Anorexia has already cost Jessica Rowland so much of her childhood.
For the past four years, the 14-year-old Kurow teenager has been battling the eating disorder, and a lack of suitable treatment facilities in the South has forced her, with mother Sarah Rowland, to relocate to Auckland, and now Perth, to access the high-level care she needs.
A Givealittle page has been set up to support the Kurow mother and daughter cover the costs of travel and documentation, food, rent, petrol, bills, unfunded medical treatment and therapy, estimated to be upwards of $25,000.
After four years of full-time caring for her daughter as a single parent, Ms Rowland said she had no savings left to fall back on.
She was very grateful for all of the support she had received so far.
“This treatment is essential, but I’m at the end of my resources,” she said.
“This will take several months, not just a few weeks and we can’t access benefits [in Australia]. I’m hoping we can access some aid from New Zealand and I’m just working out exactly what we can access with the support of medical clinicians.”
Jessica was diagnosed with restrictive anorexia when she was 10 years old. She was one of the youngest patients with the condition yet seen at Dunedin Hospital.
Ms Rowland knew something was wrong with her daughter, but did not realise the nature and extent of Jessica’s plight until she collapsed after three days of gastroenteritis and was flown by helicopter to Dunedin Hospital.
“That was where I first heard the words anorexia nervosa mentioned,” Ms Rowland said.
For the following eight months, Jessica remained in hospital and the psychiatric unit of the Princess Margaret Hospital, fighting to restore her body and mind. She then returned home to Kurow and started to stabilise through hard work and family-based therapy.
“This time last year Jessica was enjoying life and doing everything any other 13-year-old would be doing and following her passion competing horses – our family was returning back to normal,” Ms Rowland said.
“Then flu hit her badly for three weeks, followed by a serious gastro bug, causing a sudden and massive relapse.”
There are centres which treat eating disorders in the South, but they are for adults and older adolescents, not children.
“We were unable to access inpatient treatment which she needed to turn things around due to how the system works in New Zealand, so once again she became badly entrenched,” Ms Rowland said.
“It took six months before she was admitted into hospital and we watched helplessly having lost all traction to get her to eat, and she slowly wasted away before she was deemed ‘sick enough’ for hospital admission, damaging her body and brain once again.”
A lack of suitable facilities in the South resulted in Ms Rowland and Jessica moving to Auckland in December.
Jessica was discharged from Starship Hospital’s eating disorders unit soon after arrival, as she reached its healthy weight range.
However, Ms Rowland said anorexia still had a strong hold of Jessica and she needed further residential treatment, or a day patient programme, but there was nothing available in New Zealand for children her age.
“We have been forced to move from New Zealand to Perth to access treatment at the Perth Children’s Hospital which offers the programmes and follow-up support Jessica and our family needs to help her reach remission,” she said.
“One of the biggest issues driving parents to seek overseas treatment is the New Zealand system currently sets kids up to fail. If you can actually access a hospital admission, they are referred to medical stabilisation only, then discharged without the correct support for families to continue refeeding or therapy.
“This sets up a loop of relapse and hospitalisation. This needs to change to longer inpatient stays and better outpatient programmes.”
Ms Rowland hoped the treatment Jessica was receiving in Perth would help her reach remission.
“We need to be here beyond all doubt,” she said.
“Until improvement is made to early recognition and early intervention for eating disorders, there will continue to be many more sufferers such as her falling through the cracks, not receiving evidence-based treatment they need to prevent lifelong health issues or death.
“Anorexia has the highest mortality rates for all psychiatric illness yet treatment is far behind what it should be – it’s just not good enough.”
She continues to lobby for a specialist paediatric eating disorder facility to be set up in the South Island, and her online petition addressed to Health Minister David Clark has amassed more than 11,000 signatures.
Ms Rowland has also been documenting her daughter’s journey on Facebook (www.facebook.com/battlingED) to raise awareness of the struggles facing those with eating disorders, and to update friends and family about the progress and challenges on Jessica’s road to recovery.