Story, Patient

Emma’s Recovery From an Eating Disorder Inspires Advocacy for Youth Mental Health

April 20, 2023

When COVID-19 shut everything down, Emma turned her high-achieving drive toward personal fitness and monitoring her food intake to cope with isolation and challenging circumstances beyond her control. Today, Emma is an advocate for mental health and eating disorder awareness.

Emma, Children’s Hospital Colorado Patient Ambassador and mental health advocate

Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Emma was busy every day. She played the libero position on her competitive high school volleyball team, did as many extra-curricular activities as possible and was awarded Student of the Year. From 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., she went to school, volunteered, practiced volleyball, and worked a closing shift at her job with virtually no breaks. After all this, an hour before midnight, she would eat her first meal of the day and start homework for her Advanced Placement honors classes.

From the outside, Emma said most people probably thought she was excelling. But inside her own mind, things were not going quite so well. “I’m someone who likes to do everything,” said Emma, who is the youngest of three siblings, “which at times isn’t so good.”

When COVID-19 shut everything down in March 2020, Emma turned her high-achieving drive toward monitoring her food intake and personal fitness to cope with isolation and challenging circumstances beyond her control.

For the next year, she focused on what she perceived at the time to be good health. When school started again in the fall, her physical and mental health had deteriorated. She barely had enough energy to play volleyball because she was restricting what she ate and exercising excessively. At her next annual physical checkup, doctors discovered that Emma’s weight had fallen off her normal growth chart progression. She was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, anxiety and depression.

The need for more mental health resources

Emma’s mom, Chris, knew her daughter needed help and enrolled her in an outpatient eating disorders program since there were no residential services available anywhere at the time. Emma’s condition warranted a much higher level of care, but she was unable to access more intense treatment, since Colorado’s pediatric mental health system was already overwhelmed with so many kids like Emma who were also struggling.

“You really need caregivers who specialize in eating disorders for treatment. You have to go to experts,” said Chris. “We were trying to get her into inpatient treatment, but until you’re severe enough, it’s hard to get the kind of care your child needs. Sadly, you feel like many of these mental health care facilities are having to make sure that your child is sick enough that your insurance authorization will get approved.”

Several months later, as the school year was ending, Emma’s mental and physical health declined even further. Doctors were monitoring her twice a week and then ordered an electrocardiogram (EKG). The stress of finals had taken an additional toll, and health care providers discovered that her heart rate was dangerously low at only 31 beats per minute, indicating she was at severe risk for life-threatening health complications.

Emma’s journey to recovery

She was rushed to Children’s Hospital Colorado, where she was admitted to the hospital’s inpatient Eating Disorders Program for two weeks. Emma said that Children’s Colorado was different than other care she had received, not only because of their expertise, but also because of how caregivers connect with kids. During her stay, Emma formed a special bond with a nurse named Rachel, whose compassion made a huge difference.

“Even when I was sick, she treated me like a normal kid,” said Emma. “Rachel learned about my story and interests. It’s one thing to simply treat a patient, but at Children’s Colorado, they understand who you are and use that information to support you in your journey to health. This creates a sense of safety, physically and mentally.”

When Emma was released from the hospital, she and her mom believed she would be able to get into a residential program given her acute condition, but there were still no pediatric mental health programs available for the intensive care she needed for follow up. Emma struggled to maintain her physical and mental health, and just three weeks later, she was readmitted to Children’s Colorado.

“Because of the mental health crisis happening right now, I had been on waiting lists for a while – and my caregivers were trying to keep me stable enough until I could get admitted to a residential program. But I just crashed and ended up as an inpatient again, so then I was too sick to go to the treatment centers.”

It was a terrible paradox.

After her second stay at Children’s Colorado, Emma was finally admitted to a residential eating disorders program – but it was several states away, in Bellevue, Washington, the only place with an opening for her since wait lists in Colorado and other nearby states were still months long. Emma was released after four months of care, and has been on the road to recovery ever since.

Becoming a voice for pediatric mental health

Emma and her mom hope that with support from fundraising and philanthropy, the hospital and state can focus on the preventative mental health care that kids need to avoid getting to a crisis like Emma.

“I am passionate about supporting Children’s Colorado, because I want to help create preventive mental health resources so kids don’t have to end up as sick as I was to get help,” said Emma. “Everyone deserves the tools they need to recover.”

Today, Emma’s goal for her future is to help people, either by going into medicine or working in a social justice field. She is already assisting other students by forming a National Eating Disorders Awareness club at her high school – and many kids have reached out to her with their struggles and challenges, feeling empowered to know they are not alone. She also recently testified during a Colorado Senate hearing at the State Capitol on measures to address eating disorders.

“I am incredibly proud of her,” said Chris. “She has really fought and taken on a lot herself. She really does want to get healthy and is pushing hard to get there.”