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A look at one of the most obese counties in South Carolina

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If you hop off the interstate and head toward the city of Orangeburg, you'll probably notice the kind of food that you don't come by slowly.

"Most of the food that's consumed in Orangeburg is all fast food," gym owner Ramon Rodriguez said.

For Rodriguez, owning a gym in Orangeburg is a bit of a novelty. The phone book only lists three in the area. He says it's a tough sell.

"It's very hard talking to them about fitness," Rodriguez said. "It's almost like pulling teeth."

But Rodriguez says he's on a mission, as he estimates half of the people he sees are obese. For the most part, the numbers seem to back up his estimate.

Recent numbers from the Centers for Disease Control show 40 percent of people who live in Orangeburg County are considered obese.

More sobering, is more data that suggests in terms of premature death and physical well-being, Orangeburg County is the second worse county in the state behind Allendale County.

Dr. Brian Kendell is a hospitalist at Regional Medical Center, which is Orangeburg's only hospital. He is an expert on people who are hospitalized and has analyzed some data of his own.

"I looked at our critical care population and half of the people and half of the people/patients we're taking care of in the critical care unit are obese," Kendell said. "I think half of those are what we think of as morbidly obese."

As you may imagine, Kendell says many of them who battle obesity have heart disease, diabetes, have infections, and even need amputations. But what you may not know is the more a patient weighs, the harder it is to figure out what's wrong in the first place.

"For example, it can become a challenge to get a simple, reliable blood pressure from a really obese patient," Kendell said.

"If I have several inches of skin to listen through, the heart sounds, the lung sounds are much more distant. They're much more muffled, so I'm not able to hear all the nuances that could represent a disease process such as pneumonia."

Kendell also says many of his patients can't fit in MRI machines, so it's hard to diagnose them properly.

There's been plenty of studies about the effects of obesity, but what about the causes? Look no further than the hospital where Kendell works to get a clue.

In the cafeteria, we found plenty of health options, but that's not the food we found people hovering around.

Kendell says its not just about wanting calories, it's about the comfort of home -- sweet tea, fried foods, and using sweets as gifts.

"It just goes to show that there are really some deep cultural issues in how people view food and specific eating habits that are very, very challenging to break," Kendell.

It's challenging, but not impossible. At least that's the case for Linda Payne.

Payne is nearly unrecognizable from the person she was just a few short years ago thanks to dramatic weight loss and a new diet and exercise regiment.

Payne says she just never lost her baby weight and as she got older, her metabolism got slower. She is a regular at the Rodriguez's gym and works with her trainer 3 days a week. She's lost over a 100 pounds.

"I would say to the young people start now so you don't have to address this later in life, but to the older people it's never too late," Payne said.

Payne says she still eats at the local restaurants, but just picks out light items. She's lived in Orangeburg since 1972 and plans to stay for a while.

"You never know. I could walk out of here, get hit by a bus. Now, I'll at least fit in a coffin," Payne joked.

Kidding aside, Payne knows for her and her neighbors, it is an issue about death and an issue that's hard to avoid, but mostly it's an issue about life and how you can make the most of it in a small South Carolina town.

"If I could wave a magic wand, address a population/health issue, it would be obesity," Payne said. "That would be the issue if addressed properly would have the biggest impact on the health of folks in Orangeburg and across the country."

Payne has partnered with the hospital to start an anti-obesity initiative. They got funded with a grant and are just getting the program off the ground, so if you are interested in helping, they are looking for volunteers. For more information, call 803-268-2590.

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