled his story as part of its “Super Obese” series. Connie Woodbury said her son heard from people across the country — and even from Mexico — as the story aired over the years.
R.J. often told his mother that maybe he had been helpful to others, as an inspiration to improve their health. But her son had more simple goals, Connie Woodbury says.
When she spoke of having a big celebration whenever he returned home, R.J. resisted, saying “All I want to do is see my family.”
He just wanted to be able to walk on his own into a Walmart some day, and he looked forward to when he could wear shoes again.
R.J. was especially devoted to his late father, Robert, and his younger sister, Monique. The last time he was able to come home — for Thanksgiving in 2010 — also was the last time he saw his father. Robert Woodbury died Dec. 6, 2010.
When games were on television — especially Oakland Raiders football games — R.J. and Robert would spend long periods cheering and talking together on the telephone.
“They were so close,” Connie says. “He had a great relationship with his dad.”
Robert once spent a whole week in Ohio with his son.
Connie Woodbury says her son’s death “was very unexpected.” “He had made so much progress,” she adds.
She doesn’t know the exact number, but R.J. had lost more than 700 pounds, his mother says. When R.J. spoke by telephone with the Salisbury Post in February 2011, his weight had gone down to 589 pounds. He had undergone three gastric operations in Cleveland that together had reduced the size of his stomach and the length of his small and large intestines.
Back then, R.J. was eating 1,400 calories a day and losing an average of 8 pounds a week. He constantly fought lymphedema, which led to the swelling of his legs. When infection struck, the legs also oozed lymphatic fluids.
With the weight loss, R.J. was having skin-graft surgeries on his legs. He had his most recent surgery this spring, and Connie said he had returned from the hospital with no complications from the operation.
He stayed in Ohio because the facilities there had weight-loss programs that accepted Medicare and Medicaid patients who were considered severely obese.
Most all of his disability income went to those institutions, but R.J. told the Post in February 2011 that the facility in Andover, which he learned of through the Discovery Health Channel series, probably saved him.
“I think if I would have stayed home, I would have just died,” he said. “I probably would have had a heart attack or stroke. I know God has to be walking with me because at my size and weight, I should have been dead.”
Leading up to R.J.’s move to Ohio, F&M Bank established a Robert Woodbury Special Needs Fund. Donations to the fund helped to arrange the special transportation R.J. needed to move him to Ohio.
“R.J.’s spirit is going to live forever,” Connie Woodbury says. “I know that for a fact. He loved God, and he always talked about how he loved his family.”
The family will hold a memorial service for R.J. at 2 p.m. Thursday at New Zion Baptist Church off Dunn’s Mountain Road.
Connie says she had two of the most wonderful men in her life — R.J. and Robert — each for a period of 30 years.
“I’ve got my peace with it,” she says.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@ salisburypost.com.

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