WILKES-BARRE — Jennifer Misunas went through puberty at an early age — long before most of her peers.
She was teased, taunted and called “fat,” even though she wasn’t heavy, just more developed than other girls.
The name-calling caused her to develop bulimia nervosa — an illness in which a person binges on food or has regular episodes of overeating and feels a loss of control. The person then uses different methods — such as vomiting or abusing laxatives — to prevent weight gain.
After years of struggling with the disease, Misunas, at the behest of her older sister, sought out a nutritionist, who referred her to The Renfrew Center, based in Philadelphia, a nationally known treatment program for women with eating disorders. Renfrew has centers in Pennsylvania and nine other states.
On Thursday, area professionals were at The Woodlands Inn and Resort in Plains Township to meet two of Renfrew’s leaders — Dr. Susan Ice, vice president and chief medical officer at The Renfrew Center, and Vice President of Professional Development Adrienne Ressler, as they begin to more aggressively market their services in the region.
Misunas, 25, of Wilkes-Barre, spoke at the event and shared her personal recovery story with the attendees. She said the Renfrew program saved her life.
On Friday, The Renfrew Center held a full-day training seminar at The Woodlands for area health care professionals. The training, titled “The False Self: The Complexity of Body Image and Identity Issues in the Treatment of Eating Disorders,” was designed to help area professionals develop skills in the prevention, assessment and treatment of behavioral and emotional disorders in women. Ressler conducted the training for the more than 60 professionals.
One woman’s story
When she was in college, Misunas would drive to a convenience store or fast-food restaurant and “buy everything on the menu.” She would sit in the parking lot of her building and eat it all.
Then she would go to the public bathroom in the basement of the building and force herself to throw up. She did this time and time again.
“I ate anything and everything,” she said.
Her problem worsened; the purging became more and more violent. She took laxatives and diet pills and she would run 10 miles per day. She lost too much weight — she won’t say how much. Her eyes were sunken, and when people hugged her, they would tell her they could feel every bone in her body.
Misunas was referred to the Renfrew Center’s Intensive Outpatient Program in Radnor in March 2008. By May, it was decided she should enroll in Renfrew’s residential treatment program in Philadelphia.
It was there that Misunas would receive the help she needed to rid herself of the problem that plagued her since she was 10.
Misunas, like all people with addictions, is constantly recovering.
“It was like a mini-world where you were protected from certain triggers, like people talking about weight,” she said. “They taught me how to eat again — to respect food and to respect my body.”
Misunas even learned how to go food shopping, to learn what to buy and what not to put in her cart.
Insurance covered some of her costs, but her parents paid out of pocket even after three levels of appeal with their insurance company, she said.
Misunas is now living symptom-free and is pursuing her doctorate in clinical psychology at Marywood University. She is engaged to Mike Buckwash, whom she met at King’s College, and they are getting married next year.
Tom Pugh, former vice president for rehabilitative services at Allied Services and former CEO at the John Heinz Institute, said the Renfrew program has and will serve as a significant benefit to Northeastern Pennsylvania.
“I’m extremely pleased that Renfrew is coming into our area,” Pugh said. “Renfrew is the premiere eating disorder treatment program in the country.”
Dr. Joy Armillay, nutrition therapist in Kingston and Montage, has referred many women to Renfrew.
“The Renfrew program is so organized and so comprehensive that it combines all of the therapies to help the individual to truly identify the source of the eating disorder and help with planning the treatment program,” Armillay said. “They have fine-tuned treatment to get right to the point and they provided outstanding after-care to the patients.”
Eating disorders never have a quick fix, Armillay said. “We know where we want to go, it just takes a while to get here,” she said.
Armillay said the 65 health care professionals who attended Thursday and Friday’s events sponsored by Renfrew is an indication of how many women are being treated for eating disorders in the area.
She said there is no program like Renfrew’s in the region that offers comprehensive outpatient services and residential inpatient services. “Eating disorders are often not about food,” she said. “The Renfrew inpatient program uses a team approach that gets to the deep rooted causes of the disorder.”
Treatment can get expensive — as much as thousands of dollars per day for inpatient treatment, Armillay said. She doesn’t know how many people in Northeastern Pennsylvania suffer from eating disorders, but “the number is growing,” she said. She has treated patients from ages 8 to 60 with eating disorders.
The Renfrew Center has contracts with more than 100 insurance companies nationwide. Locally, Renfrew works with Independence Blue Cross, Aetna, Cigna Health Insurance, Value Options, Oxford Health Plan, Magellan Behavioral Plan and multiple Blue Cross/Blue Shield plans.
Alecia Connlain, spokeswoman for Renfrew, said negotiations have been ongoing with Blue Cross of NEPA. She said BC/BS of NEPA does refer to Philadelphia psychiatric facilities, but won’t refer to Renfrew because it does not offer a residential benefit.
Anthony Matriciano, spokesman for Blue Cross/Blue Shield of NEPA, said bulimia and anorexia are covered under all plans. However, he said before clients make any financial commitment for treatment they should contact customer service for guidance.
Amy Bowen, pubic relations specialist for Geisinger Health Plan, said coverage is provided through the system’s mental health program. Geisinger contracts with Optum Behavioral Health, and prior authorization is needed from the patient’s primary care physician, she said. “The Renfrew program would be covered under that,” Bowen said, “for both inpatient and outpatient services.” Bowen said before any appointments are made, clients should call Geisinger’s customer services department to assure coverage is provided.