October 12, 2006

Workshop set for Oct. 24 in Carbondale Dietitian works to help those with eating disorders

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- When Sharon L. Peterson, a registered dietitian and community nutrition expert just hired by Southern Illinois University Carbondale's College of Agricultural Sciences, talks about eating disorders, you can bet she knows the subject like the back of her slender hand.

Peterson, longtime owner of the Carterville-based business Southern Illinois Nutrition Therapy, has recovered from the anorexia that nearly ate her up alive back in the '70s when she was growing up in rural Nebraska.

"They didn't have a name for it, they certainly had no treatment program, and nobody knew what to do with me," she recalled.

"I wanted to help other people not go through what I — and others in my family — had. My sister had bulimia, my cousin had both (bulimia and anorexia). Working with eating disorders is something I'm very passionate about."

Peterson, who earned a doctorate in nutrition from The Pennsylvania State University 10 years ago, has since seen a lot of people — both male and female — with the warped relationship to food that characterizes eating disorders.

What she hasn't seen, in the eight years she's lived in Southern Illinois, is any coordinated effort to help them.

"I have had parents calling me in tears, distraught over trying to find help for their sons and daughters," said Peterson, who almost by default became the region's go-to resource on eating disorders.

"Many parents don't have insurance at all or enough or the right kind to get any sort of inpatient treatment or program to accept them. It costs $900 a day. They're out of luck."

Peterson did what she could to fill the gap.

"When I was in private practice, my 'territory' went from Mount Vernon to Cape Girardeau to Paducah," she said.

And her clients weren't always what you might expect.

"I had four males, "she said.

"I had a 19-year-old girl who'd gotten down to 69 pounds. I had to bite my lip to keep from gasping out loud the first time I saw her."

That may all begin to change when SIUC's Department of Animal Science, Food and Nutrition and its Center for Rural Health and Social Services Development join forces Oct. 24 with McCallum Place, a treatment facility in Clayton, Mo., to present a daylong workshop on eating disorders at the University's Dunn-Richmond Economic Development Center in Carbondale.

Workshop sponsors have invited some 75 health professionals, including school nurses, doctors, psychologists and senior dietetics students from SIUC and Southeast Missouri State University, to attend the event and learn what Peterson calls the "special set of skills" needed to work with this problem.

"Physicians often don't want to touch it with a 10-foot pole," Peterson, an assistant professor, said.

"It's messy, it's complicated, and they don't feel trained to deal with it."

The workshop will provide that training, helping those who attend understand when — and how — to intervene. But Peterson hopes it will also provide a foundation for what she lightly calls "Plan B:" a coalition of health professionals interested in and willing to try to solve the problem of access to care.

"When I was in private practice, I promised my clients that if I ever had a chance to take this to the next level, I would do so. This is my chance."

Serving others is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.