As We See It

Did a Las Vegas ‘Extreme Makeover’ family fake an illness?

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The formerly local Cerda family.
Photo: Justin M. Bowen

If you were watching ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition in 2009, no doubt you were enthralled by the story of the Cerda family and daughters Molly and Maggie, who had a rare immunodeficiency disease aggravated by their Las Vegas house’s mold. Turns out this whole thing might have been a big put-on.

The daughters went into the show with high fevers, infections and respiratory issues, and they came out of it with fancy breathing machines, oxygen tanks ... and a gourmet kitchen, floor-to-ceiling fireplace, elevator and solar-powered swimming pool. Not bad, eh? Well, the Cerdas just sold the place and moved to Oregon. Here’s where things get interesting.

The finished product, now not owned by the Cerda family.

The finished product, now not owned by the Cerda family.

During a Clackamas County Circuit Court custody hearing, Dr. Thomas Valvano of Oregon Health and Science University said that mother Terri Cerda’s assessment of her kids’ health didn’t match up with that of the kids’ doctors. Actually, that’s putting it mildly; basically, Dr. Valvano said Mom was making up the disease. Overnight, the local and national press vilified mother Terri. But does she deserve it?

ABC practically begs families to play up their sob stories; the subtext of Extreme Makeover (and numerous other reality shows) is the more you suffer, the more money we’re going to spend on you. So of course people exaggerate their levels of need.

Also, Terri Cerda might herself suffer from an illness—namely, Münchausen Syndrome by Proxy. It’s a disorder in which a person acts as the caretaker of somebody who doesn’t actually need caretaking. The MSBP sufferer does it for sympathy, for attention, and in cases like this, for financial reward.

So maybe anger isn’t the right emotion. Maybe it’s pity.

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