2 deaths may hold lessons for new moms — (Detroit Free Press)

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Detroit Free Press

August 26, 2004

BY ALEXA CAPELOTO, FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

Friends aim to warn others about illness

Mary Ellen Moffitt filled her St. Clair Shores home with inspirational quotes, smiling family photos and whimsical images like the chefs dancing around the border of her kitchen.

She delighted in young children, opening her arms every morning to hug the first-graders who trooped into her classroom.

She was the last person anyone thought capable of harming a newborn. Especially her own.

But friends said the Mary Ellen who apparently suffocated her 5-week-old daughter and herself July 26 was not really Mary Ellen at all. She was a woman transformed by postpartum depression, unfamiliar and unreachable to those who knew her best.

“This is just something the Mary Ellen I knew was just not capable of,” said Dave Grupenhoff, best friend of Moffitt’s husband Daniel Moffitt. “That to me was a real eye-opener as to the risks of postpartum depression.”

One month later, the disbelief still grips Moffitt’s friends and relatives, along with grief and stabs of guilt. They’re seeking redemption in the deaths by helping other women who struggle with the condition.

The Catholic church the Moffitts attend is holding a panel discussion Monday on postpartum depression. Grupenhoff and other friends are establishing a nonprofit foundation for outreach and education. And local doctors are urging better health care for new mothers.

“There have been some people who said, ‘How could she do that? Why take the baby with her?’ ” said Sister Carol Juhasz, who organized the panel at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in St. Clair Shores. “It is their way of trying to work through it.”

Daniel Moffitt said he still is in too much pain to attend the discussion or talk publicly about the deaths of his wife, 37, and daughter, Caroline Aurelia Moffitt. But he told the Free Press, “My wife was a very beautiful and intelligent person … I wholeheartedly support the various efforts under way to promote awareness of postpartum issues.”

It was Daniel Moffitt who found his wife’s body. He came home from work and she was on their bed, a garbage bag over her head and earplugs in her ears. Police found the baby wrapped in a blanket beneath cushions on the living room sofa. Mary Ellen Moffitt died of asphyxiation, according to her autopsy report. The report on Caroline’s death is pending.

Juhasz said some St. Joan of Arc parishioners began talking about their own experiences with postpartum depression after the deaths. Sensing a greater need for information, she tracked down three licensed therapists and a reproductive psychiatrist for the panel.

Around the same time, Grupenhoff and other longtime friends of the Moffitts thought of forming a nonprofit in Mary Ellen’s honor. They met with an attorney Wednesday to start their plan.

“Mary Ellen was always very interested in helping people, so this was something we wanted to do that was consistent with what she believed in her life,” Grupenhoff, 39, of Rochester Hills said.

Mary Ellen Moffitt could be bubbly and warm but she struggled with depression and was seeking treatment for postpartum depression before her death. At her husband’s urging, she made an appointment with her obstetrician two weeks after Caroline’s birth instead of waiting the usual six weeks.

Friends knew she was taking Paxil as part of her treatment. Large amounts of the antidepressant and the painkiller Darvocet were in her system when she died.

Macomb County Medical Examiner Dr. Werner Spitz said the drug levels suggest she was numbing herself in preparation for death.

Her use of Paxil puts her story in the middle of a national debate about the potentially harmful side effects of antidepressants. In March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration urged the makers of Paxil and nine other drugs to put a stronger warning on their labels about the need to closely monitor users for suicidal thoughts.

Although her husband, mother and other relatives helped care for Caroline as much as they could, she still foundered.

She called one friend who also had just given birth and asked, “What are we doing? Did we mess up our lives?”

The anxious questions were a sharp contrast to her excitement during her pregnancy. “When I was pregnant with my youngest daughter, she said, ‘You don’t know how lucky you are. We’ve been trying so hard,’ ” said Aylex Araque, whose two children were in Mary Ellen Moffitt’s first-grade class at Crescentwood Elementary School in Eastpointe.

Dr. Ronald Rosenberg, a Birmingham psychiatrist who will speak at St. Joan of Arc next week, said women who are high achievers or who have grappled with infertility can be more vulnerable to postpartum depression which is triggered by a fluctuation of hormones.

Araque, 33, of Roseville said her daughter Uribi, 7, screamed when she saw the news about her favorite teacher.

Araque said she worried her daughter wouldn’t understand the illness. But during counseling at the school, Uribi was asked whether she was mad at her teacher. “No,” the child said.

“It’s like being in a large room with no doors, no windows and a large TV with only awful images, no button to turn it off, and no one there to open the door.”

Contact ALEXA CAPELOTO at 586-469-4935 or capeloto@freepress.com.