Grief is the one human experience that we all have in common, but there are no words for losing a child. Savannah Buik was 22 years old when she died in a climbing accident at Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin. Nina and Court saw both sides of the pendulum: how the stronger and deeper we love, the harder it is to overcome the pain on the other side.
This is part one of a two-part story. Savannah was a passionate advocate for eating disorder recovery and pushed for more open dialogue about mental health topics and worked to help end the stigma that surrounds EDs by speaking out against them. Savannah credited climbing for helping her overcome her eating disorder, and she dedicated herself to healing others. #donutsforsavvy
This episode is brought to you by Deuter, Gnarly Nutrition, Allez Outdoors, and Têra Kaia. Music by: “Southside” by Lee Rosevere, “Ichill” by Kakurenbo, “Blue Highway”, “60’s Quiz Show”, “Well and Good”, “Knock Knock”, “Pives and Flarinet”, “Good Times”, “Into the Unknown”, “Unabridged”, and “Stay” by Podington Bear. Cover song by Cherie Ko. A HUGE thank you to Chad Crouch, aka Podington Bear, for the support and to Peter Darmi for all of his help.
(KATHY KARLO): This podcast is sponsored by Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort, but most importantly–your snacks. Deuter has a history of first ascents and alpine roots. Their head of product development even climbed Everest once, in jeans (hashtag not fake news.) Deuter is known for fit, comfort, and ventilation. Founded in 1898, Deuter believes in good fitting backpacks, so you can focus on way cooler things like puppies, pocket bacon, and gettin’ sendy, whether at the crag or in the alpine.
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(FEMALE VOICE): Today we’re going to talk about “allez”. “Allez” means “come on!” in a way, or to encourage. Ok! We are done with the simple and normal uses of “allez”, now let’s cut to the chase:
(KK): Allez Outdoor Personal Care products are made by climbers for those who love the outdoors. Their rich and repairing ingredients for their skincare collection are inspired by desert landscapes, and their simple and recyclable packaging makes them eco-sustainable. Allez commits to protecting the open spaces that we love by partnering with the Access Fund and 1% for the Planet. You can win a year’s supply of Allez product by following them on Instagram (that’s Allez Outdoor: “A-L-L-E-Z”), posting a story about an upcoming or past adventure and tagging them. Allez will announce one winner per episode. Allez Outdoor—made by climbers, for those who love the outdoors.
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(COURTNEY BUIK): It was funny ‘cause through a mutual friend, I actually know the people that did the tornado chasing stories at the time—storm chasers on TV. And they sent her a signed picture of the team. I’ll never forget the excitement for her that day of receiving that picture, signed to Savannah.
(NINA BUIK): That was kind of the beginning of that we saw develop as her personality—the kind of person that chased her fears. She was so obsessed out of her fear of tornadoes and that obsession turned into her passion. She would obsess over watching The Weather Channel. This was at about four-years-old and she’d come to us and say, “Bob says there’s a cold front meeting a warm front. The conditions are ripe for a tornado!” And then she said, “When I grow up, I want to be a tornado chaser.”
(KK): You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. This is not a climbing podcast. Well, sorta. This is a funny, sad, and somewhat uncomfortable podcast about choosing vulnerability and talking openly about our pain. This podcast is sponsored by Dirtbag Climbers. Here’s the show.
– Grief is the one human experience that we all have in common. But rarely do we expect it to be the death of a child. And the loss of a child is every parent’s worst nightmare. It’s this whole degree of suffering that’s impossible to grasp unless you’ve experienced it. Nothing can prepare you for it and there are no words for the pain of outliving your child. And just like all grief, no matter how deep and no matter how great, the world doesn’t just stop. Savannah Buik was 22 when she died in a climbing accident at Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin. It’s a little over three hours from Chicago, which is where I met her parents to record her story.
There is no easy way to approach death, and Savvy’s passing shook the world. It was my first time recording someone about the loss of their child, and Savvy was a friend of mine. She was probably a friend of yours, too. And if she wasn’t, then chances are that if you’d met her, you would have instantly been drawn to her positive spirit—and she probably would have shared a doughnut with you, then asked you to go climbing.
Savannah was a vibrant person and a fighter. After meeting Nina and Court, I could sense that in them, too. You’ve never met parents more loving than Nina and Court, who reminded me how important it is to love deeply, hug often, and that the minutes we have together really do matter. This is Savannah’s story, but this is also a story about how the stronger and deeper we love, the harder it is to overcome the pain on the other side—but experiencing both sides of the swing helps remind us that we have the capacity for both.
– I’ve also never interviewed two people at the same time before.
(NB): We’re the first.
(KK): You guys are the first.
(CB): I’ll let you take the lead most of the time.
(NB): So, hi. My name is Nina Buik. And we are the parents of Savannah Buik who we lost way too soon a few years ago, and I’m here with my husband.
(CB): Hi, everyone. This is Courtney Buik—better known as “Court”, as Savvy liked to call me. We live here in Chicago. We’ve been here for five years. Moved from Atlanta and absolutely love Chicago, very much in a similar fashion as Savannah.
(KK): Savannah grew up a Georgia native but before she found rock climbing, she first loved music, starting out as a percussionist and moving onto playing piano and singing.
(CB): She loved music. What was amazing to me is I thought I knew music pretty well. I have never met anybody that knew more lyrics to more songs—and it wasn’t just my era of songs, it was the new era of songs.
(NB): Like Frank Sinatra! You say, “Hey Savannah, sing this Frank Sinatra song!” and she was savant! She would just sing the song and know the lyrics. We’re like, “How do you do that?”
(SAVANNAH BUIK RECORDING): Long days of wanting you here
Living in fear
Shedding a tear for you
Long nights of pasty-faced moons
Filling with gloom for me
Letters so hard to mail
Feeling like the wind from the sea
(KK): In addition, Savannah was always an athlete. She excelled at soccer, starting at the age of four with her dad as her coach.
(NB): She used to wear these little blue bows—we called them the “power bows”. And whenever she’d wear them, she’d score goals. And it wasn’t like she was born with this talent—she was born with the drive. And she always did her very best to be the best.
(CB): Spent a lot of time on the soccer fields, for sure. Spent the weekends out there a lot of times together and just had a lot of really good memories, a lot of really good times and she was driven. And, you know, some people are born with a gift—a natural athletic gift or the skillsets. But she overcame, really not having those physical aspects at the time to become a really good soccer player. And you can do it a couple ways, right? One is through your mind, and the other one is physically. And she used her thought process to become a much better player. And yeah, she was quite the kid growing up.
(NB): Always interested in math and science (shocker!), and of course, ended up pursuing math, which I think was one of the reasons that she took to rock climbing so much because I feel like rock climbing is a natural problem-solving sport. And yeah, so that was the early years.
(KK): Eating disorders are complex and affect people of all ages. We interviewed Matt and Sabine in episodes 8 and 9 about their personal stories, but we didn’t really cover EDs in young adults. The onset of EDs will typically occur during pre-adolescence or adolescence. And considering the serious complications that can result from having an ED, identifying and treating them as early as possible is crucial for both emotional and physical recovery.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, 95 percent of those with an ED are between the ages of 12 and 25. And according to the National Eating Disorders Association, 40 to 60 percent of girls ages 6 to 12 are concerned about their weight. In 2018, TIME Magazine surveyed 1,300 girls and concluded that between 8 and 14, girls’ confidence levels drop by 30 percent. These effects can be long-lasting.
Nina and Court started to see some of the signs in the summer before Savannah’s eighth-grade year, when she started to really take notice of her appearance.
(NB): And it was somewhat uncharacteristic of her. I mean, again, we paid attention to it, kind of followed it but it really wasn’t until Thanksgiving of that year that we really saw the lights go out. I mean, she’d play outside all of the time. Never wanted to watch TV, always wanted to be out playing—playing soccer, playing with friends. And then the lights went out. It was quite noticeable and between Thanksgiving and Christmas, she became increasingly depressed. We went to get her counseling and then it got to a point where she just felt like she just couldn’t go forward. There was a moment—I’ll never forget this (pause) as long as I’m on earth—but she was curled up in the laundry room and she was—what, thirteen, fourteen maybe?—years old. And she looked up and she said, “Mommy, why is god doing this to me? I’m such a good girl. I don’t understand.” And I just looked at her and as a parent, you don’t know what to say, but I just said, “You know, sweetheart. One day, you’re going to help somebody else. I know you will. And you’ll think back and think, ‘You know what? I went through this for a reason.’” I said, “I just feel that that’s going to happen to you.” And sure enough, later on, she dedicated herself to healing others.
(KK): Savannah became the operations and finance intern at Project HEAL, a nonprofit organization founded in 2008. Project HEAL raises funds for those who can’t otherwise afford in-patient treatment with the understanding that money isn’t the only barrier. They acknowledge that peer support and mentorship are missing in the approach to recovery, and they connect with other communities that lack representation, such as low-income populations, LGBTQ communities, communities of color, and male-identified people.
Savannah worked closely with Project HEAL’s executive team and became a passionate advocate for eating disorder recovery. She shared her journey through her social media platforms to help others, pushing for more open dialogue and asking people to help end the stigma that surrounds EDs by speaking out against them. The extraordinary work that she did with Project HEAL in the time that she was there was instrumental in advancing their mission. We’ve talked a lot about eating disorders and what they are and how they affect lives, but what does the support look like? For Savannah and so many others who struggle with an ED.
(CB): You know, the one thing that I’ll say: I think that we were very fortunate and very thankful for the fact that Savannah came forward with a lot of this. That there was an environment where she could come forward. And I know there’s young adults, kids, adults out there today, even, that probably don’t have the courage or the strength to talk to their parents about some of these things and they never get help. It’s very hard to conceptualize what an eating disorder is, right? And, you know, she looked in the mirror and she saw a very obese person. So, for me as a dad, it’s very hard to understand that, right? And conceptualize and to see how that happens and everybody always would say, “Well, you know, if she had had cancer or if she’d had these kinds of things” there’d have been a line of people at our door with casseroles and pies and everything, trying to help us and help her. And it’s somewhat of a stigma attached to these kinda things that we were all fighting and struggling with her—but it felt very isolated for us at times.
Again, just very thankful she came forward and caught this when we—when she caught it, right? And then, the other part is, thankfully, we had the resources to be able to help her go to—it wasn’t just out-patient; it was in-patient. Spent her fifteenth birthday at an in-patient facility where we couldn’t even visit her at that time. And so, that was—those were the dark days of trying to help her through that. And, you know, as a parent, we were trying to help her through that. We’re trying to go to work every day and focus, right? And then, running out of work. And thankfully, both of us were in situations where we had employers and people that understood and gave us that flexibility and so, everything had to come together perfectly, whereas there are people out there that I know are probably struggling today that don’t have any of that. And so, that’s really what I think I was most thankful for. And…sometimes you look back on things and you wonder how you ever got through it, but you just push and you grind and you get there.
(KK): Unfortunately, we still don’t look at eating disorders as a social justice issue. Most people experiencing EDs don’t have the income or the resources or they aren’t able to take time off of work to seek full treatment like in-patient or long-term therapy. Even for those with health insurance, obtaining coverage for treatment is really problematic. Some plans will cover treatment for depression, but not nutritional counseling, and vice versa. But most insurance companies are set up with mental health benefits categorized under a separate umbrella from physical health benefit. A case manager reviews requests submitted by a healthcare provider to determine whether or not someone is qualified for these benefits. The problem is that most case managers lack the expertise when it comes to the complex medical and mental healthcare needs that an ED requires. Claims are often outright rejected or approved for only part of the recommended treatment plan.
Costs for treatment can range from thirty to a hundred grand, depending on length of stay, individual therapy, and intensive or residential therapy. Insurance companies try to minimize these costs by placing coverage restrictions on mental health illness, which leads to higher annual deductibles. Healthcare has made strides in the last few years, but we still don’t look at eating disorders as a social justice issue. But if we did, we could focus on the impact that they have and start to remove the barriers to recovery. In an open letter to the ED community, Nicole McDermid, an Australian social worker, addresses things like diet culture and sizeism, which is discrimination on the grounds of a person’s size:
(NICOLE MCDERMID): Our treatment spaces need to be safe spaces for all people in all bodies. I will even go so far as to say that we absolutely cannot be in the business of treating eating disorders unless we are simultaneously willing to address issues such as fatphobia and weight stigma in this space.
(NB): So, Project HEAL was two beautiful young girls who were in the hospital struggling with an eating disorder and I think what I’m so proud of about these two young girls is—I mean, they were super bright, educated, they also had support of their families as well—but they were able to rally the medical community, community of nutritionists, community of parents and really help them create a network of people who are helping people. And Savannah was one of those people and she had gotten the internship in January of 2018 in her final quarter at DePaul. And she was absolutely thrilled and she’s like, “I really want this to be my permanent job when I graduate.” But you know, they were fundraising, trying to make money and whatever. And the crazy thing is she raised close to 60,000 within the first six months after her passing, which helped them provide care for eight or nine people who applied for scholarships for care. And her mission continues. And the more people can show insurance companies that this is an illness like other illnesses that needs to be covered by insurance and help these people get the treatment that they need. There’s no chemotherapy—
(CB): You don’t run a fever. Right?
(NB): Yeah, exactly. You know, telling someone who has an eating disorder to go eat a cheeseburger is so destructive when there’s so much pain inside of them. You know, sometimes eating disorders come from things that you’re hiding deep inside and you can’t share. Maybe it’s your gender identity—it could be a lot of things. And to not have support makes you turn to behaviors that aren’t healthy. Again, that stigma needs to be addressed as well as the issues with the government and insurance companies.
(KK): While Court and Nina helped Savannah navigate difficult conversations and support her throughout her recovery, she continued to play soccer in high school. But it wasn’t long until she had to make a decision about that, too.
(NB): Savannah got involved in climbing after her third concussion playing soccer. She had to make the decision.
(CB): It’s a very physical sport, actually and it happened to be on my fiftieth birthday, the day of. We were out watching the game. She was playing for her high school team at the time. And two kids went up, she fell and the kid fell on her head. And she had lost feeling in her fingers and her toes at the time and we took her to the hospital. And it’s actually quite easy to get concussions and I would gather to say that they’re way more diagnosed now than they used to be in the past. When I grew up, it was like: “Come on, shake it off.” But yeah, it’s happening all over and I think I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens quite a bit in climbing.
(NB): And so, then the conversation about leaving soccer had to happen. And you know, that was really hard. Both of us would talk to her and say, “You’re not just a soccer player. You’re an athlete—and that’s a transferrable skill.” And then her brother moved back when she started to get really into her eating disorder and said, “Hey, I took up rock climbing when I was out in Colorado. You want to come with me to the climbing gym?” And she got bit by the bug. I mean, she got bit by the bug.
And that wasn’t the end of her eating disorder. She still battled with that, but she did find something and people that she could really identify with. And so, she took private coaching and then she joined the team and then she did comps. It was just awesome, it was awesome. Stone Summit was a great environment for her and the families there were—and continue to this day to be—the most supportive.
(KK): Stone Summit in Atlanta is where Savannah spent most of her climbing days when she lived there. When you enter the big glass doors to the team training center, you’ll see a twelve-foot tall photograph of Savannah’s face and a quote that says, “Live your truth.” Savannah moved to Chicago in June 2015 and in a lot of ways, it was one of the best decisions of her life. She moved to be closer to her parents, to seek recovery from her eating disorder, and to rediscover who she was. She even got a tattoo. In Savannah’s bedroom, I snapped a photo of her dry erase board. It was a reminder to herself, and maybe a reminder that we could all use: “You can be a rock climber who also loves the city. Follow your dreams and not preconceived ideas of a lifestyle you genuinely don’t want to live.”
(CB): Sometimes a change of scenery takes you away from—and it may not be that they are judging you, but there’s this feeling, right? That it’s the same people that knew me as this person with an eating disorder and all these kinds of things, and sometimes it never allows you to escape or get out of that. And by coming to Chicago, I think for her, it also allowed her to hit the reset button a little bit and start to establish who she wanted to be, not who someone was deciding she was. And immediately seeked out climbing community up here and it is still in its infancy in Chicago. And when we first got up here—when she first got up here—it was a tiny little gym in a little industrial park that we used to drive her down to. And then all of sudden, she found out First Ascent was coming online and it was crazy at that point, from a standpoint of her engaging in that. But I think by moving to Chicago, it really gave her the means to go out there and be who she wanted to be and start to put herself out there. And then the last thing, not to be underestimated is, we also found the right doctors in Chicago.
(NB): She found them.
(CB): And she found them, right. Absolutely. She found a dietician that was perfect for her. She found a—
(NB): A psychiatrist and a psychologist.
(CB): A psychiatrist and a psychologist. I was always very frustrated in Atlanta where it’s, “Hey we’re going to try this” or “We’re going to try this and we’re going to try different medications.” And yet, she got up here and someone said, “Well, I think they’ve been misdiagnosing her all this time. And we’re going to try this.” And all of a sudden—wow!
(NB): Night and day.
(NB): Night and day. It really was amazing. And it’s not like she turned her back on her eating disorder, but what she was able to do, like Court said, was hit the reset button and be able to talk about it as part of her past. And she was fully aware that it would rear its ugly head, but it didn’t define her. And she felt like when she was in Atlanta, that it defined who she was.
(NB): There was one constant in her life that I wanted to bring up and I think it really was the essence of who she and really the essence of the joy that she found in life—was gratitude. From a very young age, I mean a very young age—as soon as she could write, she was writing. She always wrote thank you notes. She wrote thank you notes to us, she wrote thank you notes to her teachers, she wrote thank you notes to anybody who gave her anything. And she was truly, truly thankful for their role in her development and when…after she passed, there was a stack of thank you cards next to her bed that she didn’t get to mail.
(SB RECORDING): Ok! So, I’ve been singing a lot lately and I thought I would share a little bit of something with you. I’m going to see Grizzly Bear at the end of next month and I’m super stoked but I wanted to share a little bit of one of my favorite songs by them off one of their albums a few back. It’s called “Knife”. And they performed it on this La Blogothèque Take Away Show. So, I wanted to give kind of a smilier vibe. Acoustic, no instruments or anything. I guess “acoustic” isn’t the right word. Instrumental. Instrumental. Acapella? Acapella. There we go. So yeah, here goes!
When I looked in your eyes
With every glow
Becomes another lie
I think it’s alright
I think it’s alright
I think it’s alright
I think it’s alright
(NB): I can see now, twice in our lives, where something that can tear a family apart—we came together in strength and solidarity to support Savannah, and now support her legacy.
(KK): Savannah credited climbing for helping her overcome her eating disorder. The work that she did and continues to do for Project HEAL will inspire people for a lifetime. When asked why she climbs, Savannah said: “I divert to climbing to help me experience all emotions: happiness, anger, frustration, sadness, excitement…the emotions combine to make me feel whole. Climbing is my way of feeling.” Savannah took her message to a bigger platform and now, with the help of Nina and Court, her message lives on.
Project HEAL is committed to helping people access support during all stages of their recovery. Through peer mentorship, treatment grants, and volunteer chapters, they’re bringing the hope of a full recovery to communities across the US. Savannah believed so much in their mission. You can find out more at theprojectheal.org. Nina, Court, and Project HEAL honor Savvy’s memory with their Memorial Fund. All funds raised by this campaign go towards their Treatment Access Program, and Memorial Grants and Funds have been provided to recognize and remember those we’ve lost. You can make a donation in Savannah’s honor by visiting their website or visiting fortheloveofclimbing.com.
(SB RECORDING): (laughter) I’m going to run in the snow!
This is the best thing ever! I just wanted to run in fresh snow!
(MALE VOICE): This girl’s about to graduate.
(SB RECORDING): (laughter)
– Girl, you know I want your love
Your love was handmade for somebody like me
Come on now, follow my lead
I don’t know this part!
Say, boy, let’s not talk too much
Grab on my waist and put that body on me
Come on now, follow my lead
Get it, Court!
(KK): Even though I still have no idea what I’m doing—things are happening. And if you’d like to help out and support this podcast, please check out patreon.com (that’s P-A-T-R-E-O-N) where you can sponsor us for as little as $1 per episode. It really helps keep this podcast going, and I’m so grateful for all of your help. Special shout out to Cameron MacAlpine because he makes this thing sound good.
– You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. A huge thank you to Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort. And a big thank you to Gnarly Nutrition for supporting this podcast and the messages that we share. Gnarly Nutrition supports a community of vulnerability and equality—and tastes like a milkshake, without all the crap. A big shout out to Allez Outdoor for supporting the Access Fund and 1% for the Planet. Allez Outdoor Personal Care products are made by climbers for those who love the outdoors. And thanks to Têra Kaia. Go ahead and throw out your other sports bras because #basewear is the only top you’ll pack. Feel naked, go anywhere, look great.
Support companies who support this podcast—we couldn’t do it without them. If you liked what you heard, you can leave a review on iTunes or give us a like—like all good things, you can find us on the internet. Until next time.
Additional resources to find support for you or loved ones:
Project HEAL (Help to Eat, Accept and Live) is a nonprofit organization that helps people suffering with eating disorders pay for treatment. The organization was founded in 2008 by Liana Rosenman and Kristina Saffran, who had met while undergoing treatment for anorexia nervosa. Project HEAL’s grants help to cover inpatient, residential, outpatient, and intensive outpatient treatments. Recipients can apply for treatment grants through the organization’s website.
Eating Disorder Hope‘s mission is to offer hope, information, and resources to individual eating disorder sufferers, their family members, and treatment providers. Eating Disorder Hope promotes ending eating disordered behavior, embracing life and pursuing recovery. Their mission is to foster an appreciation of one’s uniqueness and value in the world, unrelated to appearance, achievement or applause. Visit their website for additional resources or to learn more about fighting for health insurance coverage.
Why Eating Disorder Treatment is Failing Us All written by Sarah J, Thompson and edited by Ashley Seruya, talks about what a social-justice approach to eating disorder treatments look like. *Content Warning: This article contains graphic description of anorexia and bulimia.