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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 October 2005, 08:57 GMT 09:57 UK
A family's battle against bulimia
Karen and Jess Reed
Mother and daughter have the same problems
Five years ago Karen Reed, from East Yorkshire, was slimmer of the year - but she had a secret.

For the past 28 years she has been bulimic.

Her daily life revolves around bingeing on vast amounts of food and then making herself sick.

The condition has taken a terrible toll on Karen's health.

I can't remember what it feels like to be normal
Karen Reed

The acid from her stomach has burnt a hole in her oesophagus and dissolved away most of her teeth.

"I was 15 when I first made myself sick, I'm 43 now," said Karen.

"I can't remember what it feels like to be normal, this is normal for me, throwing up two, three times a day is normal."

Daughter has same problem

But it is not just Karen who is suffering. Her eldest daughter Jess, who is 17 and a part time model, is also bulimic.

"For me it was always a need to lose weight and it was a very effective way I found," she said.

"The first time I threw up I saw on the scales it made me lose a few pounds so I kept it going. It was something that progressed and got worse and now it has such a detrimental effect on my life."

Bulimia is treated as a psychological disorder in the UK but Karen and Jess say they have had therapy without success.

A BBC documentary team has followed them as they try and get hold of an experimental drug which they believe could cure them of their eating disorder.

Cancer drug

Zofran or ondansatron is licensed to stop sickness during chemotherapy treatment, but it has been trialled on bulimics by scientists in America with success.

Bulimia does start out as a psychological disorder but the theory behind the US trials is that it can develop into a physical addiction.

I don't shop for stuff I'm going to keep down, I'm looking for nice things to eat that I can binge on
Jess Reed

Repeated bingeing and vomiting irritates the main nerve pathway from the stomach to the brain which tells us when we're full.

This nerve then drives the person to binge and vomit. The principal is that Zofran stabilises this nerve and gives the bulimic person some control back.

By coincidence Rachel Hobson, who works just two doors down from Karen, took the drug two years ago and says it cured her of her 12-year battle with bulimia.

"I haven't binged and I haven't wanted to binge," said Rachel.

But the drug wasn't a miracle cure for Rachel and it required a lot of willpower.

Tough going

"Come week three and four it was like 'Oh, my god, it isn't working for me any more' - it really frightened me. I thought 'I'm failing at this,'" said Rachel.

"I e-mailed them in America and they said 'don't worry, this is what we see all the time' and they explained what was happening - after that it did lessen and lessen."

Every time she purges she fears for her life, she thinks she's going to die
Graham Reed

If Karen and Jess get Zofran and it cures them of bulimia this will change their whole way of life.

They currently spend up to 300 a week on food and make daily trips to their local supermarket to stock up for their binges.

"I don't shop for stuff I'm going to keep down, I'm looking for nice things to eat that I can binge on," said Jess.

"Chicken's just something that comes up easily," said Karen.

"Beef sticks in your throat, pork sticks, chicken is probably one of the better foods."

Husband's concern

It is husband and father Graham who pays for most of his wife's and daughter's food.

He is concerned about his wife's health.

"Every time she purges she fears for her life, she thinks she's going to die because of the process of purging and things stuck in her throat and she literally can't breath," said Graham.

"She does her purging in the downstairs toilet so that if anything goes wrong we're there on hand."

For the documentary Karen put a video diary camera in her bathroom to show the horrific reality of being sick after a binge.

She said: "At this point I'm feeling really exhausted and just low and water dripping off my chin.

"I still feel this mass or whatever it is on my tummy. It has to go."

Karen is prescribed Zofran by her eating disorder clinic but it's not good news for her daughter Jess.

Drug denied

Jess is told she can't have it because she hasn't had bulimia long enough. And there are other factors.

Jess was admitted to hospital for anorexia just last year and is still showing signs of the disorder.

Scientists in the US who trialled Zofran on bulimics say anyone with anorexic symptoms is not suitable for the drug.

After 16 days of taking Zofran, the drug does seem to be working for Karen.

She said: "For 29 years I have binged and thrown up every day at least twice a day and in the last 16 days through taking Zofran I've actually thrown up 7 times in 16 days which is mind boggling."

But after a positive start, five weeks into taking Zofran Karen decided to come off the drug.

"The obsession with food just became so huge in my head and the more I fought it the bigger it got to the point where I couldn't not do it," she said.

Heavy drinking

It later emerged Karen had other issues alongside her bulimia. Karen was drinking heavily - sometimes up to a bottle of vodka a day.

The US scientists who trialled Zofran on bulimics said they wouldn't recommend that anybody with addictions alongside bulimia try the drug.

Against medical advice Jess did start taking her mum's Zofran herself.

After taking it for 10 weeks she says the drug is working.

"It's just amazing how much better I feel and how much easier life is just not having to worry about eating loads and bingeing all the time."

  • Bingers: Battling Bulimia: Tuesday 4 October at 9pm on BBC2.


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