By Cara Lyons
Ever since I was young, I have always had a strange fascination with hospitals. While my parents hated hospitals because they reminded them of death and dying, I couldn’t help but be amazed by how someone could come into the emergency room on the brink of dying, but walk out alive and well. I always saw the hospital as a place of life and miracles – at least until I spent the majority of my teenage years in one.
When I was 16 years old, my mom found me hunched over in the living room in excruciating pain, begging to go to the hospital because something was wrong. After being examined by the doctors, I left with two diagnoses: my pain was due to constipation from not having a bowel movement in 10 days, and my constipation was due to anorexia nervosa.
In the three months preceding my hospitalization, I had lost a significant amount of weight from my already slim figure, I had began isolating myself from my friends and family, and I could no longer go through my everyday life without seeing everything as numbers – a walk to the car was approximately 100 steps, the creamer in my coffee had 15 calories, my daily exercise routine had to last at least 2 hours. The problem was that I didn’t realize I was doing anything wrong. And for a period of time, my weight loss was praised – until I couldn’t stop.
Finally, after passing out one morning while getting ready for school, I was sent to a partial hospitalization treatment program where I had to relearn everything I thought was normal. I had to learn how to eat proper portions, communicate feelings that I had kept numbing with food, and look at myself in the mirror without seeing a distorted figure looking back at me. After 3 months in that hospital, I left weight-restored, and because of this, my family and friends assumed I was cured.
What they didn’t see, though, was that my mind was still sick. I couldn’t stop myself from seeing everything around me in numbers and very quickly, I relapsed once again and spent 3 more months trying to gain back weight I had lost. This cycle of relapse-recovery-relapse continued into my freshman year of college, where I had assumed I would never get better. Doctors told me that my eating disorder would be something I would just have to “manage” and that I would likely relapse again before the time I graduate. By this point I felt no reason to even work towards recovery since even my doctors, the ones who I used to look up to as miracle workers, didn’t think it was possible for me.
One night during freshman year, I found myself in the hospital, once again, after giving into my eating disorder because I had eaten pizza earlier that day. By this point I was accustomed to the judgmental looks and lectures from the doctors and nurses who would much rather be saving someone who was dying from no fault of their own – after all, eating disorders are still seen as a “choice” that someone makes to lose weight. But that night, something was different. A female ER physician assistant came in to talk to me about what had happened and review my medical history, and before she left, she said, “You can get through this. It won’t be easy, but you can get through this.” For the first time, I had a clinician believe that I could potentially recover from this deadly illness.
I can proudly say that that incident was my last relapse into anorexia. After that point, I went into treatment one last time and really worked to relearn how to look at both food and myself. I got involved with a non-profit organization, Project HEAL: Help to Eat, Accept, and Live, that provides scholarships to those with eating disorders who cannot afford treatment. As leader of the Pittsburgh chapter, we had our first gala in 2017 and raised nearly $3,000 for the treatment grant program. We’ve also helped roll out a national mentorship program that matches up those struggling with an eating disorder with someone who is fully recovered from one. I truly believe that working with Project HEAL has helped me overcome the last plateau to reach full recovery.
As I sit here finishing up applications to physician assistant programs for next fall, I can’t help but be thankful for the PA I met that night in the hospital. I hope to become one of the miracle workers that I looked up to when I was a child. Most importantly, I want to be the clinician who can confidently say to my patient, “You can get through this”.