You are here

Women on a mission

After Angela Guarda solved their daughters' puzzling health problems, Jean and Steve Robinson endowed a professorship to advance the physician's innovative research about eating disorders
Posted June 8, 2016
Jean Robinson and Angela Guarda, MD Jean Robinson and Angela Guarda, MD

"I know how to help."

By the time Jean Robinson and her daughter, Stephanie, heard those words from Angela Guarda, MD, they were in the midst of an 18-month odyssey to diagnose the teenager's severe gastrointestinal problems. Guarda, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, identified what several GI doctors had missed: an atypical eating disorder. After a short period of treatment in the Johns Hopkins Eating Disorders Program, which Guarda directs, Stephanie was on her way to a full recovery.

The experience transformed Jean from grateful parent to fierce advocate for Guarda and her program. Recently, she and her husband, Steve, made a $2.5 million gift — one of several gifts the family has made to the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences — to endow a professorship, which Guarda assumed in March.

The Stephen and Jean Robinson Professorship for Eating Disorders is the first at Hopkins devoted to the study of eating disorders. With support from the professorship, Guarda will be able to pursue innovative research to inform new models of clinical treatment that have the potential to impact patients at Hopkins and well beyond.

"What happened to us should not have happened"

After Stephanie completed her treatment in the Eating Disorders Program, Jean reflected on their long, difficult medical path. She discovered a determination to prevent other families from enduring similar experiences.

"It took more than a year for her to find us," Guarda says. "Her daughter had been treated by many specialists who had not recognized that Stephanie might respond to psychiatric treatment."

"What happened to us should not have happened," says Jean, who in the course of Stephanie's treatment began noticing that her older daughter, Amanda, was also exhibiting symptoms of an eating disorder. Amanda, too, was treated in the Eating Disorders Program and fully recovered.

"We wanted to bring this issue of eating disorders to the forefront, not only to the public but also for other doctors," Jean says.

One of the Robinson Professorship's stated goals is to improve education for all doctors regarding eating disorders and encourage more frequent consultations and collaborations with eating disorders specialists within Hopkins. The Robinsons' most recent gift will bolster one of the initiatives the family’s previous contributions established — an annual Continuing Medical Education conference about eating disorders that has attracted more than 100 medical professionals per year. The increased profile of the Eating Disorders Program within Hopkins is paying dividends, Guarda says.

"We're getting more referrals now, especially for atypical eating disorders like Stephanie's, routinely from both pediatric and adult GI," she says.

Advancing the study and treatment of eating disorders

As her relationship with Guarda moved from patients' parent to partner, Jean recognized the need to further support Guarda's research agenda and her work with the Eating Disorders Program. As the nation's first and one of its few remaining academic behavioral treatment centers for eating disorders, the program faces stiff competition from private, residential facilities that often turn away patients who present with underlying medical complications like Stephanie's.

"Angela's program is the only one that would take Stephanie," Jean says. "If this place goes away, patients like her will have no place to go."

Private facilities, typically, aren’t equipped to perform the bench-to-bedside and clinical research that promises to improve how doctors understand, identify, and treat eating disorders. The Hopkins Eating Disorders Program keeps these goals at the forefront, and that’s where the Robinsons hope Guarda's new professorship can produce important results. In just a short conversation, Guarda highlights several studies that will get a boost from the professorship’s funding, such as research that bridges neuroscience and behavioral science to better understand what goes wrong in the brain when individuals choose what and when to eat.

"This type of interdisciplinary work promises to help us uncover the neural underpinnings of these disorders and work toward better treatments," Guarda says. "This is something that can only be done in the academic environment."

Jean looks forward to keeping apprised of those developments and advocating for Guarda’s research as part of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science's advisory board. The role provides one more opportunity for Jean to thank Guarda for making a tremendous impact on the Robinson family, and to enable her — and the Eating Disorders Program — to provide similar help to many others.

To learn more about how you can make a gift to support the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science and the Johns Hopkins Eating Disorders Program, please contact Mike DeVito.