Kelly's legacy: Family foundation hopes to help prevent eating disorders

News-DemocratFebruary 23, 2014 

Kelly Burk Nobbe died 4 1/2 years ago on Aug. 7, 2009. She was 26 and planned to be maid of honor in her friend's wedding the next day.

"She got finished decorating the hall and came over to pick up her dress," said mom Nancy Burk, of Millstadt. "She was tired, but had been very busy."

Kelly and husband Jared had just returned from a Florida vacation. She went to bed and didn't wake up. The cause of her death was cardiac arrest.

"Our daughter had anorexia when she died," said Nancy, sitting alongside husband Randy. As she spoke, their boxer, Dizzy, occasionally cozied up alongside.

"Kelly was always energetic. She worked hard, was always on the go. She was never a sickly person. We never ever thought she had done that much damage to herself."

The Burks are forming a foundation, Something for Kelly (somethingforkelly.org/kellys-story), to educate children about healthy eating habits in hopes of preventing eating disorders. Nancy's sister Patti Geolat, a Dallas business owner, had the idea, and involved other family members. Kelly's younger brothers, Todd, 29, and Tyler, 23, are helping with fund-raising.

The family will debut the foundation with a dinner auction Feb. 28 at Bellecourt Place in Belleville.

"We wanted to do something big and nice and have a small program telling people what the foundation is about," said Nancy, an open heart surgery nurse at Memorial Hospital. "Bellecourt is a nice setting and it's where Kelly and Jared got married."

The National Eating Disorders Association suggested they focus on education programs for the 6-to-12 age group because children as young as 6 worry about being fat and losing weight.

"The Foundation is a double-edged sword," said Nancy. "It's a worthwhile thing to do in Kelly's memory, but it's hard telling the stories again and getting the pictures out."

Pictures of Kelly surrounded by friends.

Kelly, in a cap and gown on graduation day.

Photos from her wedding.

"It's an unimaginable pain. Time doesn't heal it."

The Burks are buoyed by support from family and friends and the thought that something good will come from their loss.

"It's the No. 1 killer of mental health diseases," said Randy, a partner in TWM engineering in Swansea.

According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), 24 million Americans -- or one in eight -- have an eating disorder. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 1 percent of women and adolescent girls have anorexia.

"People who have family members with this problem have stepped forward," said Nancy. "A photographer in St. Louis. (who had experienced an eating disorder in her family), called and offered to photograph the benefit dinner.

Jen McMurray, a Belleville West counselor, applauds the Burks efforts.

"I think it's great they're doing a foundation," said Jen, one of four counselors there. "I've been here 11 years and probably helped 10 girls."

A lot of these students have other issues that may be identified before Jen sees them. Occasionally, a student approaches her.

"During health freshman year, they cover a section on anorexia. Sometimes, students will come out of that class or a friend notices and has us get with the student ... We end up referring them to St. Anthony's (Hospital in St. Louis)."

Dr. Chris Schenewerk, a family practice physician with offices in Smithton and Columbia, screens for anorexia nervosa.

He checks weight, height and body mass index.

If the patients are too light for their height, he'll ask, "What's going on?"

"It's a psychiatric diagnosis," he said. "The patient has an obsession. They are not happy with their body. They're eating less and less calories and likely exercising more. They get to the point where their body starts wasting itself. They're physically ill."

Among the consequences: Bones become brittle. Electrolyte problems lead to heart problems.

Schenewerk sees more young patients with anxiety and depression issues than anorexia. If he suspects anorexia, he googles the closest facility, tells them a patient needs to be evaluated right away and sends the patient there directly.

"It's beyond you trying to take care of as a family," he said. "You have to hit this disorder from multiple ways."

Kelly graduated from Gibault Catholic High School in 2001 and headed off to Eastern Illinois University in Charleston.

Her parents describe her as a regular kid who played volleyball and liked to have fun, laugh and socialize.

"Her friends always called her the mother of the group," said Randy. "She was always looking after them. She would mother her two younger brothers."

Kelly liked to travel.

"From Arkansas to Ireland, she had her bags packed and was ready to go," said Nancy.

The family regularly headed to Florida.

"She'd be sitting in the back seat, reading stuff and making comments," said Randy.

Kelly was chunky as a kid, but lost a little weight every year in high school, her father said.

"She looked good," said Anne Prather, a friend. "Her senior pictures are some of the most beautiful pictures of her."

But Kelly didn't eat much.

"During lunch, she'd eat sherbet," said Anne. "We could tell this wasn't the most healthy way of going about it."

Away at college, Kelly told her parents she was trying not to gain the freshman 10.

"We were proud of her for eating healthy and exercising," said Nancy. "It was everything you would think you want your children to do in college, instead of eating poorly and drinking."

Kelly took it to an extreme.

She over-exercised on the treadmill. Her diet consisted of vegetables and low-calorie foods.

"It became an obsession," said Nancy. "She knew she had (anorexia) .... In November 2002, over the Christmas holidays, we realized it was really, really bad. We wanted her to come back home. She wanted to come home."

Kelly, who was 5-foot-6, likely weighed less than 100 pounds.

She enrolled at SIUE, completing a bachelor's in exercise physiology, then a master's. She worked as a waitress at Annbriar Golf course.

"She was still active," said her mom. "She always went to school and work. She had good grades. We had to encourage her to eat, take in some high-calorie things. She fought it."

They found a counselor who helped Kelly.

"She did the tough-love thing we couldn't do," said Nancy.

After the counselor moved, they were on their own.

"She was adamant she didn't want to be sent to an in-house treatment center," said Nancy. "In hindsight, it was a terrible mistake not to send her."

"She got a master's degree in kinesiology," said Randy. "She had lots of friends."

Kelly seemed to rebound.

"She got married April,12, 2008, to a wonderful man," said her mom. "She seemed to be doing OK."

Friends noticed the sparkle was back in her eyes.

"She looked better," said her dad. "Her face was fuller."

Advice:

"This is the advice I gave a friend at work," Nancy said. "Don't believe what they tell you. They will tell you they are better and they hide their disease."

Seek professional help. "It's not something you can handle yourself," Nancy said. "It's an addiction that cannot be handled without professional help." There are different types of treatment available, including outpatient.

"Since I have been more open, the bulimic daughter of a co-worker has since gotten treatment. I encouraged her: 'No matter what, send your daughter into treatment.' I think she is doing well."

Parents need to go with their gut, said Dr. Chris Schenewerk, a family practice physician with offices in Smithton and Columbia. "If you have a feeling something is wrong with your child, get help."

Be proactive. Schedule regular check-ups. It's a height-weight ratio, said Schenewerk. "We can catch it. Let's talk. 'How are you feeling?'"

If you notice someone is obsessive about exercise and getting thinner, talk to a counselor, a priest or minister or the person's parents.

"A patient isn't going to see it," the doctor said. "You have to say difficult things because you love them and care about them."

You can't cure it by loving them enough, Randy said.

If you go:

What: Charity Gala benefitting the Something for Kelly Foundation. Includes dinner, cash bar, live band and raffle

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 28

Where: Bellecourt Manor, 225 E. A St., Belleville

Cost: $50

Information: 972-239-9314 or info@somethingforkelly.org

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