Elisa D Defeating an Eating Disorder

“They had everything the family was looking for.”

A specialized program helps a woman uncover the root causes of her dangerous condition.

Seeking treatment for her eating disorder wasn’t Elisa D’Amelio’s idea. “My family essentially had an intervention,” says the 40-year-old Wayne resident. “I went along, thinking, ‘This is crazy, and everyone is being so dramatic.’”

Fortunately, Elisa’s family knew she needed help—and deep down, so did she. But none of them realized how serious her eating disorder had become. “I was already close to organ failure,” Elisa discovered.

It had taken years—even decades—to get to this point. The underlying behavioral health issues that contributed to Elisa’s eating dysfunction became clear through treatment she received at the nationally recognized Eating Disorders Program at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) Somerset. The unit is the only academic eating disorders program in New Jersey, one of just two inpatient programs in the state for patients 14 or older and a leader in eating disorders treatment for over 20 years.

“One of the biggest misconceptions is that the eating disorder is the illness,” Elisa says. “People think, ‘Why don’t you just eat what’s on your plate?’ But an eating disorder is really a symptom of larger issues. When the real problem is something like anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress syndrome, if you’re not addressing that, the eating disorder will never dissipate.”

A Common Problem

Elisa with her familyMost eating disorders—which are experienced by more than 28 million Americans at some point in their lives—fall into two major types. One is anorexia nervosa, in which distorted body perception leads people to see themselves as “fat” when their weight is normal or even much lower. The other is bulimia nervosa, characterized by abnormal body-image perception, constant craving for food and binge eating followed by self-induced vomiting or use of laxatives.

Left untreated, eating disorders can be life-threatening. Lack of nutrients can trigger wide-ranging problems including muscle wasting, weakness, heart damage, low blood pressure, brain damage and organ failure.

“Comprehensive medical care that treats the whole person is critical to healing, wellness and sustainable recovery,” says Frank Ghinassi, PhD, Senior Vice President of Behavioral Health Services at RWJBarnabas Health and President and Chief Executive Officer of Rutgers University Behavioral Healthcare. “We provide a multidisciplinary team approach to address the biological, psychiatric, physiological and social issues related to eating disorders for adolescents and adults, which results in more effective treatment and better patient outcomes.”

Elisa’s disordered eating worsened during COVID-19 lockdowns—a common scenario. “Stress and isolation caused by the pandemic has resulted in a significant increase of eating disorders, particularly among teens and young adults,” Dr. Ghinassi says.

Frank Ghinassi, PhD
Frank Ghinassi, PhD

Elisa had just come through a difficult pregnancy with her third child, followed by the baby’s hospitalization for a non-COVID respiratory condition. When the pandemic shuttered schools and daycares, she had to quit her teaching job to watch her children. “We couldn’t go anywhere or do anything,” she says.

She became depressed and anxious. “And when I had high anxiety, I physically couldn’t eat,” she says. “It felt like swallowing sand, and I’d get stomachaches afterward.” Eating—or not—seemed the only thing she could control.

Paths to Recovery

Elisa’s journey to healing started when her online therapist noticed she looked frail, recommending she see a primary care doctor. “Blood work found my numbers so far out of range that it was apparent I was suffering from severe malnutrition,” Elisa says.

That’s when family members insisted she go to a local hospital. Not wanting to create a scene in front of her kids, Elisa agreed. When doctors said she should check into an eating disorders program, she discovered RWJUH Somerset. “They had everything the family was looking for,” Elisa says—including separate spaces for adolescents and adults to better address those populations’ unique needs.

The program also offered a partial hospitalization program in which Elisa could spend days at the program to receive carefully planned meals and customized therapy but go home at night to be with her supportive family.

Multidisciplinary treatment included both individual and group therapy; family sessions; and art, writing and music therapy. “There were so many different kinds of treatment that if you didn’t do well in one, another would help,” Elisa says.

Treatment helped resolve traumas that she didn’t know drove her eating issues, including a terrible car accident at age 4 that had left facial scars, bullying in middle and high school, teen anxiety over body image and a later abusive relationship.

Today, Elisa is maintaining a healthy weight with help from outside specialists such as dietitians and therapists. She speaks about her experiences and has written a book about them under the name Ella Shae to let others know they’re not alone. “I still find myself body checking,” she says. “But I use the skills I’ve learned to bring myself back and remember how far I’ve come.”

A Renovation Enhances Recovery

Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) Somerset recently opened a renovated and expanded state-of-the-art eating disorders unit. Part of RWJBarnabas Health’s Behavioral Health Services and a partner of Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care, the renovated unit provides a supportive environment for treatment, healing, wellness and recovery for both adults and adolescents, says Lisa Schade-Button, RN, Director, Eating Disorders Unit at RWJUH Somerset. The new unit’s features include:

  • An expanded capacity from 14 beds to 20
  • Spaces designed specifically to help promote healing, wellness and recovery
  • Research-based design elements such as nature-based lighting that mimics daily changes in sunlight; curved lines; and references to nature to create a more therapeutic and healing environment
  • A seamless consistency in which design elements flow from common spaces into newly renovated patient rooms
  • Flexible spaces that can be reconfigured to accommodate mixed uses

For more information visit the Eating Disorders Program at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Somerset.