It has been four months since Claire Kalina walked back into Dr. Michael Polito’s office at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora with a simple message: “Thanks for saving my life.”
Kalina, a senior at Novi, was not exaggerating.
A year ago at this time, she was in and out of hospitals and switching from one treatment program to another as she appeared to waste away to nothing before her parents’ eyes.
Kalina had full-blown anorexia — the 5-foot-6 teenager had dropped to 87 pounds and her heartbeat was a dangerously slow 30 beats per minute.
Anorexia is an eating disorder that affects about 1% of the population, mostly young women, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. It can be fatal in 5%-20% of its cases.
But one year and 40 pounds gained later, Kalina is with her Novi golf team at Bedford Valley in Battle Creek this weekend as they try to win the Division 1 state championship.
The battle with anorexia began in her sophomore year, and there were times Maria and Mark Kalina wondered if their daughter would survive the disease.
It began affecting Claire in December 2012, but she did not stop eating. She became obsessed with exercising.
“I was scared of gaining weight,” she said, “so I restricted my intake and overexercised so I wouldn’t gain weight.”
It wasn’t unusual for Kalina to spend more than an hour on an elliptical machine at Planet Fitness. She wanted to look perfect, and as she lost weight, she had some unsolicited positive reinforcement.
“People thought I looked good, I guess,” she said. “At one point I remember walking the hallway and somebody behind me said: ‘She’s so skinny. I wish I looked like her.’ “
The weight loss wasn’t noticeable to her parents until they took a family vacation to Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, for spring break of her sophomore year in April 2013.
They couldn’t believe their eyes when Kalina put on a bathing suit.
“She was like a skeleton,” her mother said.
Her father was horrified when he looked at his daughter.
“When I saw that, I just about fell on the floor,” he said. “It looked like death.”
Worse was the exercising Kalina did. She didn’t need an elliptical machine there, she had the stairs.
“We were on the 11th or 12th floor,” Mark said, “and she was going up and down the stairs exercising, and it was facing the sun in 85-degree heat.”
Searching for a program
The problem was that Claire did not see the same thing her parents did when she looked in the mirror.
“When you lose weight, you don’t see it,” she said. “It’s body dysmorphia. As you lose weight, you think you look bigger so you just keep losing weight.”
The only visual proof Kalina had was when she stepped on a scale, but even that didn’t register with her.
“My weight would go down and I’d feel happy about it,” she said, “but I wouldn’t see it in the mirror so I wanted to continue to lose weight.”
When they returned from Mexico, Kalina knew she was not well because she had lost an additional 12 pounds on the trip.
That’s when her parents rushed her to the emergency room at the University of Michigan Hospital.
Over the next eight months, they moved their daughter from program to program seeking someone who could reach her — and had no success. They argued with her about eating, and Kalina even tried running away, which brought in the police.
“It was basically a nightmare,” Maria said. “I couldn’t get her to eat. You’re grasping at straws because you don’t know what to do.”
After three weeks of her junior year, Claire was removed from school as her parents devoted themselves to finding a cure. She was in an outpatient program when her weight dropped to 87 pounds in late November 2013, and her mother became hysterical.
“I was sobbing and crying,” Maria said. “I told them: ‘You’ve got to put her in the hospital because I think she’s going to die.’ They couldn’t get blood out of veins, they were so restricted. By the time she got into Beaumont, they just couldn’t believe it.”
Finally, after an eight-day stay in Beaumont in December, Claire and Maria were off to Aurora and Children’s Hospital Colorado.
That’s where they met Dr. Polito, a clinical staff psychologist, and Claire was immediately cured … or not.
“At first, no, just because that’s the way it always goes,” Kalina said. “It’s hard at first. It’s kind of like the program when you’re parents are in charge of all your food.
“So you come and sit down at the table and get served what you have to eat and you have to finish it. That’s a really hard aspect of it, but it’s one of the best.”
The struggle to get better
Dr. Polito knew he had his hands full with Kalina. Making it worse was that she already had been through two failed program experiences.
“By the time she got to us, I think both her and her mom were sort of hopeless, or certainly lacking a lot of hope things would get better,” he said. “I think the eating disorder got stronger with each unsuccessful attempt at treating it. She was just very compromised by the malnutrition, and the anorexia perpetuated it.”
Kalina quickly became a program problem and had to be disciplined, ordered to wear hospital scrubs instead of her regular clothes. Dr. Polito was surprised by her behavior because it went against everything he had learned about the sweet kid she had been before the anorexia took over her life.
“From the beginning, Claire was pretty defiant and relatively oppositional with regard to her commitment to treatment and her willingness to accept it and the motivation to get better,” he said. “That sort of translated into her treating the staff disrespectfully and sort of treating her mom pretty disrespectfully and getting very aggressive at times.”
Dr. Polito and the staff knew that even though Kalina was in the program, there was no guarantee she could be cured.
“That’s the scary part with malnutrition, you never know when something is going to give out — when there can be a cardiac event because some bodies can tolerate being relatively low weight and others can’t,” he said. “Hers, in particular, was really looking like she was in grave danger of something happening.”
Home in Colorado became a room at the Ronald McDonald House for Kalina and her mother, who was on the verge of losing all hope for a recovery.
“She was the sickest one there and the toughest case of anorexia,” Maria said. “Dr. Polito is amazing. He was tough on her. He was going to turn her around. He was just determined.”
Although Claire and Dr. Polito clashed when her treatment began, eventually she appreciated the drill-sergeant approach he took with her.
“He was tough; he was very tough on me,” she said. “He was strict. From the short time I knew him, he knew me. There are some therapists there that aren’t necessarily strict, they’re more like nice. That wouldn’t really work. I would have to have someone that would kick my butt, which Dr. Polito did.”
Turning the corner
In late January, Kalina had a breakthrough. After a monumental meltdown when she couldn’t understand why she had more food than anyone else, Kalina realized that the anorexia was controlling every part of her being and she was no longer the person everyone knew.
“I remember her getting pretty tearful at the time and apologizing profusely about it,” Dr. Polito said. “I had to remind her it wasn’t her, it was her anorexia. I think that was the first time she really understood this was not a part of her and she did not want it.”
One of the byproducts of the anorexia was that Kalina’s metabolism was crazily out of control.
One day, Kalina and her mother were walking for an hour in a mall in Denver, and the next day she had lost 3 pounds. And this is while she was consuming 4,000 calories a day, which would be reasonable if you were an offensive lineman in the NFL or an Olympic swimmer, but a huge total for a normal person.
“That’s what happens when you refeed from anorexia,” Kalina said. “In order for me to gain 1 or 2 pounds a week when I was in Denverm my meal plan was 4,000 calories a day. All I could do all day was sit.”
After the breakthrough, Kalina gradually began to gain weight. She looked better physically, but there was a mental aspect that needed to heal, too.
“I want to say, honestly, it didn’t get easier,” she said. “It actually gets harder as it goes on because you begin to see your body change. Even if it was a pound, you would think it was noticeable even though it wasn’t.”
Early on, there was a war raging inside her brain. She would flip from wanting to gain weight to wanting to keep things the way they were.
“I’d think I want to recover; I don’t want to constantly be in and out of the hospital,” she said. “And the next day, it was like: ‘I want to go back. They’re making me fat. I don’t want to be fat. They’re going to make me weigh too much.’
“It’s kind of up and down all the time. It’s not linear at all. You don’t keep getting better. You go up and you go down. But you just have to keep going.”
Focusing on golf and academics
After gaining a significant amount of weight, Kalina and her mother left Denver in mid-February and returned home.
One of Kalina’s motivations for getting better was to rejoin the golf team. But to do that she had to make up her entire junior year, as well as a couple of classes from her sophomore year.
A 3.9 student, she enrolled in Michigan Virtual High School and spent the spring and summer taking eight classes, then had to pass the online final exams as well as Novi’s final exams.
“She was in the house all spring and summer, not going out at all,” Maria said. “She spent all week, all weekend studying all her classes so she could graduate with her class and be eligible to play golf. That all helped her get on the right path.”
Novi golf coach Debra Harris wasn’t aware Kalina was anorexic, but she did see her golf game suffer dramatically in each of the previous two seasons.
But just as dramatic was the improvement in her game this season.
“Her sophomore year, as the season went on, you could definitely notice her losing her weight, and it kind of hit her at the end of our season and just kept getting worse and worse and worse,” Harris said. “She definitely struggled from it and didn’t finish out her junior year.
“But she’s worked hard on her golf game. She really came back from being very, very weak — almost death-like actually — to getting her game back, and she’s been playing very well.”
While going through the program, Kalina couldn’t stop thinking about golf and how much she missed being part of a team.
“When I was in Colorado, the motivation was to get back to golf,” she said. “I really liked it and it was fun, and it was something that I was decent at.”
One of the benefits of returning to her normal weight was what it did to her golf game.
“I had my best season this year,” she said. “I was pretty much underweight when I started high school. Now that I’m a normal weight, I actually can hit the ball farther and stuff like that.”
Returning to school this fall
The program in Colorado was family-based, so Maria became an expert on anorexia and how to help her daughter recover. And she is convinced her daughter will recover.
“They say it takes four or five years of psychotherapy to be able to be OK with it,” Maria said. “It will live with her, but she’ll be able to overcome it, I think. She’ll be able to get on with her life.”
Dr. Polito said anorexia can be cured and is not something Kalina will have to live with for the rest of her life.
“I don’t think she’s in a place where she feels like anorexia influences her life on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “I’m sure she still might have some body dissatisfaction and things that she struggles with, but overall, she’s managing them really well, and she’s really focusing things that are of true value in her life.”
Even though she had been home since mid-February and had been hanging out with her friends, the first day of school this fall was a bit scary for Kalina.
“I was just kind of uncomfortable with the way I looked and stuff like that,” Kalina said.
Although she had gained 40 pounds and looked like a normal high school student again, Kalina was not at ease.
But she found most of the students to be friendly, and her golf teammates welcomed her back with open arms.
“Something I learned in Colorado was mindfulness,” she said, “not focusing on the past because it leads to depression and not focusing on the future because it leads to anxiety. Also, I learned why waste your time on something you can’t control?”
Last month, Kalina had two slices of her birthday cake, which was another breakthrough.
She isn’t hesitant to talk about her anorexia, but this is a battle she will wage with herself for some time.
“I don’t struggle with eating or anything, the only thing I struggle with is body image,” she said. “This is probably the most I’ve ever weighed in my life, so it’s hard to get used to that.”
“Some days are better than others. I’m pretty content right now.”
Contact Mick McCabe: 313-223-4744 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1.
Girls golf state finals
Where: Div. 1 — Bedford Valley, Battle Creek.
Div. 2 — Michigan State’s Forest Akers West.
Div. 3 — MSU’s Forest Akers
Div. 4 — Grand Valley’s The