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'We feel she's been sent there to die' - parents' battle for anorexic girl's life

PUBLISHED: 06:30 23 February 2019 | UPDATED: 14:54 23 February 2019

Claire and John Cunningham have they said they feel they are fighting to save their daughter Kirsten's life. Pictured, Kirsten Cunningham and her parents, on holiday in 2012. Photo: Supplied by the Cunningham family

Claire and John Cunningham have they said they feel they are fighting to save their daughter Kirsten's life. Pictured, Kirsten Cunningham and her parents, on holiday in 2012. Photo: Supplied by the Cunningham family

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The parents of a young woman with an eating disorder have said they are fighting the county's embattled mental health trust to save their daughter's life.

Kirsten Cunningham was diagnosed with anorexia in 2011, aged 11, after suffering a bout of chronic fatigue syndrome.

The devastating disease saw the Fakenham schoolgirl hospitalised in multiple out-of-county units, forcibly tube fed for two years, and at one point bandaged head to toe.

But after the Northampton-based charity St Andrew’s Healthcare removed the 19-year-old’s anorexia diagnosis in 2016, her parents have said it has become an endless battle to get her the lifesaving help she needs.

A spokesperson for the Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust, the only mental health trust in the country to be placed in special measures, said they would investigate the family’s concerns.

Miss Cunningham, currently an inpatient at Hellesdon Hospital’s Waveney Ward, suffered an eating disorder in November 2018, and began refusing fluids a week ago.

Her mother Claire Cunningham said: “We believe she’s not medically fit enough to be on the unit she’s on. She can’t even walk.

“She’s asleep most of the time because she just has no energy.

“I fear she will go into a coma in the next few days because she’s not getting treatment.

Hellesdon Hospital. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYHellesdon Hospital. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

“We don’t want her to be one of those stories of being let down and losing her life. We feel she was sent there to die.”

Miss Cunningham is under the care of the Children, Families and Young People’s Service.

Her mother said: “She’s under a consultant there who sees her probably every four or five months for about half an hour.

“As soon as we mention eating disorder or anorexia we get shut down.

“Because she hasn’t got that diagnosis no one will help her.”

Miss Cunningham was admitted to hospital last Sunday, and her parents were told she would be referred to an eating disorder unit.

But her parents say the referral was blocked by their daughter’s community psychiatrist and she was sent back to Hellesdon, on Wednesday, February 13, where staff are not trained in tube feeding, leaving them “devastated”.

She was then sent to the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH) on Friday, February 15, for rehydration, and sent back to Hellesdon the following day.

Mrs Cunningham said: “The doctor told her: ‘Kirsten, we’ve done all we can for you. We’ve spent enough time on you already.

‘The only thing we’ll do is place a tube through your nose into your stomach and send you back to Hellesdon to deal with you.’”

She added: “We’re fighting as hard as we can to get her help.

“She can’t get out of bed. We’re not supposed to go in her room anymore. She just collapses in our arms and passes out.

Hellesdon Hospital. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYHellesdon Hospital. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

“Now she’s 18, they’re saying she can make her own decisions. Why is her life less important?”

Mr Cunningham said their daughter was transferred to St Andrew’s in 2014 “against our wishes and numerous letters of complaint”, but the family were told she could be tube fed there.

He claimed it later emerged only one nurse was trained in the feeding technique, and that Miss Cunningham was at one point left for three days without nutrition.

Miss Cunningham’s parents’ concerns come just weeks after the father of 19-year-old Averil Hart, who died 10 weeks into her first term at university, said it was “hard to believe” there were still shortcomings in the care provided by services who were supposed to be looking after her.

A spokesperson for St Andrew’s Healthcare said: “We support vulnerable people and have a duty of care which we take very seriously. An important part of this is respecting patients’ confidentiality. For this reason we never comment on whether someone is or has been a patient at St Andrew’s Healthcare.”

Diane Hull, NSFT chief nurse said due to patient confidentiality it was not appropriate for the trust to comment via the media on individual cases or concerns.

She said: “At NSFT we fully support people raising any concerns they may have about our services directly with us and we investigate every complaint made.

“I have therefore phoned the patient’s mother and have arranged to meet her at Hellesdon Hospital. I want to discuss with her the family’s concerns so that we can investigate on their behalf.”

A spokesperson for the NNUH said: “We are sorry to hear about Kirsten’s recent admission to the NNUH and her family’s concern about the way her discharge from hospital was handled. We’d be happy to talk to Kirsten and her family if they have any concerns.”

’I don’t want to lose another daughter’

The mother of 19-year-old Kirsten Cunningham has said the battle to save her daughter’s life has been made harder by the loss of her eldest child to a brain tumour, at just 12 years old.

Claire Cunningham’s eldest daughter Rebecca Fairhead died in 2005, after being diagnosed as a seven-year-old.

Mrs Cunningham said: “This is why we’re so fighting so hard for Kirsten because there was nothing we could do to change Rebecca’s diagnosis or prognosis.

“But there is more that could be done to save Kirsten’s life.

“I’m passionately trying to save her. I don’t want to lose another daughter.”

The charity, Rebecca’s Wishes, that the family founded in her memory has gone to raise more than £150,000 and help more than 65 children since its launch after her death.

Rebecca founded the charity with her £250 savings, to help other children with life-threatening illnesses live out their dreams.

Anorexia deaths in our region

• Averil Hart

19-year-old Averil Hart, from Colchester, died of anorexia at Addenbrookes, in 2012, just weeks into her UEA degree.

The university medical centre and the Norfolk Community Eating Disorder Service (NCEDS) were responsible for her care.

•Ellie Long

An inquest found 15-year-old Ellie Long took her own life in December 2017, which her family described as an “unthinkable loss”.

The Eating Disorder Service (EDS) provided by the Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust (NSFT) were responsible for her care.

A spokesperson said the trust held a “detailed review” after the teenager’s death.

• Felicity Jemmett

26-year-old Felicity Jemmett died of “long-standing anorexia” in 2017.

An inquest heard she was urgently referred to the NCEDS in October 2015.

• Rachel Spooner

29-year-old Rachel Spooner battled 10 years of anorexia and took her own life in 2018.

• For information, support and guidance on coping with eating disorders, visit Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity. Adult eating disorder support services in Norfolk are provided by the Norfolk Community Eating Disorder Service (NCEDS), who can be contacted on 0300 300 0142.

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