Fresno eating disorder center fights stigma

 Porterville native Jennifer Lombardi is executive director of the Summit Eating Disorders & Outreach Program in Fresno. Porterville native Jennifer Lombardi is executive director of the Summit Eating Disorders & Outreach Program in Fresno.Struggling with anorexia for many years, Porterville native Jennifer Lombardi finally found peace with food, recovering through the help of a therapist and a supportive family.

At that time, there were few resources available to those suffering with eating disorders, a shortage that compelled her to start her own treatment center in Sacramento and later another in Roseville with qualified counselors and clinicians offering care and coping mechanisms.

Last May, Lombardi, executive director of Summit Eating Disorders & Outreach Program, opened the business’ second satellite center in Fresno, where 15 patients now come to learn the roots of their eating behaviors and develop new relationships with food not triggered by stress or depression.

Unlike its Sacramento center, which provides a partial hospitalization program and on-site psychiatrists, the Fresno Summit location sees patients three times a week as an inpatient/outpatient program that involves group discussions, private counseling and even a facility kitchen for diet exercises that work to correct unhealthy eating impulses.

The center, which reaches patients from Visalia to Merced, offers free behavior assessments and also makes referrals to psychiatrists or physicians when issues are beyond her staff’s scope of certification.

Located along Alluvial Avenue just blocks from the Kaiser Permanente and Saint Agnes medical centers in north Fresno, Lombardi said that level of care is often just minutes away.

“You need to have team approach and medical professionals who understand warning signs, physical symptomology and the behavioral piece as well as the dietician piece,” said Lombardi, who is currently finishing up certification training with the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals.

“Having grown up here in this community I know first-hand the importance of having those options and that continuum of care, whether it’s higher level, middle of the road and then traditional outpatient and there’s no question we have people in this area that are struggling. I was one of them.”

Local physicians, dieticians and other treatment providers are now getting familiar with the program as Lombardi and her three-person staff regularly perform outreach about the center’s benefits and eating disorder awareness. Most recently, the group was sharing warning signs with employees at the Fresno State Health Center.

Insurance companies also know the name, as most policies save for Medicare and Medical now cover her brand of treatment, bearing much of the $325 flat-rate charge for the 10-week program.

But beyond the program, which measures its success with a completion rate of around 70 percent, Lombardi said patients are ingrained with coping skills and mental reminders that help them fight against the same old temptations with food that created the problem.

“What’s important for people to understand when they go through a program like this is when you’re done at Summit, you’re not done,” she said. “We tell them you need to be connected to treatment providers for about a year so you can sustain the progress that you made and continue to practice the coping skills to deal with life stressors so you don’t need to go back to the eating disorder.”

Dealing with her food demons was a hard lesson for Lombardi, who veered from ten years in the field of public relations to pursue her master’s degree in marriage and family counseling from Sacramento State University in order to help others.

That chance came soon after college when she connected with an OB/GYN physician in Sacramento whose daughter struggled with an eating disorder and wanted to start a prevention and education program.

Already recovered ten years, Lombardi helped that dream come true in 2002, merging soon after with another inpatient/outpatient program in the city that became what is now Summit Eating Disorders & Outreach Program.

From its three centers so far in the state, the business has taken in afflicted individuals from as far as Bakersfield to Oregon while also educating friends and family members how to be their accountability partners.

“In our culture we tend to believe that only 14- to 16-year-old girls struggle with this and that’s just not the case anymore,” Lombardi said. “We see more adolescents because of family involvement. Adult clients have a lot more shame and stigma.”

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, around 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life.

Bulimia, affecting roughly one and a half million people in the U.S., is characterized by compensatory behaviors such as self-induced vomiting, laxative or diuretic abuse and fasting.

Although less common than other types of eating disorders, anorexia nervosa, caused when the irrational fear weight gain leads to a severe restriction in one’s diet, has been shown to have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder.

“I one of those that believes in full recovery,” said Lombardi, crediting much of her wellness to her husband of 19 years and two children. “For someone that’s struggling, what’s important to note is you can’t have a full, fulfilling life and have an eating disorder at the same time.”