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Anorexic woman saved by strangers at YMCA

March 29th, 2014 6:05 pm by TOM WILEMON, The Tennessean

Anorexic woman saved by strangers at YMCA

NASHVILLE — She was withering away before their eyes.

They watched her slog through marathon workouts every weekday morning at the Green Hills YMCA, her emaciated body leaning on the rails of the Stairmaster.

"That girl was there," Frank Grant told his wife one Sunday afternoon, confirming the couple's suspicion that she was working out multiple times a day. They didn't know her name, but she was young enough to be their daughter.

Other gym-goers at the YMCA also were watching her decline and wondering what to do. Was she really anorexic? Was it some other medical condition? They contemplated the potential awkwardness of making a wrong assumption, the rudeness of violating someone's privacy and the danger of doing nothing.

Then nine of them staged an intervention.

If they had waited any longer, Lauryn Lax would have died. When they took her to a hospital on an August morning in 2011, doctors thought they might have to implant a pacemaker. Anorexia nervosa had weakened Lax to the point that her heart was struggling to beat.

"I didn't know these people," Lax said. "I had seen them more as acquaintances."

Now she calls them her angels. Today, Lax is healthy and about to complete her graduate studies at Belmont University. She's planning a party with her angels.

Three years ago, she was a 23-year-old woman who had moved to a new place where no one knew that she had battled her eating disorder since the age of 10 or that she had been hospitalized more than a dozen times.

Lax didn't realize how sick she was and resisted the help of strangers. They would not take no for an answer.

"It felt a bit like kidnapping," said Louise Grant. "It was a horrible experience for every single one of us, for her and for us."

L'Tanya Bell did the detective work, tracing Lax to Little Rock, Ark., and then finding a likely telephone number for her parents. Judith Hill started researching eating disorder treatment centers in Nashville. Louise Grant and Susie Bateman made the telephone calls, contacting Lax's father and making arrangements to take her to an emergency room. Andy Clough, Frank Grant, Bob Johnson, Fields Stringfellow and Johnny Phipps also took part in the planning and execution.

They tried talking at first.

"I know we don't know each other," Louise Grant said, introducing herself to Lax. "I have to tell you that I would like to get you some help. I believe that you have an eating disorder, and I really want to do something to help you."

She had stalked Lax on Monday morning, following her from an upstairs workout area to a downstairs weight machine.

Lax gave a politely defensive response, saying she was OK and had received counseling. But the unspoken message was clear.

"It was sort of, 'You need to leave me alone,' " Louise Grant said.

Andy Clough overheard the conversation and told Grant he had the same worries. Overnight, calls and emails about "that girl" were exchanged. Some of the morning crew knew her first name. One of them, Bell, had become a Facebook friend when Lax interviewed her about being a breast cancer survivor for a college project.

"You know, Lax is not a common name," Bell said. "I just got on a website and looked up Lax in Arkansas and up came her dad's name."

By Tuesday morning, Susie Bateman and Louise Grant were whispering in a corner at the YMCA about staging an intervention. That afternoon, they called her parents. The next morning, it went down.

Lax had just gotten out of her car in the YMCA parking lot before sunrise, not knowing she was being watched. She heard footsteps and then she was surrounded.

They tried to persuade Lax to get into one of their vehicles and be taken to Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

"I have had horrible experiences in hospitals and had been in them off and on for years," Lax said. "It had been three or four years since I had been in a hospital bed. I knew what they were like. I knew if they took me, I wouldn't really be coming out. At the same time, they didn't give up. It probably went on for 10 or 15 minutes of us standing there arguing. I ended up giving in and feeling this internal relief."

However, she was still determined to persuade the hospital staff not to admit her, and she almost succeeded. A hastily arranged telephone call between the emergency room physician and Lax's parents, who were already en route to Nashville, kept her from walking out.

Her father had warned that she would not cooperate.

"We couldn't help her," said Mike Lax, a Little Rock attorney. "We were so close to it for so long. We had just been to Nashville three weeks before the intervention. We came to Nashville the last week of July and really got in the car and cried on the way home. We didn't know if she was going to make it."

A few catty comments started Lauryn Lax down the path to anorexia nervosa when she was in elementary school.

"One day at recess, I started hanging out with the popular girl group at school," she said. "We were talking about weight one day. The most popular girl just asked everyone in the group point-blank, 'How much do you all weigh?' It was kind of like we were all in the hot seat."

She weighed only 5 to 10 pounds more than everyone else and was taller, but in that judgmental environment she felt fat. She stopped drinking sugary sodas and eating junk food.

"Six months into that or less, something else took hold where it became an obsession in my head," Lax said. "That's when I got an eating disorder. It started controlling me. I wasn't controlling it."

Her parents noticed the weight loss, the dark circles under her eyes and her frigid hands. They took her to a doctor but did not want to believe the diagnosis. She was so young, too young for a teenage illness. They sought a second opinion from the Mayo Clinic. The diagnosis did not change.

By the time she was a seventh-grader, she was admitted to an inpatient treatment facility for the first time. When she was a freshman at the University of Texas in Austin, she had to go again. She still struggled with her disease throughout her time there and after her graduation while working as a news producer for a Little Rock television station.

She decided to switch careers, applying for the occupational therapy program at Belmont University. Her parents opted against paying for graduate school because of her illness. But she obtained student loans and went anyway.

The morning of the intervention, the 5-foot-4 woman had stepped on the scales at her home and weighed only 79 pounds. She had never before weighed so little as an adult. She knew she had to make some changes.

"It was just a struggle to even work out 30 minutes less or to make myself eat a teaspoon of almond butter more," Lax said.

Vanderbilt transferred her to Saint Thomas Midtown Hospital, which had a program more geared for adults with eating disorders, said Mike Lax. Her heart rate dipped at the second hospital so badly that she was sent to the intensive care unit.

"It was the longest night of my life as Lauryn's heart rate hovered just above 30 until about 6 a.m. the next day, when her heart moved up to 33 or 34 — still dangerously low, but above the level where surgery was going to be required," he said.

She was in that unit for three days, then spent 3 1/2 weeks on the cardiac care floor. After leaving the hospital, she spent 11 months at the Oliver Pyatt Center in Miami. It was the longest time she had spent in a treatment center.

Lauryn Lax does not get on the scales every morning anymore. She said she doesn't even know how much she weighs.

"It's gotten so much easier," she said. "It has gotten more second nature. A lot of things I have learned over time. Mindfulness is huge and something that I've practiced — learning how to live within my hunger and fullness cues. I don't count calories. I don't count exchanges. I know what a balanced meal is."

The morning group at the Green Hills Y gave her the will to start healing, she said.

"I was 23 at the time and just realized I'm an adult," she said. "If my parents aren't around, what am I doing with my life? I felt internally, 'This is my life, and how do I want to live it?' It's not bound by an eating disorder."

She will graduate in May after completing her clinical requirements to be an occupational therapist. She hopes to find employment helping people with eating disorders.

Said Lax: "My heart is to pay it forward."

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