Back from the brink: Eating disorder brings family a big scare — and a new cause

Elaine Luddy Klonicki, Correspondent

RALEIGH - Buddy and Cathy Howard's lives were under control as they entered the new millennium.

Buddy Howard had recovered from a setback in 1989, when he lost his job in the wake of an economic downturn. An experienced research analyst, he started his own company, Equity Research Services, on Falls of Neuse Road.

By 2001, the business was thriving.

Cathy Howard was busy volunteering in the schools of the couple's daughters, 14-year-old Tricia and 11-year-old Stephanie, and working part-time in bookkeeping.

They were involved with their church and were happy and close.
But by June of 2001, their daughter Stephanie's weight loss had begun to be noticeable. She had lost a few pounds while taking tennis lessons and trying out for soccer. The soccer moms began to ask if she was OK.

As the school year started, Stephanie began to spurn foods she had previously loved and, despite her accelerating weight loss, she adamantly denied there was a problem. Even after the Howards enlisted the help of their pediatrician and a psychologist, her weight plummeted and her vital signs continued to slip.

Taking charge of someone else's eating proved to be far more difficult than they'd ever imagined.

Stephanie's bones began to show, her once-bright eyes dimmed. She was diagnosed with anorexia; the disease progressed so rapidly that within a few weeks, she was in danger of dying.

"She was really in a free-fall, and we were, too," her father said. "We were doing everything we could, and it wasn't working."

Limited options

They began to investigate inpatient treatment programs. The options were limited because Stephanie was under 14. After much pleading on Howard's part, Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore finally accepted his daughter.

Stephanie was admitted in September of 2001, and the Howards rented an apartment in Baltimore. They took turns being there, visiting Stephanie when allowed, with one parent staying in Raleigh to be with Tricia. Even in the hospital, Stephanie's weight gain was excruciatingly slow at first.

She was started on a regimen of 1,500 to 2,000 calories per day, which was increased over time to 4,000 calories. As her health improved, she was allowed to spend some time with her parents outside of the hospital.
During this time, Howard wrote e-mail messages to family, friends, and even his clients, to keep them apprised of Stephanie's progress.

Almost two months later, Stephanie completed the program and they finally returned home. Again, Cathy was in the trenches, daily managing Stephanie's food intake.

A setback

Cautiously optimistic, they were devastated when she suffered a relapse in the early months of 2002, and they had to repeat the process. Afterwards, an outpatient program at Duke helped her to apply what she had learned to her life outside the hospital.

Life was tough for the next few years, and her father, a former runner, began to think of Stephanie's recovery in terms of a marathon rather than a sprint. The fear of another relapse was never far away, and the Howards were also concerned about the impact of her illness on Tricia.

According to the Web site of the National Eating Disorders Association, eating disorders "can create a self-perpetuating cycle of physical and emotional destruction. All eating disorders require professional help."
The entire family received ongoing therapy.

In 2005, with the family recovering and at the urging of friends, Howard compiled his deeply personal e-mail messages into a manuscript which is now with an agent. The father's perspective is unusual in a disease which is largely considered a women's issue.

Speaking out

Now 17, Stephanie is a normal teenager who enjoys being with her friends and singing and dancing in her school's show choir. She eats ice cream and other foods she previously rejected, knowing that the key in eating, as well as in life, is balance. Stephanie looks up to her sister Tricia who, at 20, is in college studying communications.

The family now shares its story in the hopes of saving other families from going through a similar nightmare. Buddy Howard spoke at the National Eating Disorders Association conference in the fall of 2005, and the family was featured in a WTVD news story.

In 2006, the couple gave a talk to teachers of gifted students in Wake County. Stephanie surprised her parents by offering to join them and relate her story.

In May of this year, Buddy learned from Lynn Grefe, head of the National Eating Disorders Association, that the organization needed $150,000 to upgrade its technology, crucial to their education, advocacy and research efforts. He offered to spearhead a program to raise the money.

Summer campaign

The Dad's Technology Campaign was kicked off on Father's Day and ends Aug. 31.

When asked about the time and effort he has devoted to the campaign, Buddy said, "I look at it as a gift back, and a small price for me to pay, particularly in light of Steph's recovery."

A rising senior at Broughton High School, Stephanie has a growing understanding of just how lucky she is to be alive. With respect to conquering the disease, she said, "In the end, it has to be your decision."

For more information about eating disorders or to contribute to the Dad’s Technology Campaign, go to If you’d like to have the Howards speak at your church, school, or organization, please contact Buddy at 919-876-8868 or

Need Help?

National Eating Disorders Association
Information and Referral Helpline: 1-800-931-2237

Duke Eating Disorders Program

The Eating Disorders Program, UNC-Chapel Hill

Something Fishy Website on Eating Disorders

Carolina House NC Eating Disorders Treatment

This first article appeared in The News and Observer, July 6, 2007

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