June 9, 2006

27-year-old who passed away last August following a five-year battle with an eating disorder.

Renata's Legacy

Vince Withers (right) and Dr. Olga Heath look at a memorial to Withers’ daughter, which he displays in his family room. Graduation portraits of their son and daughter, hung on either side of a large collage of photos and diplomas in Vince and Dolores Withers’ living room, exemplify parental pride. Christopher Withers is a polite host, offering guests tea or coffee. But despite the welcome atmosphere, whenever his sister Renata’s name is mentioned, the family’s tragic loss is painfully evident.

You can almost hear a pin drop as Vince begins to reminisce about Renata, a vibrant and intelligent 27-year-old who passed away last August following a five-year battle with an eating disorder.

Her mother enters the room a while later, tears welling up in her eyes. She’s still grief-stricken by her daughter’s death, but she’s also worried about other young people experiencing the same ordeal, probably in silence. Several young women have come up to her since Renata’s death and whispered in her ear, "Ms. Withers, I’m like that too, you know," she said.

By speaking publicly, the family hopes more people will become comfortable about talking about eating disorders instead of hiding the truth and not discussing the illness.

The circumstances surrounding Renata’s death became public knowledge prior to the 2005 St. John’s municipal election. Her father, a mayoral candidate, withdrew from the race, with his campaign chairman Paul Thomey commenting that the family was "devastated" by the loss of their daughter. Having served as president and chief executive officer of NewTel until his retirement in 1998, Withers had wanted to represent the citizens of St. John’s in an official capacity. But since then he’s become an advocate of a different sort, helping parents and family members understand and cope with an insidious disorder that can have devastating consequences for its victims.

"I’ve never had so many people call me so emotional," Withers said in a recent interview. "And what always bothers me is how this one has been under the radar for so long."

The people who call ask Withers about the symptoms and what they can do to help, because people with eating disorders often don’t recognize they have a problem, or deny it. Renata began showing symptoms about five years before her death. Withers said as her illness progressed, she changed.

"The personality changes were slow, careful, but not abrasive. She lived in her room more, as if, ‘I don’t know if I want to be bugged by the rest of you,’ " he said.

Withers said when Renata was a child, it just wasn’t in her nature to be dishonest.

"If she told you a little white lie, she would come to you later and tell you the truth," he recalled.
But in recent years, he said, although she exercised a lot more than she should and was losing too much weight, she started hiding how much she was working out from her family.

"If I asked if she was exercising, she would say, ‘No, Dad,’ but she would park the car and walk," her father said.

She also became fanatical about reading food labels and counting calories.

Withers said encouraging Renata to eat more only seemed to make her isolate herself further from her family. "Renata would eat in her room rather than with the family. We’d go to a restaurant and she would avoid going there," Withers said.

Although she struggled for years with her eating disorder, Renata earned bachelor of arts and bachelor of education degrees before her death. Withers said she was determined to finish university, but had to practically crawl there as her disease progressed.

There were days when he felt Renata was too ill to go to class, but she insisted on going.
"When I would drop her off, she would stagger out of the car, she was so weak," he said. The disease eventually took a toll on her entire system, but despite having to make trips to the emergency department, Withers said the critical nature of her eating disorder didn’t seem to register with her until the end. In advanced stages, eating disorders can have devastating effects on internal organs and body systems.

Just days before her death, Withers said, Renata told her mother, "I’m in trouble." At that point, she carried only about 50 pounds on her 5-foot-10 frame. Withers said based on his observations, "once the disease takes over the person, they hate food."

"Once it’s halfway, it’s like the power of the disease takes over. It consumed her because the disease was in charge."

Withers said five years ago he knew little about eating disorders. Since Renata’s illness became public knowledge, he has come to realize that this is a much bigger problem — one many people are reluctant to talk about.

It’s estimated that as many as 7,700 people in this province are at risk of having some form of eating disorder. With that in mind, Withers hopes to establish a community-based, non-profit provincial eating disorder foundation by July. Most other major diseases and disorders have support organizations, he said, but it seems family members of people with eating disorders don’t know where to turn for information and advocacy.

Withers recently presented his proposal Health and Community Services Minister Tom Osborne. The mandate of the foundation will be to serve as an advocacy group dedicated to promoting research and providing public support and information about eating disorders, including treatment options and services for individuals and their families.

Withers said other goals will include working toward more focused and co-ordinated treatments, promoting health body images and self-esteem through public education and awareness, and advocating at various levels of government and health and community groups to ensure input and involvement in decision-making affecting eating disorder policies and treatments.

The foundation will also advocate for and support ongoing research and related medical services.

1 comment:

  1. It breaks my heart that some people's bodies can only last a matter of a few years being treated the way we treat them. Mine was lucky enough to endure over 10 years of misery and still really mostly be okay. So sad to me that her's only made it 5.
    My heart goes out to her family and friends, and to a woman who lived the past 5 years in a prison I wouldn't wish on anyone.


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