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Finding Miracles in Tragedy

01/05/2014 12:30PM ● Published by Kimberly Boney

By Kimberly Bonéy
Photo by Betsy Erickson

Sandra Castrogiovanni-Harp was floored when her daughter, Katrina Tavares, arrived at the Redding airport. Katrina, whose normal, healthy weight rested somewhere around the 115 pound range, was a gaunt, waif 70 pounds on her five-foot, five-inch frame. “I knew something was wrong from the photos, but when I saw her, I didn’t know whether I was going to pass out or throw up,” Sandra says, the panic of a loving and worried mother virtually palpable.

Katrina Tavares, who goes by Trina, had been suffering with anorexia. Having lived away from home for two years, her mother was forced to rely on Facebook photos to see her daughter regularly. Sandra knew she had to do something. She flew Trina home under the premise of a family reunion – a cover Sandra used to begin the process of getting her daughter the help she needed.  

“In hindsight,” says Sandra, “Trina likely developed anorexia around age 17, but I didn’t realize it at the time. Trina’s dad passed away when she was 13, and she began to gain weight until around age 16. So, when she began what we all thought was a healthy eating and exercise plan, I was excited for her. By 17 she looked great, but then she just kept on going with it.” 

Sandra says that Dr. Phil, on whose show she and her family recently appeared, best described it when he likened anorexia to a moving train: In the beginning, the person controls the diet – they are driving the train. But by the end of it, the diet is the driver, and the person is merely a passenger.

In her struggle to regain a sense of normalcy, Trina took a trip to Southern California in 2010 to spend time with her sisters. It was there that Trina suffered a series of seizures that rendered her non-cognitive and vegetative. Sandra “dropped everything” and went to take care of Trina, while her husband Steve made frequent trips back and forth from their home in Redding to the acute care facility in Coronado. 

The prognosis was grim. The doctors believed Trina had little hope of recovery. Against the wishes and better judgment of the medical staff, Steve began to stand Trina up with his support, instead of waiting for the medical apparatus to be brought in to assist. He found her to be surprisingly strong on her feet. He worked with her as often as he could. “I think that’s the reason Katrina is in the beautiful state she is in. It’s as if she’s ministering to people. They can see what she could have been and it’s a real eye opener.”

“She’s kind of an anomaly,” says Sandra. “She’s non-cognitive, but is still vegetative. She’s not curled up or slumped over the way that some people with her condition are.” In fact, many don’t realize she is even suffering with such a condition until they know her story. Although Trina is unable to speak, understand commands or do anything on her own, she is never without her sweet spirited smile.

“We try to mimic a regular life. We keep her dressed nicely. I pluck her eyebrows and paint her nails. If she ever were to wake up from this state, I would want her to be happy with what she sees,” says Sandra.

Despite the family’s immense financial struggle to provide the level of care Trina requires, they find the time and energy to provide emotional support to other families plagued by an eating disorder or severe brain injury. Their recent trip to Dr. Phil’s show wasn’t for their own benefit—it was to help provide a wake-up call for another young woman struggling with anorexia and bulimia. 

“So many local people have graciously volunteered their time and love to help us provide for Trina,” says Sandra. A foundation (blinkofaneyefoundation.org) and a special needs trust have recently been established for Trina pro-bono, by two local attorneys. The foundation will help the family build awareness about eating disorders and severe brain injury. The trust will provide for medical needs not covered by Trina’s Medi-Cal coverage due to her “non-cognitive” diagnosis and retrofitting the home to make it functional for Trina’s care.  

A local contractor donated his time to design plans for a handicapped-equipped bathroom for Trina, but Sandra and Steve have yet to obtain the necessary funds to make the addition.

“People are so busy doing their own thing that they don’t even eat meals together. Don’t stay so busy that you stay in denial. Parents often think their kids are just ‘going through a phase.’ People with eating disorders are often overachievers. Anorexia is often disguised as healthy eating, constant diet changes and extreme exercise. Many anorexics have the classic symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and they can become quite manipulative. You have to catch it while they are young. Once your child turns 18, the child is now an adult, and as a parent, your hands are tied,” says Sandra. 

“I wish I would have had that knowledge injected into me when Katrina was 17.  Maybe I could have prevented this from happening.” This sentiment is the driving force for Steve and Sandra’s desire to support others. “If you help one family and you feel the gratitude and love in their eyes, you just can’t wait to do it again.”

Clearly, life isn’t easy for this family, but Sandra put it simply: “You have to condition yourself to remember what is good. I have one book I could write on tragedy and 10 I could write on miracles.”

For more information or to make a donation, visit www.blinkofaneye.me.

Health+Beauty, In Print anorexia eating disorders miracles tragedy dr phil katrina tavares sandra castrogiovanni-harp blink of an eye
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