Joseph Otis is 52 years old and weighs about 600 pounds.For the last five years he has suffered from elephantiasis and gangrene in both legs.

Until early yesterday morning, Otis (not his real name) had not left his apartment in Anacostia for three years. He lived there alone.

Shortly after midnight yesterday, Otis finally left the appartment with the help of 12 stretcher-bearers who found him lying on the floor beside his bed, unable to move. The D.C. fire and ambulance crew managed to transport him to Greater Southeast Community Hospital where at 5 a.m., he suffered a heart attack. He is now in critical condition in the hospital's intensive care unit.

To the ambulance crew that rescued him, the nurses who continue to treat him, and the neigbors who rarely saw him, Joseph Otis remains a puzzlement.

"The man is dying now and all of a sudden there's interest in him," said his brother, James Otis, his voice trembling. "Why? A man lives for fifty years without people giving a damn, and then, when he's on the edge, they come looking for a biography, I don't want any part of it."

James Otis (not his real name), a truck driver, did say that his brother is a Washington native who "hasn't got a cent to his name" and does not collect any welfare or unemployment benefits. He said his brother had worked "years ago" as a delivery man and that he and two other brothers had been supporting him - buying groceries and paying his $225 monthly rent - for years.

James Otis found his brother on the floor beside his bed in apartment 204 shortly after midnight yesterday. He called the fire department and traveled with the twelve medics and firemen to the hospital.

"If you want to know about him," he said, "talk to him - if he ever comes back. You'll get the same sort of answers from him that you're getting from here because he's as bitter as me.

"You're on the earth for such a short time," he said, "and people only care when you're dying."

At Greater Southeast Hospital nurse, who asked to remain unidentified, said Joseph Otis was conscious when the ambulance arrived at the emergency room.

"He was awake," she said, "but it was weird. He must of been in a lot of pain, I think, judging by the looks of his legs. They were swollen and scaly like tree trunks. But he was so apathetic. He didn't say a word, like he didn't give a damn about anything."

Kenneth Hillard and William Bowman, the unit 3 medical technicians who man the fire department ambulance at Engine Company 32, were near their station house at Irving and Alabama streets SE when they received the call for assistance at the apartment complex.

"We got there," said Hillard, "and found him next to the bedroom wall. His legs were dead tissue, and the smell of infection was everywhere. He didn't want to go to the hospital. Just told us to let him be."

Bowman said twelve men were needed to slide an aluminum scoop stretcher underneath Joseph Otis and to carry him nearly 50 yards to the ambulance.

At 7 a.m. yesterday as Joseph Otis's neighbors awakened, traces of the night's tragedy were evident. A roll of gauze on the front stoop. Several pairs of crumpled rubber gloves in the hallway.

"I saw him sometimes looking out the window. But I didn't know him. He stayed to himself," one neighbor said yesterday morning.

A 17-year-old neighbor who said he delivered Joseph Otis' newspaper, said:

"When I'd go to collect the money every month, he'd have big bills - 50s and stuff. So I always had to make sure I had change.But nobody really knew him around here."

Another person who lives one floor above Otis said of the incident: "That's crazy. I don't know what to say. Man, the guy must have been lonely."

Medics Bowman and Hillard, meanwhile, sat exhausted in two kitchen chairs at Fire Station 32 on Alabama and Irving streets SE.

It had been a long, grueling night for both of them, and in 20 minutes their seven-hour night shift would end. That recounted the calls they had made during the morning hours - one stabbing in which the weapon was a pair of grass-clippers, a slain cab driver, a baby delivery, and then 600 pound man. Theyprayed out loud that they would not be called out again.

"It's not that unusual of a case," said Bowman, referring to Joseph Otis. "We get them a couple of times a year. You'd be surprised how many people there are out there who suffer like hell and never see the light of day."

Then another call came in. Hillard and Bowman rushed to their orange, white and blue ambulance. With lights flashing, and siren screaming, they sped east on Alabama: a pedestrian had been struck by a car on Rte. I-295.