Denver a mecca for eating disorder recovery

By Mikaila Altenbern

Katheryn Liermann decided that she needed help. She wanted to get better. The problem? As she began her search for treatment facilities, she found that her body weight was too low for her to be accepted. In other words, she was too sick to be treated.

It felt like everyone had given up on me. It was really disheartening because I had already given up, says Liermann about her search for a clinic with the medical expertise to help her overcome her 12-year struggle with anorexia nervosa.

Luckily for Liermann she found the A.C.U.T.E. center at Denver Health Medical Center. She contacted the center and that evening Jennifer Gaudiani, the assistant medical director, called Liermann to convince her to come to Denver from St. Louis.

With only her previous experiences in treatment facilities as reference points for what to expect, Liermann was understandably uncertain. From the moment she arrived she felt, for the first time, that she was in the hands of professionals. She began to believe in herself again.

The Acute Comprehensive Urgent Treatment for Eating Disorders clinic is the only high-volume medical stabilization center in the country for critically ill adults with eating disorders. Headed by Phillip Mehler, a long-time leader in the eating disorders field, A.C.U.T.E. treats patients who are at, or below, 70 percent of their ideal body weight.

A.C.U.T.E. is a stepping-stone, the first of many that their patients will take on their way to recovery. The goal of the center is help clients reach a medically stable body weight so that they can move to one of the many inpatient recovery centers in Denver.

It is not uncommon for persons with anorexia to be placed on a feeding tube if they are admitted to the hospital. The A.C.U.T.E. center never uses feeding tubes. For patients who have struggled with anorexia for most of their lives, this is a policy that helps them reach long-term recovery.

Anyone can force you to eat. To make the decision to eat for yourself, to take control, it is huge, says Liermann.

Persons who develop anorexia largely fit a specific personality profile says Dr. Ken Weiner, chief medical officer and founding partner of The Eating Recovery Center.

Weiner is a leading psychiatric expert on eating disorders. He has been active in treating eating disorders for over 25 years and brings all of that experience to Denver. His interest in eating disorders was sparked on a medical rotation in his third year of medical school when he encountered his first anorexic patient.

I was struck: why were the best and the brightest getting sick, and they cant get better, says Dr. Weiner.

Eating Disorder Facts

    • 27 percent of girls 12-18 have significant symptoms
    • 31 percent of female college students have significant symptoms
    • 46 percent of 10 year old girls are dieting, have a fear of fatness or are binge eating
    • Doctors are seeing a growing group of women in their 30s, 40s and 50s with eating disorders
    • Although less common, boys and men can also have eating disorders, especially self-induced vomiting and inappropriate laxative use

From the Eating Disorder Foundation

As a mental illness, anorexia is caused by a combination of personality traitssome of which can be inheritedother genetic predispositions and external stressors.

The general profile of a person who suffers from anorexia is of a perfectionist. They care what others think of them; and importantly, people who develop eating disorders, generally struggle to cope with change.

This explains why so many people develop the illness at the beginning of puberty. It becomes about maintaining control over at least one aspect of their lives. The illness also can serve as a crutch to cope with perceived failings in other areas.

If I wasnt perfect at school, I could be perfect in other ways. When I went into a treatment center the first time, I was like, Why do I have this disease, says Liermann. I didnt even know what anorexia was, but I have always been a perfectionist and very driven.

As Dr. Weiner said, biology loads the gun; life pulls the trigger.

At A.C.U.T.E., patients are able to regain control over a disease that has long since taken over their lives. According to Dr. Craig Johnson, chief clinical officer at the Eating Recovery Center, one of the biggest problems with treating patients with eating disorders is that they have irrational minds.

Parents can tell, usually within a couple of pounds, when the weight is going down. Something comes across their childs eyes and they know they are no longer talking with their child it is the disease.

At A.C.U.T.E., Dr. Gaudiani has seen patients so weak from starvation that they cannot even close their eyes. They struggle to breathe and to swallow. People dont choose to develop eating disorders, but they have to choose to get better.

We have to have optimism. Physically, there is no point of no return. Mentally, when someone has suffered with this disease for five to 10 years, if some tiny percent of them wants to live, we will help them, says Gaudiani.

The mortality rate of anorexia is 12 times higher than the annual death rate from all other causes among women aged 15 to 24 in the United States.

There has been significant improvement in treatment and understanding of anorexia, and because of this, nearly 80 percent of anorexics who seek treatment will recover. Increased understanding of the causes of anorexia helps focus prevention work so that few young women, and an increasing number of men, will develop the disease.

It has been almost one year since Katheryn Liermann checked herself into the A.C.U.T.E. center. She has gone through inpatient and outpatient treatment. Liermann still considers herself new to recovery. After 12 years of living with anorexia, it is easy to understand why. She is now 25 and works at Outdoor Divas, where she is able to demo skis. She has plans to move back to St. Louis and finish physician assistant school, but for now she is taking the time to take care of herself.

When I hear people talking about themselves as fat or overweight, I take it with a grain of salt. I feel sorry for them, but some people can be on a diet and be okay. For me, it is a different struggle, says Liermann.