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Fraser Health Eating Disorders Programs wins Innovator Award!

Elspeth Humphreys had a calling as a young adult: she wanted to help heal people with eating disorders. Only she had to heal herself first.

The regional coordinator for Fraser Health’s Eating Disorders Program struggled with anorexia for years, starting at age 12 when a downturn in her father’s health and her family’s fortunes left her feeling helpless. Food was something she could control. She ended up in hospital for several months, followed by years of recovery. By the end of it, she’d found a sense of purpose.

“I realized that I wanted to give back,” she recalled. “You certainly don’t need to have had an eating disorder to work in this field. But that was what made me so passionate – I know people can recover and I know the support they need.”

That sense of purpose is shared by the entire Eating Disorders Program. The team includes Dr. Joan Fujiwara, Dr. Anthony Oshun, Dr. Christine Lammerse, and Dr. Marietta Van Den Berg, Dr. Hemlata Joshi, therapists Megan Hughes Jones, Kristina Sandy, Kimberley Alscher, Esther Naayer, Sarah Price, Eve Abrams and Kelly Adler, coordinator Elspeth Humphreys, dietitians Shalene Reimer and Elizabeth Thirsk and health care worker Corrine Wilson.

Together, they partnered with BC Children’s Hospital and the Looking Glass Residence to develop an Emotion-Focussed Family Therapy group for loved ones to learn the necessary skills to support their family member’s recovery. The treatment, which required a huge commitment from employees to re-train, was influenced by new research showing recovery rates rise when families are involved, with both youth and adult clients.

“That was a game changer for us,” Elspeth said. “The fundamental belief is that families have immense healing power with their loved one, all they are lacking are the necessary skills. So we teach them skills in four main areas: emotion and recovery coaching, relationship repair and how to process emotional blocks. When we empower families, we also empower clients with the support they need to recover.”

Since the team launched the emotion-focussed family therapy groups in 2015, they’ve seen faster rates of recovery, and families reporting more confidence supporting their loved ones.

“The Eating Disorders Program is a small program with very limited resources, however, this team finds a way, through their determination and creativity, to provide the best service they can to a very complex group of clients,” said Program Manager Hanif Mohamed.

Stan Kuperis, Director of Mental Health and Substance Use, praised employees for their “persistence, strong commitment to optimal client care, and continual innovation to meet client and family needs.”

The clinic receives 500 referrals per year with 200 to 300 active clients. Among the team members are Dr. Joan Fujiwara and Dr. Christine Lammerse. Twenty-five years ago, they were among the first family physicians in Fraser Health to offer team-based community eating disorder treatments, at a time when these illnesses weren’t as well understood and treatment was scarce. These patients were complicated to treat, due to complex medical and psychiatric effects of starvation. Yet Dr. Fujiwara and Dr. Lammerse worked with passion and drive to save countless lives.

“One of the most notable things about eating disorders is the medical piece is so intertwined with the mental health piece,” Dr. Fujiwara explained. “Often eating disorder symptoms are a coping mechanism related to their life and family. So you can’t just treat one part.”

Their effect of their work has been profound. One former patient praised how the doctors “looked at me as a young woman first then as a patient with an eating disorder. I felt as though they genuinely cared for me as a whole person. Because of doctors like them, there are success stories like mine.”

Dr. Marietta Van Den Berg, a psychiatrist at Surrey Memorial Hospital who supports the Fraser South Eating Disorders Program, was also singled out for contributions to complex care cases. She supports the clinic’s most challenging clients, those who are extremely ill not only with eating disorders, but with other complex medical and mental health issues.

“She has clients that most psychiatrists are reluctant to treat, and yet she’s passionate about helping them,” Elspeth said. “She is brilliant and caring and has an ability to assess just what a patient needs and then not take no for an answer when it comes to finding them resources.”

Sometimes, the clinicians say, those resources come from within.

“I always feel that patients have it within themselves to get better,” Dr. Fujiwara said. “We just facilitate it; we encourage and hope and help them move forward.”

Until one day that patient may use their inner strength to help someone else recover.