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Melanie's Story: How One Woman's Tragic Encounter With Post Partum Psychosis Led to Landmark Women's Health Legislation

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This Sunday, thanks to the recently enacted health care reform legislation, millions of mothers throughout the United States, and their families who love them, should take a moment to reflect upon the work of thousands of women, like Mrs. Carol Blocker, who turned her pain into passion and made a lasting difference in the battle to treat and, I hope one day, to defeat postpartum depression and psychosis.

Lost in the epic struggle to obtain health insurance coverage for more than 30 million uninsured Americans was the fact that, after nine long years, our determined efforts to secure the adoption of the Melanie Blocker Stokes Mom's Opportunity to Access Health, Education, Research and Support for Postpartum Depression Act have born fruit. Today, The MOTHERS Act is the law of the land. In this session of Congress, working in partnership with my friend and legislative counterpart, U. S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), we secured the adoption, in its entirety, of all The MOTHERS Act's provisions.

This legislation marks a giant step forward for women's health as it commits federal resources to medical professionals who study and treat women suffering from postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis. The MOTHERS Act calls for the creation of a national public awareness campaign, to be administered by the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, aimed at increasing awareness and knowledge of postpartum depression and psychosis. It creates a grant program to enable public or nonprofit private entities to deliver or enhance outpatient, inpatient and home-based health and support services, including case management and comprehensive treatment services for individuals with, or at risk for, postpartum conditions. Key provisions get underway this year as Congress authorized an initial $3 million, with the Secretary of Health and Human Services having the discretion to appropriate more in 2011 and beyond. Details about these and other provisions of the law can be found in Sec. 2952 of The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Public Law 111-148) that President Barack Obama signed into law on March 23, 2010.

While I was honored to witness that historic moment only inches away from the President, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and so many other friends and colleagues who worked with me in support of this legislation, I couldn't help but reflect on the woman whose life ended tragically on that sunny day in June 2001, and the amazing legacy she leaves behind.

In the shadow of Mother's Day this Sunday, please embrace the bittersweet story of Melanie and her Mom.

"I'm Carol Blocker and I lost my daughter to postpartum psychosis." These are the words so often whispered by Melanie's mother, Mrs. Carol Blocker, when she speaks, often through her tears, to women's groups and mental health professionals throughout the United States.

Carol Blocker's valiant efforts to save her daughter's life is a story that sadly befalls thousands of new mothers and families in the United States each year. According to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control, postpartum depression occurs in about 15 to 20 percent of all women who've recently given birth, while about one out of a thousand new mothers suffer from postpartum psychosis. These numbers do not even begin to count the untold thousands of other women who suffer in silence with this treatable illness.

Carol Blocker often tells the story of how Melanie, who was 40 years old when she gave birth to her healthy daughter Sommer Skyy, picked out that name for her daughter when she, herself, was just a bright and beautiful teenager who looked forward to a life that was filled with promise.

Carol talks often about her daughter excelling in school and developing a successful career. Above all, Melanie dreamed about becoming a wife and mother. As an accomplished student at Spelman College in Atlanta, Melanie would often tell her mother that she wanted her daughter to also be a Spelman woman one day.

After marrying Sam Stokes, a physician, Melanie took fertility drugs in an effort to bear a child. After finally conceiving Sommer, Melanie and Sam were overjoyed as her pregnancy developed.

Melanie was over joyed by her new arrival. However, after about a week, that joy gave way to long silences, fatigue and a slow but steady emotional descent into postpartum psychosis.

The valiant struggle Melanie endured was widely reported in assorted Chicago media as hers was a prominent, middle-class family that I proudly served in my first congressional district.

I must admit that I never knew Melanie and I did not meet her family or get to know her mother until shortly after her death. But through the course of fighting to get this legislation passed, I think I got to know something about Melanie's character. Consider these words from Melanie, herself, as written in her journal and shared with the media, by her mother, after her death, "How can I explain to anybody how something has, literally, come inside my body...I'm no good to anyone. No good to myself."

Despite these words, Melanie continued to fight valiantly, with the support of her mother and father, Walter, who spent many nights at her bedside. Thankfully, she was surrounded by a loving family who all took turns holding vigil as she fought as hard as she could to save her life and return to her daughter. She even underwent electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), or so-called "shock treatments." All of these efforts failed.

After undergoing assorted therapies and several rounds of ECT, this already petite 5' 6" woman lost weight and, at one point, only weighed 100 pounds. Over time, Melanie began to feel like she would never get better. When Melanie lived to experience her first Mother's Day, she was back in a psychiatric ward at the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center. It strikes me as particularly cruel that for a young woman who, all her life, dreamed about being a mother, postpartum psychosis robbed her joy even on her first Mother's Day with her precious little girl.

And so as Melanie and her family surrounded her with all the love and strength they could muster -- as well as the finest medical care anyone could have -- Melanie never got back to her old self.

The last time her family members saw her was on June 6, 2001, five days after being back home from what turned out to be her last hospital stay.

The next day, through a series of phone calls and notes to her family, Melanie tried her best to say what they now view as her last "goodbyes" to those she loved. On that day, her husband Sam missed the note she'd left on the kitchen table when he arrived home. Before he found the note, he had made several phone calls and two trips to Chicago's lakefront to look for his wife. When he returned home he found her note. It read, "Sam, I adore you, Sommer and Andy, Mel." Andy was her stepson.

It was at this point, when Melanie's husband and family could not find her, that the police and news media in Chicago did what they could to circulate Melanie's picture in a furtive attempt to save her life.

To this day, my wife, Carolyn, and I remember praying for Melanie and her family. Together, we were all part of an anxious, South Side Chicago community as we desperately hoped that Melanie would be found safe and sound. But it was not to be.

Melanie's lifeless body was found after she fell from the rooftop of a Chicago hotel. And, on a Sunday morning, I like many Chicagoans first heard the news, in church, that Melanie Blocker Stokes' life had come to an end.

But, thank God, the story doesn't end there.

Only days after Melanie's funeral, I met her courageous, selfless mother, Mrs. Carol Blocker. While she was and remains grief stricken, she was bound and determined never to let another family endure the emotional pain and agony she went through.

Less than 30 days after Melanie died, I introduced the Melanie Blocker Stokes Postpartum Depression, Research, and Care Act of 2001. And I did that, consistently, during the next sessions of Congress. But, when I introduced this Act again in 2007, we were able to advance this bill with a strong, bipartisan vote of 391 - 8.

As he had done in the last session of Congress, the bill's Senate sponsor, my friend U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, shepherded this legislation through the highly grueling process of advancing legislation in today's politically toxic environment. But, thankfully, with the tireless support of women's groups, activists and supporters in Chicago, throughout the state of Illinois as well as in Senator Menendez' state of New Jersey, together, we got this done through attaching the bill to the historic healthcare reform bill in March of this year.

On May 6, around the noon hour, dozens of leaders from women's health activist organizations and so many others will join us as we celebrate this historic legislative achievement on behalf of women's health. Melanie's Mom will be there.

I look forward to the nation getting to know the dignified and honorable woman who raised Melanie and fought to save her life to the bitter end. Carol Blocker is an inspiration to me, to my Chicago community and to thousands of women and families throughout the United States.

As proud as I am of the fact that The MOTHERS Act is the law of the land, the task at hand, now, is to work across the country to help make sure women of child bearing age know that, thanks to this legislation, they no longer need to suffer in silence or shame and that there is help to successfully treat this illness. Right now, leaders within the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services are beginning to implement key provisions of this law and as they do so they have my full support.

As I celebrate this Mother's Day with my beloved wife, Carolyn, my family and my church family, I will say a special prayer for Melanie, her Mom and their family.

My hope and prayer will always be that our science and interventions will advance so that, one day, no woman will have to endure the pain of letting post partum depression, or psychosis, rob their joy.

I invite you to join me in this prayer for Melanie's family and for all families who are confronted with this illness. May God bless mothers everywhere, this Sunday, and always.

U. S. Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-IL) is the Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee
and Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection

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