By Amanda Diedrick
Meet Ashley Hall. She lives in Marsh Harbour, Bahamas. She just graduated sixth grade. And she weighs 39 pounds.
Sadly, that’s not a typo.
Eleven-year-old Ashley — the daughter of my childhood friend Nancy (Blair) Hall and her husband, Philip — has suffered from a severe eating disorder for eight years.
In 2006, Nancy lost her mother, and later in the year, her father. Both had been ill, and Nancy spent months shuttling between Marsh Harbour and Nassau to care for them.
Understandably, it was a time of upset and upheaval for her family, and Ashley, always a sensitive and perceptive child, began refusing to eat.
Nancy and Philip took Ashley to Florida, where she underwent extensive neurological testing and more than 20 medical tests. When no physical explanation could be found for her failure to thrive, doctors diagnosed Ashley with anorexia nervosa – the youngest case they’d ever seen.
At three years old, they explained, Ashley’s refusal to eat had nothing to do with body image. It wasn’t about a dress size or a number on a scale. Rather, it was an attempt to gain control when she felt like so much of her life was beyond her control.
With medical care, Ashley improved. But two years later, when her mother was diagnosed with cancer, her world once again spun out of control.
Nancy had to leave Ashley behind to travel to Nassau for treatments, surgery and chemotherapy. “As rough as it was on me,” Nancy says, “I can’t imagine how scary it was for her. When I lost my hair, she took it so hard. I remember her in the back yard, sobbing her eyes out.”
Nancy and Philip sought help locally, but few Bahamian doctors or therapists – and none on Abaco — specialize in eating disorders. They did find limited success working with a series of local counselors and over time, as Nancy’s health improved, so did Ashley’s.
For the next several years, Ashley’s eating disorder seemed to recede into the past. Though she’s never been a big eater, Nancy says, she was thriving.
Earlier this year, however, as Ashley neared the end of sixth grade – and the transition from primary to high school — she grew increasingly distressed.
“She doesn’t do well with change,” Nancy says. “She had to say goodbye to a couple of close friends, and we could tell she just wasn’t emotionally ready for high school.”
Her parents assured Ashley they’d homeschool her until she felt ready to rejoin her class. As a reward and a distraction, they booked a sixth-grade-graduation trip to Disneyworld and Epcot Center for July.
But as June neared, Ashley grew increasingly withdrawn, depressed and obsessed with her weight. “Now that she’s older,” Nancy says, “we see the full-blown effects of the anorexia. Counting calories, limiting her food intake to nearly nothing. She won’t even drink water.”
“I went through cancer twice, and that was difficult,” says Nancy. “But it’s so much harder to watch my child go through this. She doesn’t see what it’s doing, what it’s done to her body. I don’t think she can grasp yet just how serious this is.”
After graduation, instead of Disneyworld, Nancy and Philip rushed Ashley – by then, a dangerously thin 39 pounds — to Miami. There, for nearly a month, she was passed from hospital to hospital.
“Some facilities can give her medical care, but not the psychological counseling she needs,” Nancy says. “Some offer only outpatient programs, but Ashley needs something more intensive.” And most eating disorder programs don’t accept children under 13.
Just when it seemed the Halls had run out of options, they received some encouraging news. An eating disorder clinic near Tallahassee, which offers the full spectrum of medical, nutritional and psychological services Ashley needs, agreed to accept her.
The bad news? The facility costs more than $1,000 per day. And Ashley needs – at a minimum – 30 days of treatment, payable before they’d even admit her!
Like many Bahamian families, the Halls don’t have medical insurance. And though their family, friends and church community have helped with fundraising, Ashley’s medical expenses far exceed the money raised.
Earlier this week, an anonymous source offered Philip and Nancy a $30,000 interest free loan – enough to get Ashley admitted and begin treatment, which she did this past Thursday.
Financially, though, it’s just a temporary reprieve. In addition to repaying the loan, the Halls face significant bills from the other hospitals that have seen and treated Ashley in recent weeks. And, given the severity of her disorder, Ashley will likely need to spend more than 30 days at the current facility.
With proper, specialized medical and psychological help, Ashley has an excellent chance of overcoming this disorder and living a long and healthy life.
But like most families, the Halls simply don’t have the thousands – and potentially hundreds of thousands – of dollars that her treatment will require.
Every day we encounter situations we’d like to change but are powerless to do so. Here, however, is a something we can do, something that will make a tangible difference in the life of an 11-year-old child.
I’ve made a contribution to Ashley’s medical fund and whether or not you know Ashley and her family, I hope you’ll consider doing the same.
Here’s how you can help:
In the Bahamas, donations can be made at any RBC branch to the Marsh Harbour account of “Philip and Diana Hall” (Diana is Nancy’s real name). That should be enough information, but if you need the account number, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you’re in the U.S. or Canada, send contributions (payable to “Philip and Diana Hall”) to 956 S. Orange Grove Blvd, Unit B, Pasadena, CA 91105.
If you’ve got a PayPal account, donations can also be made that way. Get in touch and I’ll give you the details.