Family to share woman's tragic story of bulimia, death

Jenna Miller died at age 26 of cardiac arrest

  • Shown is a photo of Benjamin Woods and his wife Jenna. Jenna was the oldest daughter of Laura Kittleman, and died in January after battling bulimia for many years. This story is about the family’s efforts to inform parents and siblings about the lethal dangers of this hidden illness. Jenna’s sisters, Lisa and Kelly Catterton, have been speaking to middle school students, as that’s when Jenna’s illness started. Laura says it’s an addiction worse than alcohol, and one they ultimately couldn’t save her from. They have started a fund in Jenna’s name at the Columbia Foundation.
Shown is a photo of Benjamin Woods and his wife Jenna. Jenna was… (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore…)
May 01, 2011|By Janene Holzberg, Special to The Baltimore Sun

Jenna Miller agreed to marry her longtime boyfriend, Benjamin Woods, just months after he rescued her from near-certain death by performing CPR when she experienced a sudden cardiac arrest. But on Jan. 8, two weeks after their first wedding anniversary, her heart gave out again, and she died as Woods held her in his arms.

Miller — with her fiery red hair, bright smile and plans to help others — died at age 26 of cardiac arrest brought on by a decade of binge-eating and purging. She had dealt with bulimia nearly half her life, her family said, much of it in secret.

And now, her family will honor her memory by spreading the word that eating disorders can kill.

"Jenna struggled on and off, but we had no idea she could die from this," said Laura Kittleman, a real estate agent in Howard County. She wasn't even aware of her eldest daughter's problem until she turned 18, even though it had started a few years earlier.

"We want people to understand that eating disorders are easy to hide and can be lethal," she said. "We did everything we were supposed to do to help her, but we still lost her in the end."

Lisa and Kelly Catterton will share their sister's cautionary tale June 16 with seventh-graders at Harper's Choice Middle School in Columbia. Kittleman will join her daughters' presentation.

Linda Rangos, coordinator of health and physical education for the county school system, called Miller's story an example of the power of "authentic education" that occurs when people share what they've learned from firsthand experience.

"Eating disorders are so complex, and you wonder why anyone would do that to their bodies," Rangos said, so the classroom sessions will serve to answer students' questions and reinforce important information.

The family also recently established a donor-advised fund in Miller's name at the Columbia Foundation, where they hope to raise $10,000 in four years while raising awareness.

Miller was months away from earning her master's degree in public health and had wanted to open a clinic that focused on the psychological and physical challenges of eating disorders, so the money her family raises will benefit organizations with a similar philosophy, Kittleman said.

"This is all for her and all in her name," said Kelly, 20. "I know she would have made a difference in people's lives."

'Worse than alcohol'

"Jenna hid [her bulimia] really, really well," said her mother, a partner in Kittleman Realty Group in Ellicott City.

After eating, she learned years later, her daughter would mask the sound of vomiting by flushing the toilet first. She also purged with other girls at their homes, excited to be avoiding extra calories and trimming down.

Even when she finally told her mother eight years ago, Miller had begged her not to tell anyone else, including family members, because she was embarrassed. She also convinced her that her case "wasn't that bad" and that she could handle it, which Kittleman believed. It was only after she came out of a two-day, medically induced coma following her first cardiac arrest that Miller really opened up about her situation.

"Jenna told me [bulimia] gets ahold of you, and it's worse than alcohol," Kittleman said. "It's a terrible addiction that takes on a life of its own."

Woods said he and Miller dated for five years before he learned her secret. She told him that bulimia isn't triggered by body-image issues alone, he said.

"Society thinks it's only about people wanting to be skinny, but it was her primary way of fighting stress," Woods said.

Lisa Catterton, 22, said bulimia is a hidden epidemic since sufferers are often normal weight.

"This can happen to anybody. Your friend sitting next to you in science could have it. And the incidence in males is also rising," she said.

"We want to tell seventh-graders who throw up together and make light of that [habit] that bulimia is no joke," she said. "We want to show photos of Jenna and say that 'even if you'd known her you wouldn't have seen the pain.'"

Feelings are what eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia, in which sufferers starve themselves, are all about, said Julie Parsons, a clinical social worker and psychotherapist who had counseled Miller at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"People have trouble accepting life isn't perfect and often turn to food to relieve the unbearable pain they feel," she said.

"There are so many people seeking treatment that it seems like they're coming out of the wall," she added, noting the disorders are very common on college campuses. But kids as young as first grade worry about body image, as do adults, and they are also at risk, Parsons said.

Woods said family members have immersed themselves in learning about eating disorders since Miller desperately wanted to get the word out and prevent others from following in her footsteps.

"We've learned it must be caught in the first three years before it sets in and becomes much harder to break," he said.

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