In the United States about 30 million women and 3 million men suffer from an eating disorder. And among adolescents, anorexia is the third most common chronic illness after asthma and obesity.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) eating disorders are one of the deadliest mental health conditions, second only to opioid overdose.
Eating disorders can be severe and extreme, with psychiatric and medical complications requiring immediate attention. Even in young people who are relatively new to their eating disorder, getting help can be a matter of life or death.
“There’s a small group [of people] that have extreme forms of eating disorders, both bulimia and anorexia, who [are] at major risk of dying if they don’t get urgent specialized treatment,” says Dr. Philip S. Mehler, founder and executive medical director at the ACUTE Center for Eating Disorders at Denver Health, a 30-bed medical telemetry unit treating patients with the most severe eating disorders. “That’s what ACUTE provides, and that’s why we have an air ambulance service that can get them there within 24 hours. ACUTE is basically a medical intensive care unit specifically for patients with severe eating disorders.”
Going to an emergency room or residential treatment center (RTC) is not the solution for someone who has medical instability from an extreme eating disorder. That’s because people with extreme eating disorders need dire help. Last year alone, 10 patients with scheduled admissions to ACUTE died from their medical issues as their families were in the final stages of arranging travel to Denver ACUTE.
ACUTE treats people of all genders ages 15 and up. Its expert and renowned medical treatment helps patients alleviate or avoid medical complications of eating disorders, safely begins the refeeding process, provides mental health support, and prepares the individual to seek further treatment at an RTC after they medically stabilize.
To increase the likelihood of survival and recovery, it’s important to get treatment for an eating disorder as soon as possible. However, Dr. Mehler notes that most doctors, including pediatricians, don’t receive a lot of training in treating eating disorders, and they may not recognize certain life-threatening medical symptoms as being linked to an eating disorder.
ACUTE is the only medical stabilization program for severe eating disorders in the country, and 90 percent of its patients come from outside of Colorado. They offer the highest level of medical care for patients at risk of dying from their eating disorder due to the severe nature of their illness.
Their specialists help patients restore weight and correct their metabolic levels safely. If patients aren’t nourished safely and monitored during the refeeding process, they could be at risk for refeeding syndrome, a condition marked by complications like edema (swelling), irregular heartbeat, and other deadly symptoms.
“Safe weight restoration is the key to helping a patient with anorexia,” says Dr. Mehler, noting that ACUTE can administer any type of nutrition necessary, including oral, tube, and intravenous feeding. “For bulimia, we stabilize electrolytes that can become critically abnormal from self-induced vomiting and laxative abuse.”
Patients receive around-the-clock care from doctors and nurses, as well as a multidisciplinary team including occupational therapy, physical therapy, psychology, psychiatry, and dietary. This comprehensive approach addresses the individual’s physical and behavioral recovery needs.
People with extreme eating disorders come to ACUTE to survive. A patient’s length of stay depends on their unique circumstance and can range from a few days to several weeks before they move on to a full recovery at an RTC.
“The vast majority of our patients, because they’re so ill and they’re flirting with death, are very appreciative of how much better they feel following expert medical care,” says Dr. Mehler. “[From ACUTE], they step down to the next level of treatment in a better place to pursue a complete and sustained recovery.”
ACUTE offers free evaluations for patients, families, and healthcare providers: https://www.denverhealth.org/services/acute-center-for-eating-disorders