2 deaths may hold lessons for new moms
Friends aim to warn others about illness
August 26, 2004
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
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.
delighted in young children, opening her arms every morning to hug
the first-graders who trooped into her classroom.
|Postpartum depression |
discussion on postpartum depression will be at 7 p.m. Monday
at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church, 22412 Overlake St. in St.
Clair Shores. The event is open to the public. Here are some
symptoms associated with postpartum depression, which experts
say afflicts 10 to 20 percent of all women who are or have
Restlessness or sleeplessness.
Loss of appetite.
Some places to call for information or help:
The National Women's Health Information
Depression After Delivery Inc.: 800-944-4773.
Postpartum Education for Parents:
805-564-3888. Sources: The National Women's Health Information
Center and Free Press research
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
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 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
"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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.