A Co Galway mother whose teenage daughter is battlng life-threatening anorexia is appealing to election candidates to put specialist treatment facilities for eating disorders at the top of their priority lists.
Suzanne Walsh from Corrandulla says sufferers like her daughter Paula (19 ), an NUI student, are being failed by the health care system in Ireland and is appealing both to the HSE and to the incoming Government to act swiftly to rectify this injustice.
“There are over 200,000 people in the country with eating disorders yet there are only three beds in St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin ringfenced for these conditions. This is shocking”. Such patients are usually treated in local psychiatric hospitals.
Paula, the middle child of a family of three, who is studying for a degree in anatomy and physiology, began suffering from anorexia when she was 12 years old. Her condition deteriorated sharply in the past few months and she is now facing what she terms the “biggest battle of her life” to stay alive.
The second year university student says the treatment options available to adults with eating disorders through the HSE system are “totally inadequate”.
The teenager, who is receiving treatment at Lios Bridges, a specialist private clinic for eating disorders in Dublin, remains gravely ill with a BMI of 13.9.
Her parents David, a plumber, and her mother, Suzanne – who gave up work to care for her – paid €25,000 for this “emergency” care. “We could not afford to wait any longer, we were in such dire straits about her condition.”
They took action eight weeks ago after their daughter’s condition deteriorated rapidly - she had to be fed through a nasal-gastric tube for five days - while a patient at University Hospital Galway.
Paula says she has been fighting the biggest battle of her life with anorexia while also fighting with the HSE for funding. “They were basically telling me that they didn’t think I was sick enough to deserve funding for treatment. And that’s feeding into my condition. If I was to leave Lois Bridges now, I’d be discharged back into the general hospital [UHG] and that really, really scares me [because of he lack of specialist services for people with anorexia]. My weight is still extremely low, my BMI is only 13.9 - having risen from 13.5 since arriving here - so it would not be safe to discharge me home.
“If I didn’t have the support I have here, I know I would end up back on an NG tube in the general hospital. It is not the fault of the staff but a failure of the system to provide the proper training in handling eating disorders. It’s a lack of knowledge and a lack of training by the HSE. I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing without the support of Lois Bridges - they have been amazing.”
The Walshes say the HSE initially refused to fund specialist treatment for Paula and they felt compelled to speak out about this lack of services in a bid to save their daughter’s life. It will also hopefully help other people with anorexia who are too ill to speak out or do not have family to highlight their situations, they believe.
“We’re going public not just for Paula’s sake, but to say enough is enough. It is time this country took this disorder seriously - people are in dire straits because of a lack of proper treatment made available by the HSE.”
Since publicising Paula’s case this week, the family has been contacted by the health authority which has offered to fund a further eight weeks treatment for her at the Dublin clinic at which she is a patient. They are very grateful for this intervention because this will complete her 16-week programme of “expert treatment”. However, they are conscious of the other adult sufferers who are not so fortunate.
“We are happy they will cover the next eight weeks,” says Suzanne. “If we didn’t go public we would not be getting funding. There are people out there who are so ill they are not able to fight or they might have no family or support. What about those?”
Paula, who received “amazing” treatment over a 10 month period at the HSE’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CALMS ) at Merlin Park when she was 17, is “shocked” by the lack of specialist mental health back-up and support for adults with eating disorders.
“Even if my speaking out does not result in funding for my treatment, if someone else gets help because of it, then it will have been worth it.”
Her mother cannot understand why the HSE will not provide funding to provide specialist treatment for people with eating disorders in this country. “They are sending people to England for treatment through the National Treatment Purchase Fund [an Irish government body set up to decrease waiting lists in the Irish public healthcare system]. It can cost up to €300,000 to send people there.
“Right from the word go our consultant applied for Paula to be treated in a private facility. We got a letter from the HSE [then] with just three lines which essentially said: ‘You are not in our budget’. There was no offer of help or a solution. Paula was fed through a tube for five days in Galway and we took it in turns to stay with her 24 hours a day because of the high risk of cardiac arrest.”
Suzanne says it is “unbelievably distressing” for the family watching the person they love “fade away”. “There are days when you cope and others when you completely fall apart. Once anorexia gets hold of a person it really takes them over. It has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. But it is treatable with the right help.”
The sense of helplessness, fear, and frustration is immense but the Walshes eagerness to see their daughter recover and their desire to achieve specialist services for other people with anorexia is what drives them on.
“At the end of the day it is not just about us,” says Suzanne. “The worst feeling is when you look around psychiatric wards and see people who have no family support, and you wonder what happens to them.”
This newspaper contacted the HSE West for a comment on Tuesday but had not received any at the time of going to press on Wednesday evening. A statement issued by the health authority to the digital media company highlighting Paula Walsh’s case earlier in the week said it funds patients in private facilities and added such decisions are made on “clinical need”. The statement went on to say that three beds are “ring-fenced” at St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin for people with eating disorders.