For most of her 34-year life, Bridget Harrison lived with perfection and pain.
With an IQ of more than 200, she graduated from Wichita East High School’s IB program with enough college credits to enter college as a sophomore, earned top honors in her medical class, completed a residency at one of the United States’ top plastic surgery programs and became a hand and reconstruction surgeon in Houston.
But her genius-level mind and her personal demand for perfection turned on her when it came to her own body. On May 5, 2018, she succumbed to the pain caused by the eating disorder anorexia nervosa and the accompanying depression and anxiety she had been diagnosed with at age 12.
Her father, Paul Harrison, a Wichita trauma surgeon who retired from a 40-year practice this year, is sharing Bridget’s story to raise awareness about eating disorders and is going even further — nearly 1,000 miles on a bike trip from Wichita to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada — to raise funds for research for the National Eating Disorders Association.
Harrison, his older brother Kelly and their childhood friend Rick Stephens are setting out for an anticipated 11-day trip at 8 a.m. on May 10 from the Wichita State Woodman Alumni Center, 4205 E. 21st St. in Wichita. The three are all WSU alums.
National surveys estimate about 20 million women and 10 million men in America will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives, according to the NEDA. The cause can’t be pinpointed, but consensus is that a range of biological, psychological and sociocultural factors contribute, the NEDA says.
Eating disorders are serious mental and physical illnesses and include not only the more familiar anorexia or bulimia disorders but others such as pica, in which non-food substances are eaten.
According to the NEDA, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental health concern.
Many deaths are by suicide, said Bridget’s longtime therapist, Beth Hartman McGilley, a certified clinical eating disorders specialist.
Bridget had been openly talking about ending her life for about seven years, said Harrison. After years of severely restricting her diet and over-exercising her underweight body with a rigid routine — common behaviors for anorexics, Bridget was experiencing more physical pain along with the mental pain of her disorder. She was recovering from hip surgery at the time of her death.
“When she would talk about wanting to die, I would tell her, ‘You don’t realize how much that would hurt your family,’ and she would say, ‘You don’t realize how much I hurt,” Harrison recalled, emphasizing the I.
Bridget wasn’t always in pain. Born Oct. 6, 1983, she was the youngest of Paul and Carolyn Harrison’s three children, all daughters driven to excel. Oldest daughter Alicia is an orthopedic surgeon and Megan has a career with ExxonMobile. Carolyn is a nurse-educator, specializing in advanced directives.
“She was the sweetest, happiest, little girl,” Harrison said, of Bridget. “She had a quirky sense of humor.”
For some individuals with eating disorders, a traumatic incident can cause the disease’s onset, said McGilley, whose own former struggle with the condition was triggered at age 16 when her mother died by suicide.
For Bridget, the onset was something seemingly less harsh. It was the suggestion by a fellow player on her basketball team that they go on a diet. The girls were about 12, a time when young girls can be vulnerable about their body image and the changes that happen to their body.
“The other girl bailed on the diet, but Bridget had to see it through to the nth degree. And from then on it was our life focus. We never stopped worrying,” said Harrison. “Every meal we’d hope she’d eat, but she didn’t. The holidays were confrontational. Her sisters didn’t understand why she wouldn’t eat.”
Anxiety was a huge part of her affliction, Harrison said, which is a common accompanying condition.
“She would get so anxious about not getting a perfect score, but when she did, it was like it was no biggie, like anyone could do that, and wouldn’t take praise for it. She always had to be the best.”
“Perfectionist drive is a hallmark of people with eating disorders, especially among those with anorexia,” McGilley said.
In many ways, Bridget was bold, successful and generous, Harrison said, citing one case in which Bridget organized a fundraiser for a patient’s family to enjoy the holidays. Her obituary listed volunteering at free clinics and working as a translator.
She loved traveling and had visited places all over the world, often solo: Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina, Prague, Istanbul, Russia and many trips to Spain. She was a fluent Spanish speaker who loved having Spanish music playing in her operating room. After the Wichita to Winnipeg bike trip, Harrison and the rest of his immediate family will travel to Spain to spread Bridget’s ashes.
She was very focused on caring for patients, Harrison noted. A private person who would withdraw from communicating with her family during times of depression, it’s as if she gave every ounce of her being to treating patients.
“She loved caring for others but couldn’t help herself,” Harrison said.
On May 4, Bridget called Harrison to tell him the pain in her hip from her surgery wasn’t getting better. He reminded her she would have an appointment with her doctor in a few days and he might have a solution.
“She said, ‘Dad, you don’t understand. It’s never going to get any better. I just wanted to hear your voice,’” Harrison recalled, tearfully. “She was telling me she was going to die. It was the last time I talked to her.”
An eating disorder is complex and so is the treatment and insurance coverage for it.
At least three times in her life, Bridget was hospitalized or in treatment centers for her eating disorder and accompanying anxiety and depression. McGilley met her during her first such hospitalization, at what was then known as Charter Hospital in Wichita, when Bridget was still in middle school. Bridget also received group and outpatient therapy from McGilley.
Because Kansas doesn’t have an eating disorders residential treatment center, Bridget was treated in out-of-state centers. Residential treatment, which can last from three months to a year, is the most effective form of treatment, McGilley said, but it’s often not covered by insurance.
Bridget rarely stayed that long, saying she needed to get back to her studies or residency.
While the Harrisons had resources to self-pay for Bridget’s residential treatment stays, other families often end up “stepping down” from a residential center, McGilley said. Generally, insurance will cover shorter treatment options such an inpatient hospitalization to stabilize a patient and outpatient therapy, she said, but there can be insurance denials.
According to the NEDA website, common denials of insurance include the patient having a chronic condition and not progressing in treatment.
Leaving heartache on the road
In addition to raising awareness, the bike trip Harrison, his brother and his friend will embark on will give them some time to reflect on Bridget and maybe process the heartache.
It’s a long, challenging ride, but it’s incomparable to the challenge and pain Bridget endured, they said.
Several years ago, Stephens realized biking long distances is a good way to process the difficulties of life. He’s one of the few survivors of the 1970 plane crash in Colorado that caused the deaths of 31 people; most were WSU football players, administrators and survivors.
He’s done several long-distance rides in memory or in honor of individuals. In 2016, Paul Harrison and Stephens rode to Winnipeg on a fundraising trip for Alzheimer’s research after Harrison’s father was diagnosed with the disease.
“It is very difficult, almost impossible, to make sense of this affliction and the ways it impacted Bridget’s life,” said Harrison in a release about the upcoming ride. “From a very young age, she suffered from it in ways that broke our hearts and hers, I have to hope that future research and additional treatment options will help.”
Called Bridget’s WREATH (Wichita to Winnipeg Ride for Eating Disorder Awareness), the trip has a goal of raising $100,000. The effort had raised nearly $20,000 by early May. Donations are being accepted at https://diy-fundraising-for-neda.everydayhero.com/us/bridget-s-wreath. A Facebook page, www.facebook.com/BridgetsWreath/, will post the trio’s progress.
If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, you can find more information, take a confidential screening and find resources about eating disorders at www.nationaleatingdisorders.org
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the province Winnipeg is in.