When Claudia La Bella died, she weighed approximately 77 pounds. The 28-year-old, who had recently been admitted to the hospital, was skeletal and severely dehydrated. All signs pointed to someone who was really sick.
La Bella’s death in June 2014 seemed to confirm her family’s worst fears — that the beloved daughter and wife would succumb to her battle with ovarian cancer.
According to Australia’s ABC News, in 2012, La Bella told her family that she had been diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer and had just years to live. La Bella began attending appointments for treatment but never permitted her husband, John La Bella, to accompany her. The mother of one would instead call her husband to pick her up because various surgeries had rendered her unable to drive.
In a statement made before a coroner’s inquest into La Bella’s death, John La Bella said he never questioned his wife’s decision:
“I trusted her, she’s an adult, not a child, I took her word.”
La Bella told her family that as a part of her treatment, she was required to take laxatives to help “flush” toxins from her system, ABC News reports. As a result, she and her husband spent up to $500 a week on laxatives from a local chemist. What started as two to three boxes of Dulcolax in the pantry quickly grew to 15 boxes, some of which were packs of 200 tablets.
As ABC News reports, on June 18, 2014, La Bella was rushed to the hospital with severe abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. A CT scan revealed “dozens of partially digested pills,” which La Bella told doctors were pain medication. Against a doctor’s recommendation, La Bella discharged herself from the hospital, signing a risk consent form acknowledging the precarious state of her health.
La Bella was reportedly given a treatment plan and told to follow up with her doctor. During her visit, La Bella’s cancer was never mentioned. Days later, the 28-year-old was dead. It wasn’t until John La Bella read the coroner’s report that the true cause of his wife’s illness and death came to light.
According to 9 News, La Bella had a secret, undiagnosed eating disorder and was using terminal cancer as an “elaborate ruse” to hide abusing laxatives. La Bella died from complications associated with laxative abuse — she never had cancer at all.
According to 9 News, John La Bella admitted that when he took his severely ill wife to the hospital in June, he found it “strange” she asked him not to mention her cancer to doctors, but he agreed anyway. La Bella also reportedly told friends she was being treated by a cancer specialist named Jessie Bradman, later determined to be the wife of a deceased professional cricket player whose only connection to the hospital where La Bella had received treatment was the name of a hospital ward.
La Bella’s death is being heard before a coroner’s court, as it is argued the sick woman should have never been discharged from the hospital following her admission in June. Coroner Kathyrn Waite told the court had La Bella been detained, there was a chance her life could have been saved:
“Mrs. La Bella had been discharged from hospital close to death, she was a young woman, 28 years old with no diagnosis as to what was causing her decline.”
Expert psychiatrist Dr. Maria Naso testified La Bella was suffering from anorexia as well as Munchausen syndrome, a mental disorder in which a person deceives others by appearing sick, according to the Mayo Clinic.
As ABC News reports, the inquest into La Bella’s death will examine how she was allowed to discharge herself from the hospital and how she was sold so many laxatives by local pharmacists. La Bella’s general practitioner, the administering physician who treated her in June, and a chemist who sold laxatives to the couple are expected to testify before the court as well.
The court has heard La Bella had been consuming up to 800 laxative tablets a day.
For help with disordered eating, including laxative abuse, call the National Eating Disorder Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.