Strong Minded

Overcoming eating disorder took the effort of Gannon's entire family 

Gannon holding football

At 11 years old, Gannon was a healthy, active sixth-grader who played football and basketball – a good student and a good athlete. But his size, averaging around the 90th percentile for height and weight on the growth charts, was something he didn’t feel good about.

"My friends would tease me, calling me fat or saying I was slow because I had rolls," Gannon says. "One day I got mad and decided it was going to end. I wasn’t trying to be skinny. I just wanted to be more lean, muscular and fit."

Gannon started reading the labels on his foods, counting calories and adding more exercise to his day. "I quickly started seeing results," says Gannon. "That motivated me to cut more unhealthy food from my diet and do even more to burn calories."

"In the beginning, it seemed that Gannon was just making healthy changes," says Gannon’s mom, Nancy. "He was at an age when boys’ bodies begin to mature and change, and even mood changes are not unusual, so we weren’t too concerned."

But Gannon became withdrawn, stopped hanging out with friends and began falling asleep in school. His parents became increasingly worried. They scheduled an appointment to see his pediatrician, Dr. Erica Pelletier, at General Booth Pediatrics, a CHKD Medical Group practice.

At Gannon’s well visit a few months earlier, Dr. Pelletier had noticed a weight loss and requested he come back in a few months for a recheck. During his follow-up appointment, she was startled by the changes she saw.

"Dr. Pelletier told us that Gannon was very sick. He was showing signs of malnutrition, and his heart rate had become dangerously slow. We were stunned," says Nancy. "That was the first time she used the words eating disorder."

Gannon was surprised too. "That was something I never expected," he says. "I was scared. I had no idea that what I was doing could hurt my body. That was the opposite of what I was trying to accomplish."

Dr. Pelletier referred Gannon to CHKD cardiology to evaluate his slow heart rate and gastroenterology to rule out other medical issues that could cause his extreme weight loss. When no physical cause could be found, Gannon was referred to CHKD’s behavioral health program for treatment of suspected anorexia nervosa.

CHKD’s behavioral health program was significantly expanded in 2014 to meet the region’s growing need for pediatric mental health services. More than 20 licensed clinical social workers, professional counselors and clinical psychologists now provide outpatient therapy at eight CHKD locations to treat children, adolescents and young adults with conditions including depression, anxiety disorders, ADHD, sleep disorders, specific phobias, eating disorders, conduct and impulse control disorders, as well as chronic medical illness and pain. The program includes CHKD psychiatry and psychology professionals who provide collaboration and clinical oversight to the team.   

Alexandra Laramee, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist and manager of CHKD’s behavioral health program, met with Gannon and his parents to explain the diagnosis and the recommended treatment. “She laid out the facts and helped us understand what we were facing,” says Nancy.

Eating disorders affect more than 8 million people each year, and most are diagnosed before or during adolescence. Many of these children remain active and appear healthy, though they may be extremely ill. The most common eating disorder is anorexia nervosa, where patients like Gannon severely restrict food intake. As the illness takes over, the brain develops a fear response to food. The food intake required for recovery causes severe anxiety for the patient. 

CHKD’s behavioral health program uses evidence-based therapies that fit each patient’s diagnosis. The preferred treatment for eating disorders is a form of outpatient counseling called Family Based Therapy. "The success of this process centers on a commitment from every family member to be present at all sessions and play a role in the patient’s recovery," says Laramee.

At this point, 12-year-old Gannon was gaunt and pale. He had dropped from 127 to 85 pounds. His family made the commitment without hesitation. "The open lines of communication we focused on in our family were so important to this process," says Gannon’s dad, Chad. "It was a very difficult time, but we are closer than ever because of it."

The process required Gannon to give up all decision-making regarding his eating and exercise. With Laramee’s guidance, his parents took control. They planned and supervised all his meals and severely limited his physical activity.

"The first step in treating an eating disorder is to help the family understand that the defiance and refusal to eat is the disorder talking, not their son," Laramee explains. "The disorder had taken away Gannon’s ability to make healthy decisions, and the family was going to have to make those decisions for him. He was sick, and food was the only medicine that could save his life."

As much as Gannon wanted to be healthy again, the treatment process was not easy. "It was so hard for me at first. Each week I would have to eat things that I had cut out of my diet," Gannon says. "The worst battles were over tater tots and peanut butter. My brain was telling me they were bad for me and would make me fat. I was terrified that everything I had been through would be for nothing if I went back to that chubby kid I was before."

The weekly therapy sessions were filled with progress and setbacks, big battles and small victories. Slowly, things began to change.

"Once Gannon’s body began to get the nutrition it needed, the disease began to have less control over him," says Nancy. "The hard battles we fought were worth it. The therapy was working."

Gannon realized that the food was making him feel like himself again. His energy and strength increased, and his focus returned to football. "In therapy, we made a deal with Gannon," Chad says. "He could try out for his middle school football team if he reached 110 pounds by the first practice." 

Gannon, determined to get back to the sport he loved, spent the summer before his eighth-grade year focused on reaching that goal. "I ate every two hours all day long," Gannon says. "I finally understood that food wasn’t going to hurt me. And nothing was more important to me than being healthy and playing football again."

In August of 2016, Gannon held his breath as he stepped onto the scale at CHKD for that last weigh-in before tryouts began. He was 111 pounds – he’d achieved his goal.

Gannon went on to make the team, and this summer will be preparing for a spot on the junior varsity squad at his high school. With ongoing support from his family and therapist, he has been able to take back control of his food choices and works each day to maintain his healthy eating habits.

"CHKD’s integration of care was vital to Gannon’s treatment. Because his age and gender are not typical for this disorder, it could have easily been missed early on," says Laramee. "As part of the CHKD family, we were able to identify his problem through his pediatrician and evaluate him as a team with all his medical history readily accessible. That early identification definitely helped increase his chance of success."

Family support was the other critical component in Gannon’s success. "It’s possible I wouldn’t even be here today without my family and CHKD helping me through this eating disorder," says Gannon. "I never knew this could happen. And because of it, I went through the hardest struggle of my life, and missed out on so much. I hope by telling my story, someone else can avoid going through this."