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Children's Hospitals Saw Rise In Eating Disorder Cases During Pandemic

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Since the pandemic began, children's hospitals have seen a surge in admissions for eating disorders. And many parents feel desperate, knowing their child is sick but unable to access treatment because of a chronic shortage of therapists and programs that can help them. Kate Wells at Michigan Radio has this story of one family's struggle. And a note to our listeners - this story discusses eating disorders in detail.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Amelia Haywood (ph) is a little bit nervous to talk about this, but she really wants to. She sits next to her mom in their home in suburban Grand Rapids, Mich. Her long, brown hair hangs loose over a red athletic jacket.

AMELIA HAYWOOD: Yeah. So my name is Amelia. I'm 15 years old. I play volleyball. And about six months ago, I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa.

KATE WELLS, BYLINE: This disease has sent her to the emergency room four times. And she has been admitted to three different hospitals. It began in March of 2020 when the lockdown started. Suddenly, a girl who had been this athletic, high-achieving eighth-grader just felt lost.

HAYWOOD: People are dying. Everyone's getting sick. You can't see your friends. It was hard because I felt like I didn't have any control over anything except what I ate and how I exercised.

WELLS: So she was like, you know, I'm just going to eat healthy. I'm going to stay in shape. But as the shutdowns and isolation stretched into summer and then fall and then winter, her focus on food and exercise became more intense. It started to consume her. She would make these elaborate meals. And she'd post pictures to Instagram but then actually give them to her sister and lie and say she'd already eaten. She would skip time with friends to fit in yet another run. And she wore baggy sweats to cover up the weight loss. By January, Amelia just felt drained and exhausted all the time.

HAYWOOD: I had, like, basically no emotions. I was just, like, numb. All I wanted to do was, like, lay in my bed.

WELLS: So one Sunday morning, Amelia's mom, Jennifer Ackerman-Haywood (ph), confronted her daughter.

JENNIFER ACKERMAN-HAYWOOD: I just went in there. And I said, Amelia, I know something's up with you. And I'm not going to leave your room until, you know, as long as it takes. You can take your time telling me. But I'm not going anywhere until we have - we have to have a discussion about this because I'm very concerned.

HAYWOOD: And I finally said, I'm struggling with food. It was probably, like, the hardest thing I've ever said in my entire life because I was so scared.

ACKERMAN-HAYWOOD: I immediately was like, of course. Like, this explains everything. Like - and I could kind of like flashback the last month and kind of seeing her decline into a withdrawn person. And I immediately was like, OK. I think she has an eating disorder.

WELLS: The very next day, Jennifer brought Amelia to the pediatrician's. And that is when Amelia was first diagnosed with anorexia. But Jennifer says no one ever alerted her at an earlier checkup that Amelia's growth levels had slowed dramatically. And it wasn't until three weeks after Amelia's diagnosis that Jennifer found out Amelia's EKG had shown her heart rate had become dangerously low.

ACKERMAN-HAYWOOD: And I just thought, wow. We were that close to that. And we didn't know.

WELLS: Two months later, Amelia was so sick, she needed to be admitted to the hospital. Hospitals across the country have seen a surge of patients like Amelia. During the first year of the pandemic, a nationwide network of 15 different hospitals reported their average admissions for adolescent eating disorders doubled. Dr. Terry Bravender treats eating disorders at the University of Michigan CS Mott Children's Hospital. It's one of the places that Amelia was treated.

TERRY BRAVENDER: These are kids whose bodies are failing because of their poor nutritional intake. And the medical hospital is really a safety net rescue for them so that they don't starve to death.

WELLS: Experts believe the pandemic's isolation, social disruption and trauma acted as kind of a mass trigger for many kids and teens who were genetically predisposed to these diseases. Samantha DeCaro is a psychologist with the Renfrew Center. It's a national network of eating disorder clinics.

SAMANTHA DECARO: So the pandemic has created the perfect storm for an eating disorder and disordered eating in the past. It has resulted in a relapse.

WELLS: Even before the pandemic, there was already a shortage of therapists and specialists who know how to treat these illnesses. Doctors say they are hearing from frantic parents who are calling 20, even 60 therapists and cannot get their kid in anywhere. Amelia's mom, Jennifer, says navigating her daughter's illness felt like being in a maze.

ACKERMAN-HAYWOOD: It seems insane because if your child gets a cancer diagnosis or something else, you know, there's a protocol for cancer. You know, there's a protocol for some of these other illnesses out there. There isn't a universal protocol for eating disorders.

WELLS: Amelia kept getting sicker over the spring. And doctors eventually recommended that she get residential treatment at a psychiatric hospital that treats eating disorders.

HAYWOOD: Being able to talk to people who are going through the same thing helped me so much and realize that I'm not alone.

WELLS: Amelia is home now. She is doing so much better. She's on medication. She gets regular therapy. She's back to a healthy weight. She still has days where she struggles with old thought patterns about her body and food. But she wants others to know that it is possible to get better.

HAYWOOD: And I can - I'm starting to get activity back. I'm - I can hang out with my friends and live my life how I want to live. And I know it's really hard to just, like, reach out. But at the end of the day, it's so worth it.

WELLS: This fall, Amelia will be a sophomore. Like so many other kids, she is still grappling with the ways that the pandemic changed her. But she's no longer alone in her bedroom, feeling numb. Now, even on the hardest days, she's got help. For NPR News, I'm Kate Wells in Ann Arbor, Mich. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.