Blair River, the 575-pound spokesman for the Heart Attack Grill, an Arizona restaurant that serves shamelessly high-calorie burgers and fries, died Tuesday at the age of 29, following a bout of the flu.
At 6 feet 8 inches tall, River garnered celebrity as the grill's "Gentle Giant" when he became the face and advertising star of the medically themed restaurant -- famous for its triple-bypass burgers, flatliner lard fries and server "nurses" donning uniforms fit for adult films.
River came down with the flu last week, and after four days in the hospital, he succumbed to pneumonia, says Jon Basso, owner of the grill and close friend of River .Basso described River's death as "tragic," because he was a "young creative genius, a promising man whose life got cut short because he carried extra weight. Had he been thin, he would have had a tenfold opportunity to survive the pneumonia."
Though Basso goes by "Dr. Jon," in line with the restaurant's medical theme, he is not medically trained and so can't speak to the role obesity might have played in River's illness. The official cause of death for the hamburger model is still unknown.
Medical professionals wouldn't necessarily disagree with this link, however.
"Obesity increases your risk for just about every condition, and it can make nearly every acute health problem worse," says Keith Ayoob, director of the nutrition clinic at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Those who are morbidly obese have an increased risk for sudden cardiac death and heart attacks at a younger age, says Dr. Carl Lavie, medical director of cardiac rehabilitation and prevention at the Ochsner Heart and Vascular Institute. "All of this could be worsened with a flu or other respiratory illness.
And research during the H1N1 swine flue epidemic of 2009 suggested that extreme obesity did complicate recovery in flu patients. One study, published in the journal PloS One, found that among those requiring inpatient care for the flu, those with a body mass index of 40 or higher were almost three times more likely to die than those of normal body mass index.
While conditions associated with obesity, such as heart disease and diabetes, have been linked in the past to increased risk of flu complications, this study was the first to find that independent of any other health problems, obesity itself was increasing the risk of death for flu patients.
It is impossible to say whether River's weight was a factor in his death from pneumonia, but Ayoob says that it's a matter of adjusting the risk when dealing with obese patients:
"Obesity doesn't guarantee something bad is going to happen to you, but it increases the risk that it will. He was almost three times his ideal weight -- you are really playing Russian roulette there," Ayoob says.
Basso is very open about the controversial position he puts himself in by marketing unhealthy food "worth dying for," as the restaurant slogan goes.
"I hired him to promote my food. We are absolutely guilty of glorifying obesity. That's what I do for a living: I make a mockery of heart-related issues in order to sell hamburgers," says Basso.
But nothing will change in the Heart Attack Grill's approach now that River has died, Basso says.