Emma S Confronting An Eating Disorder

“The people at RWJUH Somerset helped me realize that there was so much to fight for and that all the things that we did each day were going to add up to something.”

For Emma Strom, 18, of Doylestown, PA, the trouble started in 2018 when she was in middle school. “I had a crush on a guy and thought if I wanted to impress him, I should lose weight,” she says. “Then I could look like all the girls who are super pretty.”

Emma, an “A” student, began restricting her food and shedding weight. But the boy didn’t return her interest. It broke her heart—and drove her to become even thinner. “I would only eat a little, and eventually was also bingeing and purging, and that made everything worse,” she says.

Emma’s disordered eating patterns, with symptoms of both anorexia and bulimia, persisted when she entered high school and felt even more pressure to be thin. Food restriction and excessive exercising kept her weight low. But they didn’t make her happy.

“I wish I could say that it felt really good and that I felt confident,” she says. “In reality, I was miserable. It was the middle of winter and I was freezing all the time because I was so thin. I would go home, do my homework, exercise for two hours and eat a small dinner because I didn’t want my parents to know I was starving myself during the day.”

When Emma had turned 16, she managed to eat just a small piece of birthday cake. “I enjoyed it,” she says, “but then I felt horrible. I spent the evening crying because I just felt so bad.”

Pandemic Perils

As the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, being confined at home only made her eating behaviors worse. That isn’t unusual, according to Lisa Schade-Button, RN, MSN, MBA, director of the Eating Disorders Program at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) Somerset.

“We saw a direct correlation between isolation during the pandemic and aggravated eating disorders,” Schade-Button says. “Some people gained weight and loathed themselves for it. Others excessively lost even more weight.”

Emma’s parents grew increasingly alarmed. At one point, she had lost 30 pounds over a three-month period. A few weeks of telehealth visits with a dietitian and therapist didn’t resolve her issues.

Emma and her mother then met in 2020 with providers at the Eating Disorders Program at RWJUH Somerset hoping to devise a treatment regimen that she could follow at home. “I was already so far into this battle that I think we all probably knew I was going to be hospitalized,” Emma says. “It was hard to accept. I just didn’t know how to stop.”

A Healing Program

The highly structured inpatient program at RWJUH Somerset gradually coaxes patients toward a healthier weight through intensive individual and group counseling and education, music and art therapy, and creative activities and games, with time allotted for young patients to do schoolwork.

Specially trained nurses monitor patients medically and help them navigate challenges such as mealtimes. “They would call us in for a meal and we’d play a game to take our minds off what we were eating,” says Emma.

The recently renovated 20-bed inpatient unit’s environment promotes healing through features such as lighting that mimics natural shifts in daylight; acoustic buffering to minimize noise; soft, pastel colors; and nature-based artwork. A healing garden is in the works. “Patients tell us it feels like a luxury hotel,” says Schade-Button. “Even staffers comment on how serene the unit is.”

Emma realized she was gaining control over her eating disorder when she and other patients were asked to write positive affirmations for a craft. “I just started writing down all these things I was excited about,” she says—“stuff that was keeping me motivated that was far off but that I knew I would get to one day. I just needed to push through this.”

“When patients come back to life and their laughter and energy come back and they’re finally ready to go home, they’re smiling from ear to ear,” says Schade-Button. “Everybody gives them a round of applause. The feeling of that moment is pretty priceless.”

“The people at RWJUH Somerset helped me realize that there was so much to fight for and that all the things that we did each day were going to add up to something,” says Emma. Now a thriving college freshman, Emma was so inspired by providers who cared for her at RWJUH Somerset that she plans to study nursing. “I realized I had my whole future waiting for me,” she says. “I don’t think I could have gotten through it without the people who were there for me.”

RWJUH Somerset's Eating Disorders Program

The multidisciplinary Eating Disorders Program addresses behavioral issues related to food consumption through measures such as counseling, education, group therapy and creative activities. The program’s new 20-bed inpatient unit includes environmental features shown to promote healing such as lighting changes cued to time of day and serene design elements.

What Are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders often involve restricting food intake and/ or increasing physical activity to keep body weight dangerously low (anorexia nervosa), or bingeing and purging in episodes of excessive eating and vomiting, sometimes accompanied by improper use of laxatives or diuretics (bulimia nervosa). Often stemming from trauma or social problems, eating disorders may be tied to emotional issues like anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, low self-esteem and stress.

Left untreated, eating disorders can lead to serious health issues such as cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, anemia, kidney dysfunction or even death. Treatment takes time, but measures such as counseling, support groups and education can foster coping skills that help resolve physical, biological, psychological and social issues, and restore healthier eating patterns.

To learn more about the Eating Disorders Program at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Somerset, call 800-300-0628.