Vivian Meehan, ‘founding mother of eating-disorder treatment in the country,’ has died at 94
‘Young women who had bulimia and anorexia nervosa had their lives saved by her,’ a Northbrook neurologist says of the Highland Park nurse.
When her 5-foot-1 daughter Lisa returned home from her first year of college weighing just 68 pounds, Vivian Hanson Meehan sprang into action.
This was 1974, and, even though she was a registered nurse, Ms. Meehan couldn’t find information to explain her daughter’s dangerous weight loss. Nor was it easy to find a doctor familiar with eating disorders at a time parents were still being urged to institutionalize and force-feed children with such a condition.
“At the time I developed this, nobody talked about it,” said Lisa Meehan, who ultimately recovered from the anorexia that had left her so thin.
Ms. Meehan, who then lived in Highland Park, placed an ad in a local newspaper, looking for information.
“She described the condition — losing weight, not eating, being convinced you were fat,” her daughter said, and the response from desperate parents and patients was overwhelming.
Working out of her home, Ms. Meehan formed a support group.
That was even though some in the medical community had told her there were only a handful of sufferers and she was wasting her time. Others disapproved of having anyone but a mental health professional run such a group, according to Dr. Patricia Santucci, a psychiatrist who is the medical director of the organization Ms. Meehan founded — ANAD — the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.
“People simply did not believe an R.N. would know more than anybody,” said Christopher Athas, Ms. Meehan’s husband.
Ms. Meehan, 94, who had retired about a decade ago, died of multiple myeloma last month at her home in Riverwoods.
Soon after forming the group in 1976, she was flooded with so much mail it went “from floor to ceiling, stacks and stacks,” said Catherine Cotter, a social worker who specializes in eating disorders.
Ms. Meehan was working as a night nurse at Highland Park Hospital back then, getting home from her job around 8 a.m.
“She would sleep with the phone in her hand so she could answer calls for help,” said her husband, who became a vice president of the organization.
Free support groups affiliated with ANAD spread. In 2003, Ms. Meehan told the Dear Abby advice column, “Our referral list includes more than 1,500 therapists and inpatient/outpatient programs in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, France, Italy, Spain, Mexico, Colombia and more.”
“Young women who had bulimia and anorexia nervosa had their lives saved by her,” said Dr. Neil Allen, a Northbrook neurologist.
“She was the first of her kind,” said Stephen Wonderlich, a psychologist at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences. “Before many professionals and scientists, she understood the seriousness of anorexia nervosa and that it wasn’t just a life choice for teenage girls.”
Ms. Meehan, who for years didn’t take any salary from the not-for-profit organization she founded, “absolutely” saved lives, Wonderlich said.
In 1979, First Lady Rosalynn Carter honored Ms. Meehan at a White House ceremony.
In the mid-1980s, “she was instrumental in opening the eating disorders unit at Highland Park Hospital,” according to NorthShore University HealthSystem, which now owns the hospital.
In 1990, she testified before Congress.
In 2002, she received a Point of Light award from a volunteer network founded by President George H.W. Bush.
“She was really the founding mother of eating-disorder treatment in the country,” said Dr. Stephen G. Galston, who has psychiatric offices in Northbrook and Vernon Hills.“She’s definitely a national figure — a motivated, passionate, warm person who cared about this patient population so much. She made the world more aware of eating disorders.”
The second youngest of nine children of Norwegian immigrants Ingeborg Larsgaard and Henry Loe, she grew up in what’s since become the underwater ghost town of Sanish, North Dakota, which was evacuated and flooded when the Sakakawea Dam was built in the early 1950s. During winters, the family would travel by horse-drawn sleigh.
After her mother died when she was 2, her father placed the children in an orphanage, according to Ms. Meehan’s husband and daughter, who said she was raised in a loving foster home by Ole and Lisa Hanson along with their four biological children.
Young Vivian read every book in her town’s one-room schoolhouse, losing herself in the works of Dickens.
For lunch, “She would bring a potato with her to school and throw it on a pot-bellied stove,’’ her daughter said.
To go to high school, she had to move to a neighboring town. At 14, she worked as a “hired girl” in exchange for room and board, according to her daughter.
With the onset of World War II, the government encouraged young women to enroll in nursing school, and Ms. Meehan graduated from the University of Minnesota with a nursing degree.
In the late 1940s, she moved in with relatives in Chicago, where she worked at what’s now the University of Chicago Medical Center. It was in Hyde Park that she met and married Willis J. Meehan, a stockbroker who was her first husband.
After they divorced, she moved to Highland Park.
Ms. Meehan is also survived by her sons Thomas and Richard Meehan and four grandchildren. A memorial service is planned for 2 p.m. Nov. 9 at Community Christian Church in Lincolnshire.
“She changed the stigma of eating disorders,” said Jordana Wolff, a registered dietician who did a college internship with ANAD.
Amy Grabowski, a counselor who specializes in eating disorders, was in her 20s and struggling with one herself when she came to an ANAD support group in Oak Park in the early 1980s.
“When I needed help, there was this group I could attend free,” she said. That’s where she met Ms. Meehan. “She had so much more faith in me than I had in me.”