OAKVILLE, Ont. — Ontario’s health-care system failed Cassandra Genovy miserably.
It’s only thanks to her relentless mother and a reality television show that the once troubled teen has clawed her way back from the brink of death to overcome her eating disorder, drug addiction and severe depression.
“Had I waited for treatment in Ontario I’d be dead,” Cassandra, 18, said after returning home recently from treatment in the U.S. courtesy of the television show Intervention Canada.
When Cassandra’s story first appeared in the Toronto Sun in July, 2010, she was taking drugs, swallowing handfuls of laxatives and stuffing herself with food and then throwing it up.
She was also cutting herself and had attempted suicide numerous times.
Terrified she’d lose her youngest child, the teen’s mom reached out to anyone who would listen.
“I tried everything,” Joanne Genovy recalled. “I just wanted somebody to say, ‘We’re going to take care of her … she’s going to be okay.’”
Out-patient programs, each with lengthy wait periods, didn’t work and Cassandra’s life spiralled further out of control.
After years of hiding her bulimia, binging and purging to mask her emotional pain, her secret was out and on days when she was thinking clearly she’d beg for help.
Cassandra and her mom knew she needed lengthy in-patient treatment.
But the only residential facility even remotely suitable — a place in Guelph with only one OHIP-covered bed — refused to treat her eating disorder while she was using drugs, suffering from depression and cutting herself.
Joanne began researching U.S. facilities that treat teens with concurrent illnesses in the hopes the province would pay for it if there was no suitable centre in Ontario. She chose a place from the province’s list of approved treatment centres.
But even with the help of her local Liberal MPP Kevin Flynn, who vowed to get Cassandra into treatment, OHIP refused her application six times.
In the end, Cassandra was told to attend an adult program for anorexia at a Mississauga hospital.
Rather than end up on another three-month waiting list for treatment she knew was inappropriate, Cassandra gave up.
She became “a full-blown drug addict” and was sexually assaulted — an attack which never would have happened had Cassandra received proper help on an earlier occasion.
Her digestive system became so damaged she couldn’t eat. Her stomach rejected everything, even water.
“I was dying physically and emotionally,” Cassandra said.
In March, out of sheer desperation, her mom e-mailed the A&E show Intervention. It turned out a Canadian version was in the works and Cassandra’s story piqued the producers’ interest.
She was convinced to take part in what she thought was a documentary and a film crew followed her for several days in June.
The day after she turned 18, Cassandra walked into a room filled with family members and she was given an ultimatum, “accept this help” or “go die somewhere else.”
She was angry but agreed to go into treatment knowing her life was on the line.
Cassandra spent three months at Rosewood Ranch, an eating disorder centre in Arizona. The TV show paid the bill, about $30,000 a week.
But she now has her life back.
“I’m so thankful,” Cassandra said. “I’m here, I’m alive and I just want to keep getting better.”
Intervention Canada is on Fridays at 8 p.m. on Slice. Cassandra’s episode airs Oct. 21.
IN ONTARIO, SOME TEENS STILL GET LOST
A year has passed since Cassandra Genovy shared her story in an effort to shine a light on the plight of Ontario teens who fall through the cracks as they battle eating disorders and mental health issues.
But the province still hasn’t done anything to plug the holes in the health care system.
“The need is a greater than ever before, but the availability of residential treatment facilities remains the same,” said Ingrid Exner, of Danielle’s Place. “We’ve seen an increase in people of all ages coming forward with eating disorders.”
“People are absolutely dying as they wait for help,” she added.
Danielle’s Place, in Burlington, is one of only four eating disorder resource centres in Ontario that provide support but not treatment.
There’s also Hope’s Garden in London, Hopewell in Ottawa and Sheena’s Place in Toronto.
Exner, a social worker, said the resource centres provide immediate support while people wait for treatment, which can take several months to years.
“There’s no generic solution,” Exner said, explaining each case is unique and requires “tailored” treatment.
Cassandra ultimately gave up on finding OHIP-covered help.
If not for the television show Intervention Canada, which paid for her treatment at a U.S. facility, she shudders to think how her story may have ended.
“People are dying and I very well could have been one of them,” Cassandra said, adding something is obviously “missing” from Ontario’s health care system.
After returning to Canada this month, she hoped finding needed follow-up treatment might be easier. But Cassandra has learned she must wait over a month again just to be accessed, which leaves her vulnerable to relapse.
Now 18, and eligible to vote, Cassandra said she won’t be casting her ballot for the Liberals in the Oct. 6 election.
But she urged Ontario’s next premier to take a good look at how the U.S. treats eating disorders — particularly a centre like Rosewood in Arizona — which she credits with saving her life.
Cassandra’s mom, Joanne, urged the government to get serious about treating the growing problem.
“It’s not part of being a teenager, or being rebellious, it’s an actual illness,” Joanne said. “Swallow your pride, spend the money and help these people.”
Last week, Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty promised to spend $257 million over the next three years helping the estimated 50,000 Ontario youth who are dealing with mental health issues.
But Joanne said it’s insulting that the Premier has done nothing for eight years and now that there’s an election looming he’s promising to help Ontario families.