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Opening of Atlanta-area hospital reflects severity of eating disorders

Most people spend a lifetime not accomplishing what Fallon Robinson already has by age 17: A top-ranked gymnast, she’s taking college courses as a high school senior, and she won the first pageant she ever entered, Miss Paulding County Outstanding Teen.

But dealing with her serious eating disorder two years ago was a much tougher challenge for the Dallas resident, who had lost 30 pounds in 2 1/2 months. To get the intensive inpatient treatment doctors recommended, she’d have to leave Georgia.

“I was only 15 years old and I didn’t feel comfortable traveling out of state, away from my mom, my home, to get the treatment I needed,” Fallon explained.

Now that likely wouldn’t be an issue. Georgia’s first eating disorder hospital for children, adolescents and young adults officially opened in Dunwoody last week, helping to patch a critical hole in the system for treating a growing and potentially life-threatening problem. The medical consequences of eating disorders can be severe, with one person dying as a direct result every 62 minutes in the U.S.

Veritas Collaborative’s Child, Adolescent & Young Adult Hospital is a 50-bed facility providing multidisciplinary medical, psychiatric, nutritional, family therapy and other types of care to male, female and transgender patients up to age 21. Eating disorders are psychiatric disorders in which an individual becomes obsessed with food, weight and body image. The National Eating Disorder Association identifies 11 such disorders.

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“It is the only psychiatric hospital level of care for the long-term treatment of pediatric patients with eating disorders,” said Dr. Jim Fortenberry, pediatrician in chief at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, where they anticipate referring “a significant number” of patients to Veritas. “(It) allows patients and families to access excellent treatment at the local level.”

Veritas Collaborative Child, Adolescent & Young Adult Hospital, which recently opened in Dunwoody, provides inpatient services that young people with eating disorders may have previously had to leave the state to get. Photo by DJ Jennings/djarenphotography (HANDOUT/Photo by DJ Jennings/dja/Photo by DJ Jennings/djarenphoto)

Veritas provides inpatient, residential and partial hospitalization services with 70 to 90 days the average length of stay. Patients or families whose insurance plan considers Veritas Collaborative as an in-network provider typically only pay their deductible and out-of-pocket maximums; those out of network “work with the Veritas team to identify solutions for each situation,” it says.

Of the estimated 30 million people in the U.S. who suffer from eating disorders, 85 to 90 percent are female and 10 to 15 percent are male. Among females ages 15 to 24, anorexia nervosa has a higher mortality rate than any other cause of death, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

The most recent research available for Georgia shows nearly 339,500 people have eating disorders — although that number likely is significantly higher given population growth and other factors.

“With so many people, it’s a secret,” said Marci Soran, executive director of the Eating Disorders Information Network in Marietta. “And it affects every part of the body — bones, teeth, heart rate and more. If someone dies of a heart attack, you might not know they had an eating disorder.”

At CHOA, where a specialized treatment team cares for eating disorder patients with medical problems, admission rates have “steadily increased” each year since 2012, Fortenberry said. There were about 110 admissions for medical stabilization in 2017, with 45 percent of those patients subsequently being transferred to a specialized residential facility for eating disorders. Until now, CHOA mostly had to refer such cases out of state.

Dr. Anna Tanner  (Photo courtesy of Veritas Collaborative)

“I can’t describe in words how hard it is to sit across from a family with a very sick child and tell them they have to leave the state to get the care they need and deserve,” said Dr. Anna Tanner, Veritas Collaborative’s vice president for medical services.

A board-certified pediatrician, Tanner started the Teen Center at Gwinnett Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine in 2000 and was “overwhelmed” by how many patients with eating disorders she was seeing. Veritas already had separate eating disorder hospitals for adults and child and adolescent patients in Durham, N.C., and Tanner, who sent some patients there, said she told founder and CEO Stacie McEntyre, “‘Please build a hospital here.’ And I continued to pester her.”

After obtaining a certificate of need from the state, Veritas in early 2017 opened a clinic here that does medical assessments and provides various levels of outpatient services to patients up to age 24.

There’s a classroom at Veritas Collaborative’s Child, Adolescent & Young Adult Hospital, a new eating disorder hospital in Dunwoody for patients up to age 21. The average length of stay is 70 to 90 days, so two full-time accredited teachers help patients keep up with their schoolwork. CONTRIBUTED BY DJ JENNINGS / DJARENPHOTOGRAPHY (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The hospital, which admitted its first patient on June 4, is a four-story facility nestled in a woodsy area that feels deceptively removed from the nearby bustle of Perimeter Mall. Along with a nursing station and vitals and exam rooms, it features cheerfully decorated patient bedrooms (25 beds are currently operational, with construction on the remaining 25 expected to be completed in early 2019); a classroom where two full-time teachers help patients keep up with schoolwork; and a large dining room that includes a separate area for families to work on cooking and eating together.

Fallon Robinson, 17, was at last week’s official opening of Veritas Collaborative’s Child, Adolescent & Young Adult Hospital in Dunwoody. The reigning Miss Paulding County Outstanding Teen, she was faced with the prospect of having to leave the state to get inpatient treatment for an eating disorder two years ago. JILL VEJNOSKA / JVEJNOSKA@AJC.COM (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

For Fallon Robinson, that all-encompassing approach makes sense. Two years ago, she became “addicted to exercise” and cut her daily food intake to 700 calories. She grew weak, lost hair and developed migraines. Diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, she spent two weeks at CHOA at Scottish Rite, after which doctors wanted her to go to inpatient treatment that would have taken her out of state. Instead, she worked locally with counselors and nutritionists and now has recovered to the point that she speaks about eating disorders, including at last week’s Veritas Collaborative opening.

“It worked, ultimately, but I had to do it in separate bits and I only went weekly and I could hide more things because I wasn’t supervised all the time,” Fallon said almost wistfully in an interview. “I absolutely think if this was here then, it would’ve been amazing.”

WARNING SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF EATING DISORDERS

Early detection and intervention of eating disorders can improve the chances of recovery. It’s important to know what to look for, although individual situations can vary and this list is not exhaustive. For additional information, visit nationaleatingdisorders.org or myedin.org.

Preoccupation with weight, body size and shape and control of food

Preoccupation with weight loss, calories, carbohydrates, fat grams, and dieting; consistently logging food intake

Inflexibility about what, when, or how much to eat

Refusal to eat certain foods, progressing to restrictions against whole categories of food

Unwillingness to eat around others; social withdrawal

Hiding or throwing away food

Frequently checking self in the mirror for perceived flaws

Extreme mood swings and irritability

Notable weight changes

Stomach cramps and other GI complaints; menstrual irregularities in women

Dizziness, especially upon standing; fainting

Thinning hair, dry skin, brittle nails

Dental problems, such as enamel erosion, cavities and discoloration from vomiting

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