Jan 14, 2024, 12:29:17 PM CST Jan 14, 2024, 1:20:46 PM CST

Bella's story

A young patient finds support for an eating disorder at Children’s Health and is comforted and inspired by the resident horses as she heals.

Little girl smiling in front of horses. Little girl smiling in front of horses.

One thing brought 11-year-old Bella joy when she arrived at the Children's Health℠ Center for Pediatric Eating Disorders: a brown-and-white horse named Paint, right outside her window.

"It was like I had a roommate, and no matter what I had a friend there with me,” Bella says.

Paint was right there for the two-and-a-half months Bella stayed at Children's Health and received treatment for anorexia. Part of Children's Medical Center Plano overlooks a horse pasture. Patients and providers enjoy seeing Paint and a few other horses grazing and playing in the pasture.

"I just told her that when you see the horse, remember that even if we're not right next to you, we're always here for you no matter what,” says Bella's mom Alejandra.

Bella's journey to Children's Health

The first time Alejandra noticed something unusual about Bella's eating was when she turned down sweets on a family vacation. Then she didn't want to eat bread. And when Bella fainted a few weeks later, her parents knew something was wrong.

Little girl holding stuffed animalThe pediatrician worried that Bella had lost weight and ordered some tests. All the while, Bella ate less and less, to the point where Alejandra would come to Bella's school and beg her to eat lunch. When Bella stopped eating almost entirely, Alejandra called Children's Health, who said to bring her in the next day.

That night, Alejandra watched a video about anorexia, which talked about having a very low body weight, an intense fear of gaining weight, and negative feelings about how your body looks. She then showed the video to Bella.

"Mom, that's exactly how I feel,” Bella told her. "Everything I saw in the video, I have it.”

They were soon meeting with Andrew McGarrahan, Ph.D., Pediatric Psychologist at Children's Health, and checking into the hospital.

"I was scared for my parents to find out something was wrong with me, but I thought it was a good thing because I wanted to feel better and healthier and not have my family worry about me,” Bella says.

Inpatient treatment for anorexia nervosa

Little girl with physician and family memberConversations with Dr. McGarrahan and other members of Bella's care team revealed that Bella started to feel anxiety around her body image when she was just 9 years old. She couldn't help but compare herself to the other ballerinas in her dance class. Having a cell phone made things worse, providing an ongoing stream of curated social media photos and dangerous online exercise trends.

"Eating disorders like anorexia start in the brain,” Dr. McGarrahan says. "It affects how a person thinks and behaves toward food. A child with anorexia may believe they are overweight, even though they are actually normal weight or even underweight. Lots of patients have concerns about their body image, and eating feels like one thing they can control.”

Children's Health is home to a team of experts who work together to get to the root of a child's eating disorder and create a treatment plan. Patients participate in group therapy with other kids their age and family therapy, where the family works together to help their child heal. Patients also work with nutritionists to learn more about getting the nutrients they need as well as art, music and other types of therapists that help kids express themselves. Some patients will do an inpatient stay, while others do day treatment at the hospital and return home at night.

At first, Bella didn't want to eat at all. But each day, her care team was there for her, helping her navigate feelings about her body image and helping her see herself in a healthier way.

"The nurses were like family to me because I saw them every single day and they would encourage me,” Bella says. "I loved all my nurses but the one who stood out to me was Timothy. He made me laugh all the time. Every time I finished my food, he would be like, ‘Yes, you got it, girl,' and it was so funny.”

Her family visited her as much as possible, and seeing Paint out her window helped her stay strong when they weren't there. Bella's dad told her that when she was healthy enough to leave the hospital, they'd find a place where she could learn more about horses, which motivated her even more.

A strong message from a resilient kid

After lots of hard work, Bella was maintaining a healthier weight and ready to come home. With no nurses at home, it was Bella's family's job to care for her. Alejandra appreciated how her 15-year-old sons were so supportive, taking on more responsibility so their parents could focus on Bella.

Her parents were quick to sign her up for equine therapy, a type of therapy that uses horses to support physical and mental healing. Bella loved it from the minute she arrived, and was soon brushing, feeding and riding horses.

Little girl showing affection to horse."Being around horses makes me feel like I belong, like I have a friend who really cares and I can talk to about anything,” Bella says. "And when I started riding, I felt so free.”

Bella now wants to be a vet when she grows up, to help all animals but mostly horses. She's still involved in the equine therapy program, and sometimes stays all day on Saturdays to help out the teachers and other kids. That's not the only way she helps others in her community: Dr. McGarrahan regularly invites Bella to speak to parent education classes for families of kids experiencing eating disorders.

"It's really nice to see that same kid, who was so consumed by her eating disorder on day one, and now she has come so far,” Dr. McGarrahan says. "She can get in front of a camera and talk about her experience, she's been on the news. She can talk to adults about her journey and not be phased by it. As a provider, it is so special when you get to be part of that and so meaningful to see kids recover and get their lives back.”

When Bella gets in front of an audience, she has wise words to share.

"My message is never give up. Always believe in yourself and always believe that good things are coming,” she says .

Learn more about our Center for Pediatric Eating Disorders

The Children's Health Center for Pediatric Eating Disorders provides specialized, comprehensive and inclusive care for children and teens experiencing eating disorders. We work with each patient to understand their unique experience and create a personalized treatment to help them heal. Learn more about our program.

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anorexia, eating disorder, mental health, patient story, treatment

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