New Help for Eating Disorders Suburban Hospitals like Linden Oaks in Naperville Are Expanding Their Treatment Programs, While Advocates Push for Better Insurance Coverage

By Stevens, Susan | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), April 19, 2004 | Go to article overview

New Help for Eating Disorders Suburban Hospitals like Linden Oaks in Naperville Are Expanding Their Treatment Programs, While Advocates Push for Better Insurance Coverage


Stevens, Susan, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Susan Stevens Daily Herald Staff Writer

On spring break in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., college student Julie Penn felt her body shutting down.

It was supposed to be her last semester of college. But years of skipping meals and purging had wounded her body, and her heart rate was dangerously low. She felt miserable.

"I got home and I just knew I couldn't go back," she said. "I just felt like my heart was going to stop."

Penn, 22, of Wheaton, checked into an inpatient eating disorders ward at Linden Oaks Hospital in Naperville, where doctors helped stabilize her heart rate, rebalance her electrolytes and break bad nutritional habits.

The specialized overnight care is what eating disorder doctors often recommend for their sickest patients, who may suffer from severe psychological and life-threatening medical problems caused by malnutrition.

Lack of insurance coverage for extended hospital stays, however, has prompted many facilities to close those units.

At least two Chicago-area hospitals are bucking that trend. Linden Oaks, which is owned by Edward Hospital, expanded its eating disorders program in February, taking over a suite of rooms in the psychiatric hospital for a unit devoted to bulimia and anorexia. Administrators say they needed the specialized inpatient unit to complement the day program.

In Hoffman Estates, Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital expanded its eating disorders program in 1999 and saw an increase in patients. The inpatient census grew large enough that doctors began moving patients to a specialized unit last week.

"Our program is three times bigger than we expected it to be," said Dr. John Levitt, director of the eating disorders program at Alexian Brothers. "We're getting kids down to the age of 7 in our program. It's a very serious problem."

The higher number of people seeking treatment does not necessarily mean more people are suffering from eating disorders. Nationwide, about 1 percent of women suffer from anorexia nervosa and about 5 percent have bulimia nervosa, and those numbers have remained fairly constant.

But more cases are being reported in men, ethnic minorities and young children. And while the disorders usually begin in the teen years, the long duration of these illnesses means many victims are middle-aged or older.

"There is a very high relapse rate for eating disorders," said Dr. Maria Rago, clinical director of Linden Oaks' program. "It's a terrible problem. Many people who have an eating disorder have it for four years, 10 years, 20 years."

Penn has battled bulimia for years. She began dieting in high school at Wheaton Warrenville South, when she says "no one was eating."

A typical lunch was 35-calorie bread with fat-free meat. Penn played tennis, and she used exercise to burn off even more calories.

"Everything was fat-free, Equal, diet soda," Penn said. "That was just the way I ate."

When she left for the University of Louisville, the added stress of leaving home and playing college tennis magnified her problem. She would skip breakfast and lunch. By dinner, she was starving. She'd eat something, feel guilty and deliberately throw it up.

In her first year at college, Penn said she purged for three months before her roommate noticed.

"I wanted to be the stick figure I was before, and my body wasn't supposed to be doing that," she said. "I just kind of hit rock bottom."

Every pat of butter

Unlike other psychiatric patients, who typically are motivated to get well, anorexics and bulimics are psychologically affected by the disease to believe they must get thinner. That requires a different kind of monitoring than patients on a general psychiatric unit.

"They can trick anyone," Rago said. "You can count on it, because it's part of the disorder. They will trick the nurses that they already had a sandwich, anything to keep from eating. …

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